Review by Seth (2012-05-29)
A review of the music of TSoMI
LucasArts' saga of graphic adventures from the 90s are praised for their quality in all departments (design, gameplay, graphics, sound, etc.), and obviously that was only possible by gathering a staff of very talented desginers, programmers, artists and musicians. In this last case, Michael Land's talent is unquestionable. You only have to listen to his soundtracks to appreciate it.
What's the thing with the MI soundtrack? It's plain neat. Take the Opening Theme, for example. We have a great melodic work: the musical motif takes its time to develop itself (not like those dull "loop-till-you-drop" 8-note melodies that pass as "music" nowadays on the radio), and it's beautifully crafted. The instruments and the rhythm are caribbean and reggae-like, which is the first contrast that the game uses, since reggae is a contemporary type of popular music and has nothing to do with Modern Age pirates.
Land's classical background is obvious in the way the arrangements are done (the most beautiful of all being the ones in The Curse of Monkey Island main theme): most musical motifs are played by a particular instrument, which is answered by another one that repeats the same idea, but with a twist. There are crescendo parts and relief codas, which musicians use to build up tension and emotion, or to dismiss them. The importance of tension and relief in a game like MI can't be stressed enough. Why? Because we are dealing with a game that is about humour and satire.
Then, why is the main theme of MI so serious? It's done in a minor scale (in music, this is a set of notes that tend to sound sad, dramatic or nostalgic), and if you listen to its "part B" only, not knowing anything about the story you would think this was a very serious game indeed. And that is just the point: contrast. The introduction of MI is very gloomy and epic (think of the dark island, with travelling clouds in the moonlight, and the nostalgic theme in the background)… a minute later, we are dealing with a blind watchman.
The scene wouldn't have been so funny if not for an introduction sequence that was very serious and dramatic. The humorous role of music here (and in many other parts of the games) is to build up tension and contrast to make the jokes even funnier. Then comes the relief and clowny bits, when music just plays along with the overall goofiness. Land and Gilbert got this from the very beginning, and they got it right.
Apart from some tunes that are not so momentous (the watchtower theme, for example), the rest of the tunes are also great: LeChuck's is dark and grotesque; the SCUMM bar theme is moody, and playful (like its drunk customers)… MI2 expanded the soundtrack and turned it even more cinematic with the addition of the iMUSE engine, so that every theme would play at the exact time, and accompany the player's actions.
The MI franchise is of the very few game sagas that have soundtracks so well written that they are really worthy of being listened to all by themselves, and that are, in my opinion, works of art in a sense. They have a concept, which is very cleverly and beautifully developed by using the tools at the artists' disposal at the time. I'll always choose something like that, instead of spending every Tuesday online bringing down the same dragon, with hundreds of people dressed like elves but with names like "I-ROCK!", "SexyGirl89" or "Madrid_Rules".
Review by Mr Creosote (2002-10-07)
My name is Guybrush Threepwood. I want to be a pirate. What, you don't know what I'm talking about? Where have you been since 1990? The only excuse I will accept is this: searching treasure on a cut-off island with vegetarian cannibals, a hermit waiting to be rescued even though he has already built a boat and a giant monkey head.
But let's start at the beginning. Young Guybrush Threepwood (the name comes from DPaint where graphics were called brushes - thus, the file showing the unnamed protagonist was called guybrush.lbm and it stuck) lives in the Carribean of the good old swashbuckling days and his career plans are set: he wants to become a pirate. What would be a better place to start than infamous Mêlée Island?
It might be surprising to outsiders that being a pirate is not just a matter of sailing out and rob a few defenseless merchants. No, there is a whole highly structured cooperative which decides who's allowed to go pillaging and who's not. Unfortunately, all the pirates are scared to leave the island because of the ghost pirate Le Chuck cruising around and by now, the Grog (one of the basic food groups on Mêlée) is running out, so Guybrush gets his chance: he can call himself a pirate if he passes the three trials.
These are swordfighting (which is decided by witty insults and comebacks), treasure hunting (X marks the spot...) and stealing. In the last trial, Guybrush runs across Gouvernor Elaine Marley, falls in love with her on first sight, but his old problem kicks in: he can't talk to women. And to make matters worse, Le Chuck kidnaps her to marry her himself. The fresh pirate has to gather a crew, get a ship and sail after the ghost ship to Monkey Island....
To find another game with such a high jokes-per-minute quota, such memorable characters (Stan, the Men Of Low Fiber, Captain Smirk, the Monkey Island Cannibals, Herman Toothrot, Otis and many more) and locations (the Scumm Bar, the cannibals' prison), so many classic quotes ("No, but I have a barber called Dominique", "Whew, a rubber tree") is impossible. Even when you're stuck, you're still entertained to the best. In fact, playing it through straight would be a cardinal sin.
Fun is one thing, it still has to be playable. And Monkey Island is way more than that. It uses the classic point & click system with a preset selection of verbs and a text-based inventory to interact with the 'world' to the fullest extent - and in a pretty imaginative way. Where in a small town would you for example expect to find a file? In the general store? No, completely wrong. To tell you would spoil the fun for sinners who haven't played the game yet, so I'll just tell you you'll understand what I mean when you've seen it
The graphics are not the best what can be done with the classic Amiga, but for the standard of 1990, they're incredible and today, they're still top class. And music-wise, the Le Chuck theme beats everything I've heard in computer games in my whole life - I even recorded it once to listen to it continuously. There is something for everyone's flavour, mainly Reggae-inspired - it's the Carribean after all
I could rave on forever about the obvious positive qualities of the game, but there is another, not so obvious fact which makes Monkey Island stand out significantly: the lack of 'negative qualities'. You can't die. Well, technically you can in one scene, you'll drown after being under water for more than 10 minutes. Big deal to avoid that, huh? You will never run into a dead end because you haven't picked up something pixel-sized an hour before or because you've said something wrong to the right person. You will not be forced to waste your time with boring mazes (at least not - as Guybrush puts it - without a guide or a map). Don't laugh - some companies never learned this lesson.
The Secret of Monkey Island is a revolutionary game. Not in every aspect: it is based on the famous SCUMM system of the older Lucasfilm (this is the last game made under that company name) games (Maniac Mansion, Zak Mc Kracken, Indiana Jones 3). The revolution was in game design.
Granted, the Adventures by the same company before had always been good but Monkey Island was (and is) better. Lead designer Ron Gilbert once said in an interview they had learned a lot from their earlier projects (especially Indy 3 which they had to make after first planning Monkey Island) and put that experience into action here. That is obviously true - the quality jump is unbelievable. Gags, story and puzzles are almost perfectly balanced, but that's not everything - by avoiding almost all design sins, Monkey Island became the first perfect Adventure in history.
Note: The provided demo isn't just a small part of the game, but it is made of completely unique puzzles and slightly changed settings which you won't find in the full version. A must-see!