Return to Monkey Island is the graphic adventure equivalent of Spider-Man: No Way Home. No, wait, don’t go! Hear me out: most will agree that No Way Home is a really fun movie, even for a kid who has never seen Tobey Maguire’s or Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Man movies. But if those movie memories have been created with the Peter Parkers of the past, then No Way Home taps into something else: nostalgia, even provoking genuine emotion at various points.
Return to Monkey Island, which puts series creator Ron Gilbert back in the franchise’s directorial chair for the first time in 30 years, is a similar journey. It is a funny, beautiful, polished story with a good rhythm, packed with fun and challenging puzzles for anyone who appreciates a good graphic adventure. And Return wisely offers “Guybrush’s Scrapbook” in the main menu, as a fun and visual way to recap previous Monkey Island games, narrated by Guybrush. But for those of us who, like myself, found the early Monkey Island games a formative part of our youth, this reunion with wannabe pirate Guybrush Threepwood is like coming home. In this sense, I have loved the non-hidden question cards that are scattered throughout many scenes and that test your knowledge of the franchise.
The most obvious difference between Return to Monkey Island and its predecessors is his artistic style. Gilbert could have gone with pixel-art to tap into the nostalgia, but instead he’s opted for a more edgy, modern style. I admit it: I didn’t love it when I first saw it. It’s a sharp departure from the games I like, but so was the first post-Gilbert Monkey Island game, The Curse of Monkey Island, which used a Disney cartoon style that I loved. Return’s art direction is more abstract, but somewhere in the 11 hours it took me to complete the story, I came to love it. It uses a wide color palette and the exaggerated design of the characters fits perfectly with the sense of humor of Monkey Island.
The delicious music could easily fool you into thinking you’re still in 1991.
But while at first glance you wouldn’t confuse Return to Monkey Island with any other game in the series, the delicious music could easily fool you into thinking you’re still in 1991. Composers Michael Land and Peter McConnell return with another pleasantly Caribbean score., and goes a long way in making this feel like a real return to Monkey Island. Ditto for the voice cast, led by Dominic Armato as Guybrush Threepwood, who bring a restrained, direct sensibility to a game full of often absurd scenarios, yet aren’t afraid to drop a bit of sarcasm when the situation calls for it. . Everyone knows Guybrush is a well-meaning mess, but they can’t help but root for this hopeless underdog and be friends with him anyway. Armato’s performance is one of the reasons I felt the same way; there is an innocence in Guybrush that shines.
And what about the plot? Return is set right after Monkey Island 2, but it’s framed in a clever way I wasn’t expecting. That showed me a new facet of Monkey Island: its big heart, which is quickly apparent in the playable Prelude that I won’t reveal here, and continues to be called upon throughout. His overarching story consists of searching for the secret of Monkey Island, and that search revolves around Guybrush’s never-ending rivalry with the pirate-zombie villain LeChuck, and his love triangle with Elaine Marley. In fact, Return obsesses over the founding mystery far more than any of its predecessors, and is toyed with for repeated comedic effect. Decades of wondering if Gilbert will ever reveal the true secret of Monkey Island are reflected in the game, with even Guybrush’s wife Elaine wondering why our hero keeps clinging to him. In the process, he revisits familiar places, like Melee Island and, of course, Monkey Island, and takes us to new ones; just as he also brings back familiar faces (like Murray!) and introduces a host of new characters. Greetings to Locke Smith, whom you will visit on several occasions and who is well aware that his very name is a play on words.
An excellent story and memorable characters are only one half of the equation of a classic puzzle game: the other is a series of puzzles that are both challenging and satisfying to solve, which forms the basis of any great graphic adventure. In this case, Return serves a good portion of them, always including a comedy thread that goes through the traditional question of what object you should use in each person or place at each moment. Solving the puzzles is as satisfying a hit of dopamine as everand the 2022 version of Monkey Island has learned to avoid the infamously obtuse “adventure logic” that so often made people say goodbye to the originals back in the day.
The structures and solutions of the puzzles are not really new, but none was so abstract As if to leave me wondering how the hell I would have come up with the solution once I figured it out. And while nothing frustrated me to the point of wanting to quit and try again later with a fresh mind, I did get a little stuck at times, as is usual with these games. So I made use of Guybrush’s ever-available hint book here and there, and quickly learned that I didn’t need to swallow my pride whole before resorting to it. It’s a very welcome evolution of a feature that was first introduced to the series in LucasArts’ 2009 remasters of Monkey Island 1 and 2, and he feels guilt-free using it because it’s not simply a tome of spoilers like using of a guide. Instead, it gives you clues layer by layer, nudging you in the right direction but retaining the sense of satisfaction you get from solving the puzzle yourself. Only once, in fact, did the clue book tell me something I really didn’t want to know at the time. The new to-do list also helps you keep track of everything you’re trying to get done without feeling like you’re being led by the hand.
After decades of believing that we would never see Gilbert make his Monkey Island 3, I was not at all disappointed by the conclusion of Return. In fact, it touched me and made it clear that Gilbert cares about these characters as much as we, the fans. She hoped Return to Monkey Island would be fun. I expected it to have good and often wacky puzzles and fun solutions. It shows in his writing, his acquired taste art style, and his delightfully upbeat music. But he didn’t expect her to have so much heart. Monkey Island has been known almost solely for its comedic prowess for the past three decades, but Return has reminded me why I first fell in love with Guybrush Threepwood in a way that will keep me thinking about him for a long time. What longtime fans get out of it will no doubt be very different from what newcomers get out of it, but I can say that Return to Monkey Island meant a lot to me before I clicked to start a new game, and it meant much more after the end credits.