After 31 years, can Return to Monkey Island live up to expectations?

Ron Gilbert is finally back at the helm of the Monkey Island games - but there's a lot resting on him and the Return To Monkey Island

Return to Monkey Island expectations: A pirate, a ghost pirate, and Guybrush

Finally, time to sail back. Ron Gilbert has let the monkey out of the bag: he’s working on a new chapter in the Monkey Island series, for the first time since 1991. Time to pick up the eyepatches, juju bags and rubber chickens with a pulley in the middle because Return To Monkey Island is on its way.

Indeed, 30 years have passed since Gilbert last worked on the series he created. A long time by any standards, but in the gaming industry it feels like five or six generations ago. In 1991, games were coming out on floppy disks, we were playing on 320×240 resolutions, and, above all, games came in lovely big boxes. I played the Secret of Monkey Island, a few years after its release, in its CD variant with a lush soundtrack. While it wasn’t my first graphical adventure, it was the one that most captured my imagination as a young kid: duelling with insults, a quirky but lovable cast of characters and, of course, the off-the-wall humour. I tried to advertise my fascination with it everywhere, with ‘Le_Chuck’ being my first original nickname on the web… a thousand years ago.

Then came Monkey Island 2: Le Chuck’s Revenge, which – as with most fans – I had more of a complicated relationship with. Not only were there puzzles I got stuck on for hours, but its bittersweet surreal conclusion left me in tears. To this day, I would defend the ending as the perfect note to end the series with, but fast forward to 2022 and three Monkey Island games later, and it’s clear I was wrong.

But none of them were written by Ron Gilbert because he believed a sequel would never live up to everyone’s nostalgia. But he did always say that if he was to make a new game, he would announce it on April 1, and… well, he did. The stunt, which he lovingly refers to as a “joke 18 years in the making” worked so well that no major websites reported it as actual news, not until days later, when the trailer came out and it was revealed that not only Gilbert was on board, but LucasArts alumni Dave Grossman and the trio of brilliant musicians Micheal Land, Peter McConnell, and Clint Bajakian, were too.

During 30 years of mediocre fan games and speculation on Gilbert and his possible return to the series, many have wondered what kind of story he would write. Will “the secret” of Monkey Island finally be revealed? And, more importantly, will Gilbert overwrite what the later chapters did with the franchise? Apparently, that is not the developer’s plan, since he considers the third game, Curse of Monkey Island, to be “canon”. So much so that he confirmed the talking skull Murray as a character in Return.

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Gilbert probably doesn’t want to complicate things too much narratively, so the story will connect the second and third chapter. But how the hell is he going to squeeze Murray in there? Well, it’s clear Return to Monkey Island isn’t going to have the same old story Gilbert dreamt up 30 years ago. But if there’s one thing for sure, it’s that we’re in for a bizarre story, which keeps Gilbert away from his biggest pet peeve; being predictable.

It’s good to see Monkey Island back in the hands of its creator

Which characters could make a return? So far, we’ve only seen Murray, and we don’t even know what Guybrush will look like, a point of contention in past games and in the remasters. But Gilbert himself has dropped a few hints and we will surely see the return of the lookout, a pretty obscure character which was the first one Guybrush met in the original. As for me, I’m expecting to see many supporting characters, make their return, like Jolly Rasta captain Dread and the gluttonous governor of Phatt Island.

And so far, it’s looking good. While the trailer and the recently published screenshots have already ruffled a few feathers – its graphics being the main point of contention – it’s good to see Monkey Island back in the hands of its creator, where a return to nostalgia is all but guaranteed. And that’s key here, not only for the Monkey Island series, but for the point and click adventure genre as a whole.

Return to Monkey Island expectations: Phatt Island's governor

In the last ten years, point and click adventures have been holding on sturdily, with many titles making endless, and irritating I would add, references to the classic LucasArts and Sierra titles. Frankly, the genre can stand on its own two legs – it does not need nostalgia to survive. Games like those developed by the brilliant Wadjet Eye studio can be fully appreciated even without rose-tinted glasses.

But still many have been asking themselves: could the success of Return to Monkey Island spark a potential rebirth of a genre that has been declared dead more times than LeChuck himself? Doubtful. As much as I’d like to believe the opposite, gamers don’t really need point and clicks anymore.

That is why Return of Monkey Island, despite its pedigree, will still need to be judged against all other indie adventures from the last few years. Whether it lives up to fan expectations, though, depends on how exactly Gilbert plans to handle that, but I remain confident that he’ll be able to pull off the impossible when the Screaming Narwhal eventually docks for its next big adventure.