The Secret of Monkey Island (Lucasfilm Games) - 1990

This review is part of the “Let’s Adventure!” series. See all reviewed games sorted by rating here.

The Secret of Monkey Island is a 1990 point-and-click graphic adventure game developed and published by Lucasfilm Games.

Deep in the Caribbean lies Melee Island, ruled by the governor Elaine Marley. The cruel pirate LeChuck is deeply in love with her - so deeply that he refuses to accept his own death. As a ghost, he dwells with his undead crew somewhere near the mysterious Monkey Island. Meanwhile, a young fellow named Guybrush Threepwood is determined to become a real pirate. At the Scumm Bar, he meets three pirates who tell him he has to complete three difficult tasks in order to be worthy of this title. But as Guybrush is trying to complete these tasks, he encounters the lovely governor, and this meeting changes his life forever. Risking to incur the wrath of LeChuck, Guybrush has to prove his wit is as sharp as his sword, and figure out a way to foil the ghost pirate’s plans.1

Without pulling any punches I might as well just start off with the fact that this is possibly one of the best adventure games of all time. From the amazing soundtrack and excellent pixel art to the captivating story and the extremely forgiving game play, Secret of Monkey Island is extremely welcoming to anyone looking to get started with this genre of game.

Being an early SCUMM game you’re presented with a very familiar screen layout with the main view on top, a verb list in the lower left and inventory in the lower right. Moving the mouse cursor around the screen will call out any action areas you can interact with, and based on which verb is selected, you can perform said action on whatever you just clicked on.

As you progress on your quest to become a mighty pirate, you’ll find yourself picking up a lot of items. As a result, most puzzles in this game involve either completing fetch quests, or item combination puzzles.

The game typically points you in the right direction as to what you need to do next, which item you need or how things need to be combined so though it can be challenging at times, I never found the game to get frustrating.

Most characters in the game can be engaged with, opening up a conversation system with branching dialogue options. There are typically a number of nonsense options in each conversation that will are just a distraction, but the writing in this game is so good (and funny) that it’s almost worth exploring these even if you know you’re picking the “wrong” option.

Graphically this game is top notch, as can be seen in character portraits and background artwork. As a result you’re typically not just sweeping your cursor around the screen hoping to find some magic pixel to interact with - the detail of the backgrounds make whatever thing you’re supposed to interact with pretty apparent.

The Secret of Monkey Island introduces a unique battle mechanic, which is actually weirdly intuitive and easy to learn. One of the quests you need to embark on is to defeat the legendary swordmaster, but to do this you’ll need to build up a repertoire of insults.

“Battles” consist of you hurling an insult, and the other pirate either having a witty comeback or a generic comment (ex: “I am rubber you are glue”). If they have a comeback, they win a round and can insult you, and you need to “defend” with a comeback. If a pirate uses an insult in battle you haven’t learned, it’s added to your list of insults for future battles - as are the comebacks pirates have used.

If you match a comeback to an insult, you’ll win a round, and if you win 3 or 4 rounds you win the fight.

Eventually you’ll build up enough insults to challenge (and hopefully defeat) the legendary swordmaster. This is actually pretty interesting as she’ll lob insults you’ve never heard before but you can still successfully parry with comebacks you’ve already learned - assuming you pick the right ones.

This is just another example of how well this game is written, as so much care was put into crafting this battle system that they wrote multiple insults that would make sense (and sort of be funny) with the same comebacks.

I personally loved this game mechanic and am impressed it wasn’t overplayed. They really only use it in the lead up to the swordmaster fight - then never again. With such a unique element to the game it may have been tempting to overplay it, but you gotta give the designers credit for fighting that urge and making a really well balanced game.

The game is split into three main chapters, two of which take place on islands you can navigate from an overhead map view. This makes each area feel a lot bigger than it actually is, as there are typically a handful of actual locations to visit.

These locations are called out as you move your cursor over them, and clicking on them will make Guybrush walk there. In chapter 3 you eventually get access to a boat, which moves extremely slowly, but if you double click an area of the screen that’s further away from you he paddles quickly and the boat moves a lot faster.

I appreciated this type of optimization in the game as it can be tedious waiting for the character to slowly progress on the map just to give an area a false sense of scale.

As the story progresses you’ll prove yourself to be a mighty pirate, meet the governor, fall for her and then have to go rescue her once the Ghost Pirate LeChuck kidnaps her. This is done by recruiting a crew and buying a boat, but once you do this crew sort of abandons you to instead soak up some rays on the deck.

The bulk of this second chapter consists of you completing a massive item combination puzzle as the directions to Monkey Island are presented to you in the form of a recipe.

Everything you’ll need to get to the island are on the ship, so this giant fetch quest just involves searching the ship, picking up items, referring to the recipe (once you find it) to see what should get thrown in the pot - then throwing it in the pot.

Once the recipe is complete everyone on the ship falls asleep and you wake up off the shore of Monkey Island. How convenient!

Once you find Monkey Island you’ll need to get yourself there, but you don’t seem to have a rowboat. Good thing you learning how to fire yourself out of a cannon earlier in the game.

To me at least this was an example of good puzzle design, as you’d already learned how cannons could be used, and you happen to have a long piece of rope, embers from a fire, gunpowder and a pot you can use as a helmet …

There are only a few characters to meet on the island once you get there, but they drop some hints as to where LeChuck is and what they need from you. After embarking on another series of fetch quests, you’ll eventually get the key to enter the underground where LeChuck’s ghost ship is anchored.

From the ghost ship you retrieve the root and give it back to the cannibals so they can make you som root beer you can use to get rid of ghosts. When you bring the root back, the cannibals prepare the root beer, you return to the ghost ship and find out you just missed them.

LeChunk has taken Governor Marley back to Melee Island to marry her. Instead of having to manually backtrack, your crew appears at this point and after a brief cutscene you automatically return to Melee Island with them.

The final showdown with Lechuck is pretty easy, though you need to move quickly or he’ll punch you off screen and delay the fight. It’s kind of funny that you make it this far with the magic root beer, you go to use it on LeChuck and it gets jammed on some pocket lint.

Eventually you’ll grab a can of grog, spray LeChuck with it and the game will be over.

The End

I basically loved everything about this game. The writing was fantastic, the story was compelling, the puzzles were challenging but intuitive, the music was great, it’s visually appealing and the dialogue was engaging. If you’re already a fan of this game, I’d encourage you to go read the Video Game History Foundation’s 30th anniversary of Monkey Island article as it contains lots of development details and insights.

There are 2 sequels to this game that I plan on playing for this series, and I am really looking forward to getting to those. I know there’s a fourth game, but Escape from Monkey Island came out in 2000 so is just outside the range I set - though I might circle back to it one day just for fun.

The only game over in this game

Though this is a LucasArts game, there is exactly one game over screen in The Secret of Monkey Island, and it’s a bit of an easter egg. Right from the beginning of the game Guybrush mentions his talent is holding his breath for 10 minutes - which is something you’ll leverage at one point when you’re thrown in the ocean to drown.

You can easily just walk out of the water and escape certain death, but if you just let the game idle for more than 10 minutes, Guybrush will die. Unlike Sierra games of this era, instead of prompting you with a game over screen, the verb list changes to represent your new set of options.

This is just another example of the clever game design, excellent writing and underlying humor that permeates this title through and through. I would highly recommend this game to anyone - whether they’re a fan of the genre or not.

Game Information

GameThe Secret of Monkey Island
DeveloperLucasfilm Games
PublisherLucasfilm Games
Release DateOctober 1990
SystemsAmiga, Atari ST, CDTV, DOS, FM Towns, Mac OS, Sega CD
Game EngineSCUMM

My Playthrough

How Long To Beat?6.5 hours
Version PlayedDOS via ScummVM


See here for a refresher on how we’re scoring these games.

Atmosphere (20)18
Story (25)23
Experience (15)13
Impact (10)7


  1. Description from Moby Games 

This post is licensed under CC BY 4.0 by the author.

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