With Tales of Monkey Island just released on the PC and the Wii, the re-skinned original Secret of Monkey Island imminent on PC and XBLA, Sam and Max tearing up the charts, Wallace and Gromit breaking new ground and the success of Strong Bad’s Cool Game for Attractive People, fans of the point and click adventure game have reason to be very happy right now. Lucasarts also just announced the re-release of ten more games on Steam, among them SCUMM classics Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Loom, The Dig and Full Throttle.
If you’ve never heard of SCUMM you’re in for a treat, or you might be nonplussed at how archaic the interface is. It’s hard to tell how new people will react when all you have of these games are fond memories. Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion (the first of these games from Lucasarts) is basically a way of clicking on an object and then selecting from a set of actions; PICK UP, PUSH, PULL, OPEN, CLOSE, TALK TO etc. It was created by Aric Wilmunder and Ron Gilbert in 1987 and was simple but devilishly effective in giving you an open world that was filled with possibilities, puzzles, oddball characters and usable (stealable) objects. The system was also uncharacteristic for a video game in that it was often entirely non-fatal. One of the greatest strings to its bow is that Monkey Island won’t kill you; the flipside is that you can find yourself completely stumped with a chicken in your hand, unsure of how to open a locked door or get past a stubborn pirate.
It’s all different now. No more thumbing through magazines to find the walk-thru. We can access the FAQ with a few mouse clicks, and YouTube has our backs for visual aids to the point where we don’t even need to play, but as any SCUMM veteran will tell you, that completely defeats the point of these games. The joy is in working out what Tim Schafer and Ron Gilbert’s twisted sense of humor could convey into a puzzle. Once solved they were all mostly logical, but there were a few that simply boggled the mind and made you wonder how you were expected to come up with the solution on your own. These were usually solved by a tip from a friend or magazine or simply trying everything with everything. SCUMM was revised into GrimE in 1998 and Grim Fandango brought adventure games into more of a 3D plane. It’s very interesting that nearly the entire genre has been defined by the output of this one studio. They were arguably the Harmonix (and Neversoft) of their day. Their legacy lives on with Telltale Games, a studio comprising of many of the original creators.
Clearly, right now, to answer my own question, the adventure game IS back; it’s whether it will maintain that’s the more pressing issue. Many of these games have been legitimately playable to those that know how for years using SCUMMvm, on PC and emulating DOS, but now the big consoles and Steam are getting a taste, and the accessibility is rocketing outwards. Every classic, from Day of the Tentacle to Zack McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders could be re-released on every platform and a whole new generation can sample them, along with misty-eyed folks like myself, remembering our days hunched over an Amiga 500 or Commodore 64 in fusty, curtained bedrooms. I’m personally very glad I never went outside or I wouldn’t even be writing this, but after that, I’m wondering where Telltale Games and others will take the genre. Will the new crowd get tired of this relatively untapped but unarguably obtuse style of game? Even more unnervingly; will the old crowd find themselves unable to plow through on what might be nostalgia alone? The flourishing market says otherwise. There are opportunities to evolve, but should they be taken? Arguably the worst Monkey Island was the PS2 adventure Escape from Monkey Island, which attempted to bring Guybrush’s story in line with current tech. Or will we see smaller creators or Telltale themselves making smaller, retro projects, the games we never played? Or it could be a balance of the two. Classic controls (albeit regularly with a controller and not a mouse) and polished up graphics, like the Secret of Monkey Island Redux. Gilbert has given it the thumbs up and with Brutal Legend, Schafer could very well become a more prominent figure in the industry. Prominent enough to be able to do whatever he wants? We can only hope.
There is a new hint system in the overhauled Secret of Monkey Island that may just keep everybody happy. Personally, I’m just relievedwe get to see these Adventure games again at all. Anything else is a bonus. It’s also pertinent that I was considering buying (the by all accounts God-awful) Indiana Jones and the Staff of Kings on the Wii, purely because it has Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis thrown onto the disk like an afterthought. Now I don’t have to because it’ll be on Steam. Thank you Lucasarts!