"I'm Guybrush Threepwood, mighty pirate!"
Between the moment Guybrush uttered this iconic line in Return to Monkey Island and our reintroduction to familiar characters like used ship salesman Stan S. Stanman and Cobb, with his "Ask me about Loom" badge, I was already shrouded in a haze of nostalgia. And you would be eating all these up, too, if you're a Monkey Island fan. The thing about Monkey Island enthusiasts is that we can talk your ears off about what makes the series so unique. It's the earnest naivety of its pirate hero Guybrush Threepwood and the series' whimsical and self-referential humor. But most of all, it's that one absurd puzzle you'll need to crack within the original Secret of Monkey Island: the sheer hilarity of transporting an ultra tart blend of a pirate beverage called grog across an island without melting its mug and incinerating your hands along the way.
There's still plenty of such fondness to reminisce about in Return to Monkey Island, a point-and-click adventure game that hasn't lost any of its luster and immense charm since creator Ron Gilbert's last Monkey Island game, which is close to 30 years old. It feels like time has barely passed since then, with the premise of its swashbuckling tale faithfully crafted from a Monkey Island structure that feels refined to near perfection.
Guybrush is heading to the eponymous island in search of its greatest secret, and he is again in need of a boat and crew. He drops by Melee Island, the favorite haunt of any self-professed Mighty Pirate and others in the Caribbean, and runs into a couple of old friends and less-than-friends there. The Voodoo Lady makes several dramatic proclamations about the nature of Guybrush's ill-fated expedition, with him eventually scrapping up whatever resources he can for his voyage to Monkey Island. Hijinks, which may involve the ingenious use of chicken and other fowl-related products, ensue. You get the drift.
The essence of Monkey Island lies in its trademark goofy panache and a genuine sense of humor, with which Return to Monkey Island radiates. It's challenging to go into specifics without veering into spoiler territory, but there are a plethora of playful jokes and self-aware gags that left me wheezing due to the game's impeccable comedic timing. One early scenario, meant to introduce the ability to skip through dialogue quickly, has you listening to a rambling monologue about anchors' exquisite function, history, and beauty.
Return to Monkey Island strings its punchlines with remarkable comedic timing. There are setups for jokes that pay off to ludicrous conclusions at a later time. There are tons of fourth-wall-breaking references poking fun at everything from pop culture to the idiosyncrasies of video games. There are throwbacks to past gags like the eye-watering, immaterial textures of Stan's jacket, which never stops being funny. Such humor is more than just skin-deep; it's thoroughly infused into every part of Return to Monkey Island, from its eccentric cast of characters to the way its puzzles play out, like a particular quest involving a mop, some grease, and a tiny hole. Return to Monkey Island oozes personality, with plenty of charisma to spare.
Given the series' popularity, it would have been easy for Gilbert and his studio, Terrible Toybox, to create a new Monkey Island game that simply banks on its fans' sentimentality for the series – a knowing wink, some inside jokes, or breadcrumbs alluding to long-running gags in Monkey Island (and there are so many of them). But while Return to Monkey Island is a sequel to Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge, Terrible Toybox isn't content to just let the game serve as an elaborate throwback to the earlier games.
Notably, there's the game's refreshed art style. Far from a stark departure from the spirit of the series, this feels more like a much-needed coat of fresh paint on a beloved but legacy series, emblematic of the new-yet-familiar direction that Return to Monkey Island is taking. Take, for instance, the scrapbook, a nifty feature that briefly recounts the colorful exploits of the famed Mighty Pirate, meant to ease new players into the game and serve as a recap for a series that spanned three entire decades.
There's also a hint system that's brilliantly woven into the story, and it's meticulously considered and immensely helpful for folks like myself who can get driven into a corner by its puzzles, and it doesn't reveal all the answers at once. Clues, presented through a spellbook, are gradually revealed depending on the obstacles you're facing, encouraging you to discover the solutions to the puzzles on your own. This is done by presenting keywords that may inspire a solution – an epiphany, perhaps – or through vague clues that gently nudge you in the right direction.
And then there's the refreshing point-and-click interface, which is more intuitive than the antiquated "nine verbs" menu of traditional point-and-click titles. No longer will you haphazardly drag random knick-knacks to these verbs to inadvertently discover what you can do with them; this new interface streamlines such interactions to examining or using these objects. As a result, Guybrush's bits of humor and quips associated with misusing these items in the older Monkey Island games vanish in this title. You will no longer be able to talk to random artifacts you grabbed off the shelf or mash unrelated things together. Fortunately, such gags are largely inconsequential in the first place (you shouldn't worry, anyway; Return to Monkey Island is a wellspring of great jokes).
You can even select between two difficulty modes, which lets you choose between an experience that prioritizes the story over its puzzles or another for puzzle enthusiasts who prefer a bit of a brain teaser. The sum of these parts points to an incredibly thoughtful design that makes Return to Monkey Island an adventure anyone can dive into – one that can be equally delightful to new players, especially for those who may be concerned about trudging into a series with decades of history.
Then again, distilling it to its components wouldn't quite encapsulate the splendor of this Monkey Island sequel. Instead, I would point out that Return to Monkey Island feels like a homecoming, of returning to those sepia-toned days where I first relived the exciting adventures of the intrepid Guybrush Threepwood in The Secret of Monkey Island many years ago. It's also why, despite Terrible Toybox's gallant efforts to make Return of Monkey Island more approachable to new players, it's still the original series fans who would get the most out of this point-and-click experience. They're the very folks who will be delighted to catch a glimpse of, say, the same scrap of melted metal that Guybrush once used to hold his grog as they briefly recall the absurdity of that puzzle in their heads. Return to Monkey Island is profoundly nostalgic and relentlessly funny, and I'm once again a kid, laughing at Guybrush's umpteenth last-ditch efforts to distract his opponents with, "Look behind you, a three-headed monkey!"