Tales of Monkey Island
D 'n' A Review
Episode 1: Launch of the Screaming Narwhal

By Daniel Lipkowitz, and Amy Lipkowitz,

ASM Quick Facts
Title: Tales of Monkey Island - Episode 1: Launch of the Screaming Narwhal
Platform: PC (reviewed), WiiWare
Developer: Telltale Games, http://www.telltalegames.com
Publisher: LucasArts, http://www.lucasarts.com
Price: $34.95 pre-order for 5 episodes, (1 digitial download per month)
Rating: E 10+
More Info: http://www.telltalegames.com/monkeyisland

Daniel: I grew up on Sierra's adventure games (with the occasional dash of Infocom text madness), but it was Lucasarts' Monkey Island 2 that was the real defining experience for me. It was clever, funny, and occasionally diabolically difficult, but it never once stopped being fun. And yes, I played it before the first one. I am shamed.

The apparent death of the adventure game genre ten or so years ago meant a lot of bad things, but "no more Monkey Island" was pretty close to the top for me. Sure, the third and fourth games in the franchise didn't quite have the edgy shine of the first two (or is that just the rosy lens of nostalgia speaking?), but even just a decent Monkey Island game was better than a whole lot of the best stuff out there.

So you can imagine how I've felt about Telltale Games' offerings over the last couple of years. First, new adventure games! Great! Then, new Sam & Max games! Holy cow! But it was the announcement -- was it only a month or so ago? -- that they were producing a new episodic Monkey Island series that really made my day. After Telltale's last two "seasons" of Sam & Max adventures, I knew that even at the worst, it'd be pretty darned fun.

Amy: I missed out on the golden age of adventure games. Aside from a teenhood flirtation with Commander Keen and Duke Nukem, my gaming experience has been limited to Pokemon and World of Warcraft -- both games that are light on puzzles and heavy on the "hammer opponent with attacks until they drop". Although I had never played Monkey Island, I was dimly aware of what it was, and what to expect from the series: a legendary game that inspired much affection, nostalgia, and geeky quotations from my friends.

Daniel: How appropriate. You fight like a cow.

Amy: Yeah, that's gonna get old fast.

Daniel: I know. So anyway, for those who are unfamiliar with how Telltale does this stuff, here's the spiel: they make a season of 5-6 episodes (5 this time, dangit), each of which is semi-self-contained but part of a larger arc, and has enough gameplay to feel like a good-sized chunk of a classic adventure game. Normally you can buy, download and play one episode at a time, but it looks like this time you have to subscribe to the whole shebang at once, with the opportunity to order a spiffy DVD-in-a-shiny-box compilation at the end of the season for just the cost of shipping. And they tend to offer some Infocom-style wacky trinkets in an affordable extra goodie-bag set for crazy collectors, too.

And what that all boils down to is this: this Independence Day weekend, we had the opportunity to play through the first episode of the first new Monkey Island game in the better part of a decade. And you didn't.

Amy: Speaking of which, I was always under the impression that Monkey Island games had some sort of taunt- and insult-based combat system. While this game had some nice snappy patter and terrific dialogue options, I was a little thrown by the lack of actual physical swashbuckling. We hardly get to stab anyone at all!

Guybrush Threepwood and LeChuck

Daniel: Hey, first things first. We haven't even gotten into the game yet!

So of course, you play as Guybrush Threepwood again, and it's pretty much Guybrush as seen in the last two games. Which...makes sense, and is probably kind of necessary for continuity's sake, but I was always a little bothered by Guybrush's seeming de-aging between the second game and the next two, and the sudden change in his relationship with Elaine. It's not that big a deal, though, and they got the talented Dominic Armato to voice him again, so it's all good.

The game starts as you may expect (this is not a bad thing), with an intro featuring Guybrush, Elaine and the dreaded ghost/zombie/demon/???? pirate LeChuck. Guybrush screws up. Disaster strikes. The player gets a little seasick (you'll understand when you play it). Guybrush ends up on a piratey island. Adventure, puzzles and hijinks ensue. I don't want to spoil too much, and you probably don't want me to either, so I'm not going to talk a lot about the story itself. Suffice to say that it feels exactly like the first part of a Monkey Island game, and that's a terrific thing.

There were some fan complaints about the switch in the control system between Telltale's Sam & Max games and the newer Wallace & Gromit ones. Basically, movement went from classic adventure-gamey point-and-click to being key-based, presumably to better adapt to platform gamer control systems, and that bugged a lot of veteran PC gamers. Tales of Monkey Island keeps that system but tweaks it a bit by adding mouse controls that let you click and drag to make Guybrush stroll around the screen, his midsection encircled by a (sometimes hilariously crotch-level) halo with an arrow indicating the direction in which he's moving. Theoretically, you can hold down both mouse buttons to make Guybrush run, but I found it only seemed to work intermittently and with some effort. Overall, it's an improvement, but not really a perfect system yet, and it was sometimes still easier to use the keyboard to navigate around certain scenes and obstacles.

Amy: The first thing I noticed about the game (or possibly just the game as Daniel likes to play it) is that you are, in a sense, rewarded for not solving the puzzle right away. If you rush straight for the correct solution, you miss out on clever writing, cute hints, and no small degree of wackiness. The world of Monkey Island is full of visual humor, too, encouraging you to take it slow and enjoy the scenery. (Even if you can't stab anything.)

Guybrush Threepwood and Hemlock

Daniel: Oh yeah, that's definitely how I like to play these Lucasarts-style adventures. Since you can't lose, and you generally can't die, I like to explore every single possible situation and dialogue path that I can think of. So I tend to deliberately click on the wrong conversation options or try to perform actions that I know aren't the right solution, just to see what goofy stuff will happen. Most of the time (and this game was no exception), I'm rewarded by a fun little joke or animation that I never would have seen if I'd just plunged ahead trying to solve puzzles as fast as possible. Hey, people wrote and voice-recorded all of this stuff -- the least I can do to repay them for all their hard work is listen to all of it that I can! I got the feeling that my particular play-style was a little frustrating for Amy as she watched over my shoulder and called out suggestions, though.

The above actually raises one of my very few complaints about Tales of Monkey Island. I'm used to the occasional gag in these games where no matter what dialogue option you pick, the character says one specific thing. Usually, it's because he's interrupted, or too flustered to get out a full sentence, or just plain ignoring the player's input as a gag, and it's best used sparingly for a once-in-a-while "hey, that's not what I clicked on!" surprise. But it happens a couple more times than I'd like in this first episode, and it made me feel a little bit railroaded through a few of the conversations.

One other thing, too -- they've set things up so you can combine items in your inventory, which is a great and much-missed aspect of classic adventure gaming. But the system for doing so is a little clunky (you drag Item A into one spot and Item B into another and then hit a little plus symbol between them, when it seems like you should be able to just drag one item onto the other and be done with it), and there aren't any silly messages for when you try to combine two items that aren't set up for it; they just go back into the inventory window. So that's a bit of a lost opportunity for more jokes.

But really, that's pretty much the extent of my complaints about the game. Okay, there were some graphical glitches where maps wouldn't always display properly, but that may have just been a bug in the review version. And I'm not really a fan of how the game designers make monkeys look. But overall, this thing was terrific, and hey, at least there ARE monkeys, right?

The puzzles are pretty straightforward, but generally not too obvious or easy. Nothing seemed really torturous either, though that may have been because there were two of us playing the game together. The one or two times that I had to stop and think about something for a minute, Amy spotted the solution right away. For an inexperienced adventure gamer, she was pretty enviously good at figuring things out. Several of the puzzles and their solutions are sound-based, and I'm curious as to how that works for people with hearing problems or lousy speakers. I have to assume there's some kind of subtitle-based hinting built in.

Guybrush Threepwood and the Idol

Everyone's been asking what characters return. Aside from the big three of Guybrush, Elaine and LeChuck, there's one prominent returning character in this episode, and if you click in the right spots or talk to the right people, you'll find references to at least two more. I'm sure others will be cropping up in later chapters (can we PLEASE find out what happened to Largo this time?), but spacing them out is definitely the way to do it. If all the returnees suddenly popped up right at the beginning, it would feel like more of a fanwank than a proper sequel. There are plenty of new characters, and they're all fine with acceptable personality quirks, but I could have used a both a bit more piratey lunacy from them and some more visual diversity, with more colorful clothing, interesting hats and hooks and patches and earrings, etc. Instead, you've got some tall, skinny guys, you've got some short, chunky guys, and that's about the extent of it.

Amy: As a beginner at adventure games, I have to say that I'm very relieved that Tales of Monkey Island is being released in manageable chunks. I was pretty exhausted by the end of our three-or-four hours of gameplay, and I can easily see us missing meals or sleep if we'd had the entire season in our hands. All in all, "Launch of the Screaming Narwhal" left me with a sense of completion and of a job well done. The ending was a proper "To be continued", not a "Sorry, this is all you get in this installment"-style interruption like I used to get in the shareware games of yore.

Daniel: And that's our review! The game had an incredibly fast announcement-to-release turnaround, so by the time you read this on or after July 7th, you can actually buy and play the game yourself. To sum up everything above, there are a few extremely minor hiccups, but we had a lot of fun and strongly recommend Tales of Monkey Island to all and sundry.

Oh yeah, and did we mention that Lucasarts is about to release a remastered version of the original game with The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition? It's a crazy awesome time. Now how about a Monkey Island series soundtrack CD, people? Please?