The game follows the exploits of a teenage boy named Guybrush Threepwood, who washes up on the shore of Mêlée Island seeking to become a pirate. The game is broken up into four parts, which is a formula every later game in the series would follow as well. The first part has Guybrush having to prove himself to the pirate leaders through three tasks so he can become an official pirate himself, the second part finds Guybrush having to harness the power of Voodoo to get to Monkey Island, the third part takes place on Monkey Island itself, and the final part is a showdown with the game's villain. The game is long, but for the most part well paced. The third part on Monkey Island does seem to drag a bit compared to the rest of the game, due to it being so desolate, but the few quirky characters that inhabit the island make up for it. The sword-fighting scene also becomes tedious when replaying the game due to it's repetitive nature, but I did find it quite fun on my first play through.
This game was a huge turning point for LucasArts adventure games. Their previous games had limited interaction with the game world. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade made great strides with the addition of a look command which allowed Indy to comment on his surroundings, and the addition of dialog trees which gave him a choice of what to say to people he encountered. The Secret of Monkey Island took these new at the time features and improved upon them greatly. The look command would be used to enhance the humor of the game, as some of the funniest jokes in the game come from Guybrush's observations. The dialog tree system that was created for The Secret of Monkey Island would become the standard for LucasArts adventure games, and adventure games in general, for years after this game was made. In The Last Crusade, the choices were made just to solve a puzzle. If you chose the right dialog choice, you would not have to fight a guard. That was the extent of the interactivity, but in The Secret of Monkey Island, you were given a dialog option which would result in a response from a character which could then branch out into another dialog option, and so on, depending on which one you chose. Talking to characters really felt like talking in a conversation, so it gave the game a sense of realism that had mostly been lacking in adventure games up to that point.
The interface stayed mostly the same up until the Special Edition. The game had nine verbs to choose from in a bar at the bottom of the screen, which was cut down from 15 in the Last Crusade, in order to simplify things. The original EGA, VGA, Amiga, and Atari ST version had text for inventory items, as was used in previous LucasArts adventure games. The VGA CD, Sega (Mega) CD, FM-Towns (a Japanese computer), and Macintosh versions had icons for inventory items, which was first introduced in Monkey Island 2. The verb and inventory bar was completely removed in the Special Edition (except in the iPhone version, which had a small bar at the bottom of the screen). The verb icons could be brought up by a button (ctrl in the PC version) and the inventory could be brought up with another (alt in the PC version). This sounds like a good solution, but it does not work well in practice. Combining inventory icons is difficult, since every time an item is selected, the verb goes back to the default. You have to open up the verb selection again in order to choose use, then open the inventory selection again to use the item. It's much too cumbersome. There is a solution, and that is the use of keyboard shortcuts. It does not replace the simplicity of the original system, bbut it takes a lot of the headache out of the game. The shortcut keys are very logical as well (O is open, U is use, etc.). The game can be switched back to the VGA CD version with the original interface at any time, so if some of the puzzles are a challenge with the new interface, such as the puzzle where you give grog to the prisoner, you can switch to the classic version (F10 on the PC version) and then back when the puzzle is over. I found that once you get used to the shortcut keys, inventory combination was quick enough without having to resort to the old interface, but your experience may differ.
The graphics have been changed many times throughout the game's various releases. The original EGA version had a sunset over the sea behind the SCUMM Bar which would change to night as the game went on, which was a feature that wasn't used in any other version. This version also had an extra joke about body builder Charles Atlas that was removed for legal reasons. All of the versions except for the CD versions and Special Edition (since it was based on the VGA CD version) had a joke at a stump in the forest that asked to insert non-existent disks. The Sega (Mega) CD version omitted some graphics (such as the man spinning on the chandelier in the SCUMM Bar) due to memory constraints. This version also had censoring (replacing the word hell with here for example), which was a common requirement for console releases at the time. The original versions had cartoonish closeups, whereas the VGA CD, Macintosh, and FM-Towns version had realistic closeups of the characters. The biggest change in graphics, is of course, the Special Edition. The graphics are in high resolution, but stay in spirit to the originals. The backgrounds are particularly well done, with added detail such as ships docked behind the SCUMM Bar, which further illustrate the storyline that the pirates on the island are too scared to sail of to sea due to the game's villain, Captain LeChuck. The backgrounds were rushed in parts though, and pixels from the original version can still be seen at times. This doesn't happen too much, but if it bothers you, patches have been made for the computer versions by fans to fix these graphic omissions. This version omits the picture of the Pillsbury doughboy and Sam & Max due to legal reasons, but they are still there in the original classic version included with the Special Edition. There are new references in the art, with Purple Tentacle from the Maniac Mansion series replacing Sam & Max and Grim Fandango's Manny Calavera hidden in the background art. The characters are mostly well done, but Guybrush is a bit odd. His eyes are fixed in a blank expression, and he has a weird punk haircut. I did find that it became less distracting as the game went on, but admittedly I'm less of a purist than most die-hard Monkey Island fans. The closeups of the characters once again use a cartoonish quality, which are similar to the Curse of Monkey Island style, but not exact. I personally thought they worked well, with the exception of Guybrush, who had his odd lifeless eyes here as well.
The music has always been a high point of the Monkey Island series. The original game had a score composed by Michael Land and recorded digitally, with the Roland MT32 sound device in mind. The MT32 wasn't required, but the original floppy versions of the game had MT32 support, but the CD versions used pre-recorded digitally produced audio on CD audio tracks. The Special Edition of the game is composed by Jesse Harlin based on Michael Land's original score, and is recorded with live instruments. This version of the game also adds in ambient sounds in some places where there was originally silence. Each version of the soundtrack is spectacular, though I personally prefer the music of the Special Edition. It is true to the spirit of the original music, while bringing an orchestrated feel to the game that helped make Curse of Monkey Island feel larger than life. The biggest addition in my opinion the Special Edition brings over the other versions is the addition of voice acting. The game had been developed in an era where voice acting was out of the question since games had to fit on multiple floppy disks, a single one of which only held up to one and a half megabytes depending on the type of floppy drive used. The voice acting really breathes new life into the game. The original voice acting cast from Curse of Monkey Island is present, and the voice actor of Otis returns from Escape from Monkey Island. The voice of the sword master in Escape has been replaced, but the voice actor in the special edition handles the character well. I was especially impressed with the multiple recordings of the sword fighting insults. Guybrush would sound unsure of himself when he said the wrong insult, which really brought a new dimension to the game which was completely impossible with pure text. Note that the voice acting is not available in classic mode, however. This oversight was rectified in the special edition of the second game, but the classic version mode in The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition still remains text only.
The Secret of Monkey Island is now considered a classic for a reason. The game is really funny, the story line is interesting, and the game is challenging yet the puzzles are logical. The game does bog down pacing-wise in some spots, but the interesting characters will make any feeling of tediousness a short lived one. Any version of Monkey Island is well worth picking up, but I personally recommend the Special Edition. The interface is clunky, but once you learn the hotkeys it becomes infinitely more enjoyable. Even with the odd design choice of Guybrush, and the few missed pixels that damper the art, the music and voice acting make up for it. Plus, the classic VGA CD version can be played at any time with a press of a button, making it enjoyable even to those who can't see past the Special Edition's slight shortcomings.
Update (9/19/10): There is one more option available since I first wrote this review. There is now a a fan made patch available at the Mixnmojo forums that adds the speech from the Special Edition to the classic game. It also fixes bugs that crept up through the many code changes the game went through in its many iterations, and adds jokes back in that were removed (such as the infamous stump joke and the closeup of Spiffy the dog in the SCUMM Bar). The Special Edition is required to play this version of the game, so I still recommend picking up the Special Edition, but if you aren't turned off by 20 year old 256 color VGA graphics, this is the version to play.
4½ out of 5