Continuing the trend they began with last year’s The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition, LucasArts has once again put a 21st century shine on a 20th century classic with an update of its sequel, Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge. Returning from the first remake are HD graphics, full voice-acting, an updated musical score, alternate controls, and the ability to seamlessly switch between the classic and enhanced versions of the game at any time. This time, however, they’ve also added a concept art gallery, a designer’s commentary track, and the option to hear the new voices with the old graphics. With a few curious exceptions, the overall “Special”ness of the experience has generally changed for the better, making one of the best adventures of all time even better in the process.
Guybrush Threepwood, still basking in his victory over the Ghost Pirate LeChuck, but now flying single after a never-quite-explained break-up with Elaine and flush with cash from between-game exploits, has arrived on Scabb Island looking for clues to the legendary treasure of Big Whoop. Of course, as the title gives away, LeChuck isn’t as obliterated as Guybrush thinks. While our hero travels the Tri-Island area tracking down four pieces of a map, LeChuck and his agents are conspiring against him, though Guybrush remains mostly oblivious to this danger, having plenty of other problems to deal with. To succeed in his quest, he’ll need to explore the ocean depths, win a drinking contest, bring the dead back to life, and, perhaps most challenging of all, sweet-talk his ex-girlfriend. When the final confrontation with LeChuck finally occurs, it’s a heck of a difficult battle (much more so than in the first game), and leads to one of the most controversial video game endings of all time (I’m not fond of it, but your appreciation may vary).
Even without any enhancements, Monkey Island 2 is still an amazing work of art, and there are so many wonderful characters in this game. Guybrush is the gold standard of adventure protagonists, and is still the funniest character in the series. His non sequitur comments never fail to make me laugh, and that goes double when his lines are delivered by Dominic Armato. But there are so many memorable supporting characters in this game, making most modern adventures seem like unpopulated wastelands in comparison. I could mention Kate Capsize (or is her name actually Guybrush Threepwood???) or Wally the Cartographer (“My monocle!”), but even nameless characters like the Spit Contest barker are bursting with personality.
Despite having played the game several times in the past, it still made me laugh many times all over again. There is so much content in MI2, it’s incredible. I couldn’t believe how many colors Guybrush could name, many of which barely qualify, when asked to name the color of a tree that falls in an empty forest. His answer went from strange, to annoying, to absurd, back to annoying, then to hilarious. Don’t even get me started on the card catalog at the library, because one could literally spend an entire gaming session there (R – Recursion; See: Recursion). If you’ve never played this game before, and you enjoy comedy adventures, you are in for a great experience.
You are also in for an incredibly challenging one. Even as many times as I’ve gone through the game, I still got stuck several times. This has to be one of the most difficult adventures I have played, but not in an unfair way. The world is just so vast and complex, with so many things to do. Apart from a few variations, like a song that also serves as a direction riddle, almost every puzzle involves collecting, combining, and using objects in the environment, but there are quite a few red herrings (though none so literal as in the first Monkey)! But no matter how stuck I got, or how many times I sought a context-sensitive hint (each new one increasingly helpful, and only ever a button press away), in the end it always seemed like a reasonable solution.
Of course, many people know these things already, and are more interested in what the updated elements offer. One feature fans asked for the last time around has been implemented here: you can now play the game using the original graphics and full voice-acting at the same time. In fact, it’s almost necessary for playing “classic” mode in the Xbox 360 version, because whenever the autosave icon appears (as it does fairly often), the text on screen vanishes, so without voice you may lose a lot of important dialogue. If you choose to play this way, regardless of platform, you’ll be left with the original controls as well as original music—you can’t pick and choose every little thing however you want it, but it’s still a cool compromise for those who like the old-school look with the new-school sound. However, it would be a shame to miss out on the remastered soundtrack. Every time I switched to classic mode, I couldn’t believe how much I missed the fuller sound of the orchestral score. All of the compositions fit in perfectly with the (mostly) light-hearted Caribbean aesthetic, and are really enjoyable to listen to.
Even if you disliked the modernized graphics in Secret of Monkey Island, you should at least give Monkey Island 2’s HD presentation a chance to win you over. One major improvement is the way Guybrush looks. He doesn’t really resemble his original MI2 self, but rather he’s a perfect transition between his Secret look and his Curse of Monkey Island appearance (which is the first time we ever got a really good look at him, and thus the standard I compare other iterations against), and makes more sense emitting Dominic Armato’s voice. I played most of the game in HD, and the new design looks so natural that when dabbling in classic mode I actually felt like that Guybrush was the interloper. The backgrounds look incredibly lovely as well—I’m particularly fond of the town of Woodtick, the seaside on Phatt Island, and some areas of LeChuck’s fortress—and once unlocked, it’s amazing to look at the gallery of concept art in the bonus features and see how much more the HD graphics look like the original artistic vision from 1991 than what they were actually able to accomplish on those old PCs. If I have any complaint about the new style, it’s that some of the minor characters look a little grotesque for my taste.
I’m not the only one who prefers the new graphics, as apparently Tim Schafer feels the same way, which you’ll hear about if you decide to play with the optional developer’s commentary turned on (though make sure it’s your second playthrough, as it drowns out some crucial cutscenes). Every once in a while there is a button prompt to trigger commentary, at which point a little cutout of designers Ron Gilbert, Dave Grossman, and Schafer will appear in the corner and you’ll hear some anecdote or bit of inside info about whatever part of the game you’re in. Did you realize that in Woodtick, the same musical theme is always playing, but whenever you enter a shop it adds in a unique instrument (using a system called iMUSE)? Or that the incredibly devious “If this is four, then what’s this?” puzzle from the Gambler’s Club came from Tim Schafer’s older brother? I just wish there was more commentary than the hour or so provided, and that it wasn’t so easy to get stuck listening to the same dialogue multiple times. For example, no matter when you go aboard Captain Dread’s ship, you get the exact same button prompt for the exact same conversation, whether you’re one hour into the game or six, and there’s no way to tell if you’ve heard a particular sequence already.
The commentary also inadvertently highlights a problem with this Special Edition, and it will be a major one to some of the more diehard fans. Unlike in the first update, the classic version of MI2 isn’t exactly a perfect rendition of the original release. For one thing, the iMUSE system that allowed the musical background to seamlessly change was not actually emulated here. The music does change when you enter new buildings, but the seamless integration of a new instrument doesn’t truly happen; it just cuts to a new soundtrack. Most players will never know the difference, but some may tear their hair out over it. The original opening and closing credits were also cut from the game, and though it doesn’t have a story impact, a few jokes were lost. Additionally, the original game had a “Lite” version that made some of the super-difficult puzzles easier and cut others entirely, and though the built-in hint system perhaps makes this unnecessary now, if you’re going to have a “Special” edition of an all-time classic, the first step should probably be “do no harm.”
There are many ways to play Monkey Island 2: Special Edition, from console to PC to even iPhone, so your experience with controls may vary. On the Xbox 360, I found the system improved since the last game. In HD mode, Guybrush is controlled directly with the analog stick, while one trigger brings up a menu of interaction choices (limited to the few deemed useful for that object, though some unnecessary options are left in) and the other opens the inventory. One button is set aside just for highlighting hotspots, though it only lasts a few seconds, and the areas of the screen simply glow instead of labeling specific objects. Direct control is not available in classic mode, as the controller does its best approximation of mouse controls using the stick to control the cursor. You have to choose from the list of nine verbs at the bottom of the screen, and your inventory is always on display next to them. The PC version of both modes is similar, but replaces the HD direct control movement with a simple left-click interface. Clicking and holding the right button calls up the ring of interactive cursors to choose from, and releasing performs the desired action. Alternatively, you can choose from a selection of hotkeys if you prefer.
If it’s your first time playing Monkey Island 2, and you’re determined to have every optional conversation and examine every trinket you see to its fullest, you could easily spend almost twenty hours with this game. It would certainly be time well spent. Though some unfortunate choices were made in neglecting to preserve the integrity of the classic version, you still couldn’t ask for a funnier, richer, or more challenging adventure than this one, and in most ways this Special Edition is the equal or even an improvement over its predecessor, with prettier environments, more great voice-acting, and another beautiful soundtrack. So whether you’re a newcomer or a LeChuck’s Revenge veteran, it’s definitely worth taking the trip back to the world of Monkey Island.