Monkey Island 2: Special Edition
Posted at 02:23 on 8th May 2011 - permalink

A while ago I finally caved and bought the shiny, voiced, HD remake of Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge on Steam. The recent round of Q&As and interviews with the Portal 2 writing team (where they reveal that the writers actually cued up the recorded voice performances in the game themselves, to ensure that the comedic/dramatic timing worked as intended) has reminded me about it, and the specific reasons in which I think LucasArts unfortunately screwed it up.

(TANGENT: If you haven’t played Monkey Island 2 before, I would strongly recommend playing the original DOS version of the game through SCUMMVM before the Special Edition. Also, I’m only referring to the PC version of the Special Edition here. The quality varies widely between platforms. The iOS port in particular is almost unplayable – omitting the developers’ commentary, bonus galleries and even the intro, trashing the classic mode’s graphics, making dialogue unskippable and failing to support task switching – glaring flaws which almost all iOS reviewers ignored. A low price doesn’t excuse shoddy work, especially when compared to the polish evident in similar remakes, such as Broken Sword. TANGENT ENDS.)

I approached this remake with some trepidation. Monkey Island 2 is my favourite of all the SCUMM games, and involves substantially more complexity and subtlety than any of its predecessors. LucasArts’s previous attempt at reviving a SCUMM game (the original Secret of Monkey Island) was a disaster. The new artwork was sloppy, seemingly only included to meet console marketing requirements, and couldn’t be switched off without also disabling the voice acting. It was rushed out and it showed.

In fairness, a lot of things work well in the sequel. The animation is smoother without looking out of place. The new backgrounds are attractive and in keeping with the tone of the original game. There are still a few areas where incongruous Sam & Max / DOTT-style chunky cartoon geometry creeps in, but on the whole the backgrounds are a vast improvement over the MS Paint travesties of the first Monkey Island remake.

The re-recorded music is superb, and the voice acting is solid (if unspectacular). (One part I particularly enjoyed was the party-goers’ conversations in the Governor’s Mansion scene, which are easy to miss altogether in the text-only version.) The developers’ commentary is entertaining (although there’s not nearly enough of it) and the bonus galleries are a… nice… bonus, including lots of original background drawings and even some areas cut from the game.

There are however several significant problems, each of which hint at either a lack of respect for the source material or a failure to grasp why the game is so fondly remembered by fans.

All of the characters in the game have been redesigned to a greater or lesser extent. While it’s understandable that a lot of new work had to be done to replace the very small, pixelated sprites of the original game, this does not excuse the radical shift in art style. A large amount of concept artwork exists (much of it by Steve Purcell) that shows the style the original team were going for, including the excellent cover painting (which in a particularly needless act of hubris, the Special Edition replaces with a version drawn in its ugly new style).

Worst of all, Guybrush and LeChuck are completely changed from their original designs, bringing them into line with the style used in the later 3D games, where they were completely different characters to the ones in Monkey Island 2. This is rather like going back to the Sean Connery 007 films and CGI’ing in Daniel Craig (or more accurately Roger Moore). (Or retrofitting Hayden Christensen into Return of the Jedi – hmm, perhaps I’ve not picked the best company to upbraid about faithfulness to their source material.) This piece by Richard Cobbett goes into detail about why Monkey Island 2 was not a zany cartoony comedy game.

In the original game, practically any time LeChuck appeared on screen it was unsettling – the funereal MIDI music, LeChuck’s deliberate, shambling gate and expression of pure malevolence (how did they make a face smaller than a favicon emote that it wanted to hate you to death?) and the imminent (and ultimately realised) threat of physical harm combining to put the player on edge. In the Special Edition he’s a scenery-chewing pantomime villain.

The game’s atmosphere, as well as many of the visual and verbal jokes, were crucially dependent on the character design. Even the posture of the characters is important. The original, realistically proportioned Guybrush, who slouches and moves like a graceless teenager, and who is seldom stretched and squashed like a Looney Tunes character (and who delivers text dialogue ‘deadpan’, purely through stance and timing) is a different, funnier, more charming character than the one presented by this remake.

(There are also several changes to the script. Most are probably to remove legally protected brand names and don’t adversely affect the game, but I’m pedantic enough to mention it.)

But the final, deal-breaking thing that MI2:SE gets wrong, and the thing that makes me urge prospective players to play through the original version first, is the implementation of the cut-scenes. When the original game came out 20 years ago, every cut-scene was a big deal for the player, the payoff for their hard work. Here were little computer sprites acting out a dramatic scene, with bespoke animations, special effects and even cutaways to different scenes. And because they required so much painstaking work to build, the timing of the dialogue, animations and music cues was extremely refined. So it’s quite a shame that the special edition manages with almost uncanny consistency to fuck up the pivotal moment(s) in every cut-scene.

Tedious examples:

1. Guybrush starting to strip off to put on his fancy dress costume is the setup to him standing partly disrobed and blushing, an effect that’s absent from the ‘enhanced’ version.

2. The grave-robbing scene works in the original game because Guybrush’s gesture of triumph (and pants falling down) are only revealed when lightning illuminates the scene, lost here by the lighting being fudged.

3. The dream sequence is denied its shock dramatic climax by removing the jump-cut from the red-tinted dream world to normally-lit reality (replacing it with a slow fade effect that diffuses the tension and makes no narrative sense).

4. Any scene which involves ‘speeded up’ action for comedic (or simply time-saving) effect, such as nailing Stan into the coffin, reviving Rapp Scallion, or playing the Wheel of Fortune game, inexplicably plays these animations at a crawlingly slow speed. I can only imagine how infuriating this would make the latter puzzle if the player didn’t know the solution in advance.

None of these things would have been difficult to get right. These are the parts of the game that players remember as being funny and cinematically well observed, and not the script, which even the biggest Monkey Island fan would concede is mostly doggerel and filler.

What LucasArts should have given us was a restoration of Monkey Island 2, not a remake shorn of its contemporary strengths. The backgrounds could have been repainted (rendered, photographed…) with the full range of modern tools, instead of aiming for the bar set by late-1990s point and clickers. Characters could have been redrawn in Purcell’s art style – and if traditional cel is too expensive to animate, stylised renders would do, as long as they looked like ink and paint instead of something out of an early PS2 game.

As the game has made LucasArts a ton of money regardless of these issues, I doubt anything will ever get done about them, but I hold out hope that perhaps some hobbyist will import the good bits of the special edition into SCUMMVM, while trimming out the worst of the broken bits.

Phew. I’m glad to finally get that rant off my chest, and promise to now stop boring innocent people with it at industry functions.

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