Monday, January 18, 2016

The Secret of Monkey Island: Monkey Island Mondays #1

Welcome to the first edition of my new series, Monkey Island Mondays.  There will be five episodes in total, one for each of the first four games, and then a fifth covering the whole of the Telltale series, Tales of Monkey Island.  These are some of my favourite games ever, especially the first one, so I hope you enjoy taking a nostalgic look back at them.  Or perhaps you've never played them before? Then hopefully my videos will convince you to give them a try!

Part 1: The History of Monkey Island

The original version of The Secret of Monkey Island was released on the Commodore Amiga and PC in 1990, with an enhanced CD ROM version featuring much better music appearing in 1992. The project was the brainchild of Ron Gilbert, who started playing around with story ideas in 1988.  He first came up with a male and female villain, who eventually became LeChuck and Elaine - there was no Guybrush at this stage.  Gilbert pitched the idea of a series of pirate themed short stories to LucasArts, who liked the idea, but Gilbert was assigned to work on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: The Adventure which delayed the project.  That was completed in 1989, and he was finally free to work on his pirate game.

Working alongside Gilbert were Tim Schafer and Dave Grossman, who as well as programming the game were also responsible for about two thirds of the dialogue. Steve Purcell was an artist on the game, while Michael Land and Patrick Mundy are credited with composing the fantastic soundtrack. Schafer, of course, went on create his own classic adventure games such as Day of the Tentacle, Full Throttle and Grim Fandango.  Grossman was one of the founders of the hugely successful Telltale Games, while Purcell created the Sam & Max comics and the Hit the Road adventure game that is also very fondly remembered.

What was the original inspiration for The Secret of Monkey Island?  The truth of the matter is a little hard to pin down:

Ron Giblert, from the Lucasfilm Adventurer, Fall 1990:
"I'd wanted to do a pirate game for a long time. You see, one of my favorite rides in Disneyland is Pirates of the Caribbean. You get on a little boat and it takes you through a pirate adventure, climaxing in a cannon fight between two big pirate ships. Your boat keeps you moving through the adventure, but I've always wished I could get off and wander around, learn more about the characters, and find a way onto those pirate ships."

From Grumpy Gamer, 2004:
"I was sorting through some boxes today and I came across my copy of Tim Power's On Stranger Tides, which I read in the late 80's and was the inspiration for Monkey Island.  Some people believe the inspiration for Monkey Island came from the Pirates of the Caribbean ride - probably because I said it several times during interviews - but that was really just for the ambiance.  If you read this book you can really see where Guybrush and LeChuck were -plagiarized- derived from, plus the heavy influence of voodoo in the game."

So it's fair to say that the truth is somewhere in the middle, you can definitely see elements of both in there.

In creating The Secret of Monkey Island, Ron Gilbert wanted to avoid certain aspects of adventure games that he found annoying and off putting.  These included cheap deaths, which were something that many of the Sierra games were guilty of, unclear objectives and non-linear game play.

"One of the things I did to make the story less linear was to add the three trials at the start of the game. You have to prove yourself as a pirate by completing these three tests, and you can do them in any order that you want. That was done on purpose, so that you don't have to finish trial one before you can try trial two. I think it's good design technique to have things as nonlinear as possible, but it does make the storytelling ten times as hard."

Gilbert wrote an article for The Journal of Computer Game Design detailing all his frustrations with the genre and how we would go about fixing them.  Most of these ideas informed the design for Monkey Island. The article can still be found online today, as is a fascinating read.  You can visit this page to read the article yourself.

Where did the name "Guybrush" come from?
For a long time during the games development, the main character didn't have a name.  Steve Purcell who had been working on the art for the character, saved the file as guy.brush and it stuck!

How was the game received?
The game garnered very positive feedback from various journalists of the time.  The attention to detail, artwork, puzzles and difficulty level we all praised.  They also invariably thought the dialogue was hilarious.  The only real criticism came from those who thought that the game was too expensive for the length of time it takes to complete, which was actually a fairly common complaint that people had from the adventure game genre.  They take a lot of work to make, and making a long adventure game is pretty difficult.

Nowadays, The Secret of Monkey Island frequently makes it into top games lists, and is very fondly remembered by a great many people.  I myself have named it as my favourite game of all time in the past, which is something I probably still agree with.  Regardless, it remains a title that I can come back to time and time again, and I cherish the time that I've spent with it.

The 2009 Special Edition looks great - you can read a full review later on in this article!

Part 2: Monkey Island Memories

There are loads of great moments in The Secret of Monkey Island.  I've decided to focus on just five, does your favourite make the cut?

5. Negotiating a better deal with Stan
This is actually one of the more annoying parts of the game, and it sticks in the memory for that reason! Stan is a used boat salesman, and has the pushy personality and penchance for patter that personifies that profession.  In order to get a good deal on a sea vessel, you need to go through the motions of listening to his pitch for all sorts of optional extras, haggle a bit, and then turn him down. Gradually you will wear him down to the point where you can actually afford to buy something (with some help from a credit note acquired through unconventional means from the storekeeper in town). Stan already came across as a smarmy individual in the original game, but the addition of voice work in the Special Edition puts the icing on the cake and really fits the character well.

4. The cannibals
After finally arriving on Monkey Island, you will start finding little notes left around the place between Herman Toothrot, a castaway who has gone a bit... strange, and a group of cannibals.  You might expect them to be fearsome, savage warriors, but they're actually quite friendly, and are currently watching their fat intake and eating mostly fruit.  They do lock you up, sure, but it's easy enough to escape - and if you give them a nice idol, they might help you get ahead!

3. The SCUMM bar and meeting the pirates
This is one of your first ports of call upon starting the game, and is full of colourful characters, from the pirate who will only respond with "Aye!" unless you ask him about Loom, Mancomb Seepgood, who pokes fun and your silly name, and the three pirate chiefs at the table who lay out your three tasks. When you talk to a lot of the characters in here, you are treated to a full hand drawn portrait of their face, which was mightily impressive upon the games release, and they still look pretty good now!

2. Stealing the Idol of Many Hands
Upon putting the deadly piranha poodles to sleep (no animals were harmed in the production of this game!), you are able to enter the governor's mansion and attempt to steal the Idol.  What plays out before your eyes is a truly bizarre scene, that pokes fun at how ridiculous some puzzles in adventure games had become by combining random objects like wax lips, a moose, angry midgets, and more!  It had been a while since I'd seen this part of the game and its daftness actually made me laugh out loud.

1. Insult sword fighting
This, for me is by far the most memorable part of the entire game.  In The Secret of Monkey Island, sword fighting is less about dexterity and fast reflexes and more about your rapier wit.  The aggressor will first toss out an insult, and then it's up to the defender to counter it with a sick burn.  If you choose the correct response, then you turn the tables on your opponent and get to choose the next insult, choose incorrectly and you will be on the back foot.  The thing is though, you won't know many insults or their responses to begin with, so you will need to go out and fight against random pirates to build up your repertoire.  The game will tell you when you probably know enough to be able to go up against the Swordmaster (10 - 12 should do it), though there is an achievement for learning all of them in the Special Edition.

The truly clever part is, when you finally do go and face the Swordmaster, all of her insults are different!  The responses you've learnt still work against them though, if you can figure out which goes with which. So not only is it an interesting and unique fighting mechanic, it's also a pretty clever puzzle!

What were your favourite Monkey Island Memories? Let me know by leaving a comment!

This image of the game in particular is really striking - I love the effect of the moonlight on the water!

Part 3: Special Edition review

In 2009, LucasArts released a Special Edition of The Secret of Monkey Island.  It featured completely redrawn graphics in HD and widescreen, full voice work including long standing cast members Dominic Armato as Guybrush and Earl Boen as LeChuck, and fully orchestrated music. Do these changes add or detract from the experience, and is the game underneath still enjoyable?  That's what we're about to find out!

Plot and Character: 9 out of 10
Aside from the game play and puzzles, this is the major factor that makes The Secret of Monkey Island so special.  The game is full of great characters, from the main ones like Guybrush, Elaine and LeChuck, to the supporting cast including the men of low moral fibre (pirates) and their pet rat, Otis the prisoner, the cannibals, Stan, the shopkeeper and Herman Toothrot.  The passion that Guybrush shows toward wanting to be a pirate is infectious, and you will want to help him get there.

Graphics: 8 out of 10
For the most part, I really like the new artwork from the Special Edition version of the game.  The moonlight over the docks near the SCUMM Bar is particularly beautiful.  The one aspect of the visuals that I'm not that keen on is the style of the characters, and in particular the large portraits that you see when talking to people like the pirates in the bar, or the sword master.  This is really a matter of personal taste, but I prefer the more realistic style that was used in the original version of the game, compared to the more angular, abstract approach that has been taken with the redesign. Of course, you can actually switch between the new graphics and the original graphics on the fly, so if you do prefer one over the other, you can take your pick.

Seeing favourite scenes in lovely crisp HD is qute a treat.
Sound and Music: 9 out of 10
LucasArts managed to get the voice actors who first appeared in Curse of Monkey Island to reprise their roles for these Special Edition releases, which is great news.  Earl Boen, who plays LeChuck, may also be familiar to you as Doctor Silverman from the first three Terminator films.  While the voice acting is solid across the board, I think his is the stand out performance - it's apparent that he really has fun in this role.

I also really like the remastered music.  I'm not sure I prefer it to the original MIDI tunes, or to the music that was used for the CD ROM version.  It's all good.  The iMUSE system that dynamically changes the music based on where you area and who you're talking to wasn't introduced until Monkey Island 2 - I am looking forward to hearing how the new music works with that system though, in particular the Woodtick theme.

Game Mechanics: 9 out of 10
The writing is so well done and so funny, that you will always want to exhaust every possible dialogue tree to see where the conversation goes.  That there is no penalty for doing so is a master stroke - at worst the conversation will be ended and you will just have to speak to the person again.  There is no death or risk of permanent failure, which frees you up to just experiment and have fun.

The puzzles also have a degree of logic to them that wasn't always present in other games of the genre (much as I love the Discworld games, some of things were expected to do in those games were more than a little absurd).  There is nothing that you can't figure out in this game if you really think hard enough, and thoroughly check each area to make sure you aren't missing any important items.

Innovation and Cleverness: 9 out of 10
OK, so Monkey Island wasn't the first point and click adventure game, but it is an incredibly influential one.  The game scores major innovation points just for the introduction of the insult sword fighting alone - not only is it a clever way to do combat in a puzzle and plot centric game, it's also a lot of fun.  If you read Ron Gilbert's "Why Adventure Games Suck" article then you will see the amount of thought that went into tackling the known issues of the genre, such as rewarding players with new characters, areas or story for successfully completing a puzzle, or sequence of puzzles.

The game is full of great, memorable characters - including the cannibals!
Value and Replayability: 7 out of 10
The Secret of Monkey Island is actually a pretty short game, especially if you already know what you're doing.  You can breeze through the whole thing in about six hours if you're familiar with the puzzles and can remember the fine details.  If it's your first time, or it's been so long you just can't remember everything, then it will take a little bit longer.  Don't worry about getting completely stuck though, the game has a pretty good hint system built in.  As for price, as this was initially a digital release you can find it nice and cheap, either via PSN, Xbox Live or Steam, or on a physical disc bundled alongside Monkey Island 2.

Overall: 9 out of 10
The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition is a superb version of an all-time classic game.  There are a few very minor things that I would have done differently, granted, but still this is a great package.  It's a shame that it didn't occur to LucasArts to add a commentary mode until Monkey Island 2, as I would have loved to play along with the game that started it all and hear what Ron Gilbert, Tim Schafer and others think about it nowadays.  Regardless, this Special Edition should be in every fans collection.

That brings us to the end of the first edition of Monkey Island Mondays then - I really hope you enjoyed it.  This really is one of my favourite games of all time, so I want to do it justice.  Next time, I'll be giving Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge the same treatment.  Not sure exactly when that will be yet, because I need to play through the Special Edition, do my research and come up with a script, but I will try not to leave it too long.  In the meantime, take care!

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

RMGB in 2016

As you have probably noticed, after my post from September 2014 celebrating the 10th anniversary of this blog, there were no new posts for OVER A YEAR! This was not intentional, I just got a bit distracted with my YouTube channel and found it hard to find the time to devote to both things. However, one of my new years resolutions for 2016 is/was to bring the blog back to life and dedicate more time to it.  I will be achieving this in a couple of ways.  Firstly, every YouTube video I make starts with a written script - that's just the way I work.  So, there is no reason that script can't be used as the basis for a blog article as well.  Since the beginning of the year, I've already been doing this, and I think it's working out pretty well - we already have reviews of Tales of Xillia and Evoland live, a written version of my Cobra Triangle video from Rare Replay, and my Monkey Island Mondays series will be starting very soon.

In addition to this, I would also like to post content that is exclusive to the blog.  This will take the form of diary type posts initially, but I would also like to include other things as well.  Sometimes it's difficult to make a video of a game because capturing the footage is challenging - 3DS and DS games can't be captured very easily unless I a) spend a lot of money on getting my system modded or b) point a regular camcorder at the screen, which results in crappy quality.  I could sometimes use footage captured by other people - for example World of Longplays let you use their video, as long as you give them credit.  In cases where they haven't covered the particular game I've been playing though, a written review will have to do.  I will try and find some other blog exclusive things that I can post as well.

My plan is to make the RetroModern Gaming Blog bigger and better than it's ever been before in 2016. It's a shame about the large absence - I am thinking about posting some of the content that didn't make it on there, as I still have the written versions for most of it.  Mostly though, this year is about looking forwards, not backwards (unless it's playing old games - that's allowed!).  I already have quite a list of games that I'm either playing now or want to play in the near future, including: Fallout 4, Evoland 2, Tales of Xillia 2, The Book of Unwritten Tales, all the main series Resident Evil titles I haven't finished (5, 6, Revelations and Revelations 2), and all the Legend of Zelda titles I haven't finished (Oracle of Ages, Oracle of Seasons, Majora's Mask, The Phantom Hourglass, Spirit Tracks, Skyward Sword).  There's no way I will get to all of the Resident Evil and Zelda games this year, but I would at least like to make a start.  I will also be playing quite a few smaller Steam games, and playing more graphic adventure games thanks to the Steam Link. I am actually hoping for a fairly quiet period where new releases are concerned, so I can focus on playing older games!  There will inevitably be some big new games that distract me though, such as No Man's Sky - I can't wait for that one!

All things being well, Monkey Island Mondays will begin next week - I have the written version all ready to go, I just need to finish editing the video version.  I would like them to go live at the same time.  It's been quite a lot of work putting it together, and a long time coming, so I hope you really enjoy it.  See you next week!

Saturday, January 09, 2016

Evoland Review

Until now, I have never reviewed anything from Steam or on the PC, but I recently acquired a Steam Link and controller, opening up a whole world of cheap gaming from the comfort of my sofa!  From now on I will be covering PC titles more often, though not the latest, biggest and flashiest titles.  I am thinking more of cool indie games like Crypt of the Necrodancer, fantastic graphic adventures like The Book of Unwritten Tales, and RPG's like this one, Evoland: A short story of adventure video games evolution.

The very first version of this game came from a LudumDare competition, which is a game jam where the participants are given 48 hours to develop a game idea based around a particular theme.  The theme for that year was evolution, and so creator Nicolas Cannasse put together his game showing the progression of adventure games (more specifically, RPG's) throughout the ages.  Starting with primitive Game Boy style monochrome graphics, the player is rapidly guided through concepts like flick screen and smooth scrolling, 8bit graphics and music, turn based battles, full 3D environments, pre rendered backgrounds and HD graphics, plus a lot more in between.  Probably the games greatest strength is the way it never sits still for very long and within half an hour or so at the most you are on to the next thing.

This part of the game is very remiscent of The Legend of Zelda, though there are stretches that play like Final Fantasy as well.
Evoland is a pastiche of past games through and through, so don't expect it to have an amazing plot of characters of its own.  The story is as classic and as basic as it gets, really - an evil force is threatening the land and its up to you, the hero to stop it, with a little help from the heroine.  The default names for the two party members are Clink and Kaeris, and the the baddy is called Zephyros - that alone should be enough to tell you not to take this game too seriously.  No, Evoland is really all about the evolution gimmick, and the constant shifting of its presentation and game play styles. Because the game is very brief, and cleverly written for the most part, it works, and never becomes tiresome.  The whole thing will only take you between 4 and five hours to complete, a little longer if you decide to find all 30 of the optional hidden stars and the cards for the side game.

There was only one part that I wasn't really a fan of, and that is the games attempt to try Diablo style game play.  They never really commit to it as you don't have any skills and the "equipment" that you collect is just a joke, so the game play just comprises mashing the attack button over and over again and killing hordes of week mobs.  Hell, some would argue that's all that Diablo is, anyway.  Of course, the wise ones amongst us know better!  Just as I was starting to tire of this bit of the game however, it was over, and from there the game swiftly moved on to its climax.

Overall: 7 out of 10
Even though the game is not as vast and detailed as something like The Witcher 3, it still must have taken quite a lot of work because there are so many different art and game play styles all rolled into one.  Multiple different character sprites needed to be created, and both real time and turn based battle engines needed to programmed.  The whole game was put together by two people, so it's quite an impressive feat.  In summation, I really enjoyed my time playing Evoland, flawed though it is in places.  If you are a fan of the games it references - chiefly The Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and Diablo, then I heartily recommend that you spend an afternoon playing through it. There is also a sequel, where this concept has been fleshed out to last at least 20 hours.  I plan on playing it soon, so I will be sure to let you know if it manages to remain interesting for all that time. In the meantime, take care!

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Cobra Triangle | Rare Replay #5

Today we're on to the fifth episode in the series of Rare Replay games.  I'm sticking with the NES again this time, and taking a look at a 1989 release called Cobra Triangle.   I had never heard of this one before I bought this compilation, but that's not entirely surprising as I never had my own NES growing up.  It was co designed by Mark Betteridge and the Stamper brothers, with programming duties also falling to Betteridge.  Tim Stamper and Kevin Bayliss produced the graphics, while David Wise once again composed the music.  The style of game is an isometric racing / combat game, where you take control of a speedboat that can be upgraded as you progress through the stages.

Probably the best thing about the game in my opinion is the wide range of different objectives that it throws at you.  One minute you simply have to get to the end of a course before the time runs out, the next you may be trying to steal armed mines from the enemy and take them up to a designated area on the water to blow them up safely.  Or you may be protecting a bunch of humans from being abducted by evil speedboats, attempting to jump across a series of waterfalls, or in a battle to the death against a sea dragon, giant crab, kraken or ultimately, a great white shark.  Like many NES games of the time though, the difficulty curve can be rather harsh.  You only have a couple of lives and a few continues to try and make your way through the game, and while you can collect more from time to time, you're more than likely to run out before you get to the end of the 25th stage and actually complete the game. 

Avoiding these whirlpools can be aggravating!
For my first few attempts, I did actually persevere without resorting to infinite lives cheat, but could barely manage to get past the 10th stage.  As I want to get all of the milestones in each game, I did turn the cheat on and slog my way through every level.  The one I struggled with the most was the hardest version of the mine defusing stage, as the time limit is extremely tight.  Neither the milestones or the snapshots were particularly challenging this time around.  The toughest one was definitely the one awarded for completing all 25 stages of the game.  It took quite a few attempts, but I got there in the end. Thankfully the addition of save states in Rare Replay meant I could walk away from the game for a bit and come back and try again later.

On certain levels, such as the ones where you are told to race to the finish, or others that just tell you to collect pods, you upgrade your boat by collecting said pods.  The power up system is very reminiscent of something like Gradius, where you have a list of options along the bottom of the screen, which will cycle through as you collect the pods.  At the press of a button you can select the currently highlighted option, upgrading your ship and resetting the bar back to the start.  By doing this you can improve the top speed of your boat, the power and spread of your bullets and eventually be able to shoot heat seeking missiles.  I would recommend upgrading your offensive options before improved the speed of your vehicle, as you will be going up against the sea dragon fairly early in the game and may have a hard time if you only have the pea shooter that you start with.

Overall: 8 out of 10
I do really like the presentation of Cobra Triangle - Rare have once again used the isometric perspective that they are so fond of, but for the most part it works really well here.  It can make lining yourself up with the pods in midair a little tricky, but this isn't a major issue.  Really though, the greatest thing this game has going for it is the variety of game play it offers.  While the eight or so different level types do repeat several times over by the end of the game, each one is very different from the last and they ramp up in complexity as you proceed.  The worst part of the game is the very harsh difficulty - you can get a good deal better at it with perseverance and practise but completing this game fairly and squarely on the paltry number of lives they give you will be an incredibly stiff challenge indeed.  Overall then I think I enjoyed this just a tiny bit more than I did with Slalom.  It is less samey, yet doesn't quite earn true greatness due to the harsh game play.  A solid eight out of ten.