Why does Return to Monkey Island look worse than its 32-year-old prequel?

Return to Monkey Island's visuals have let the franchise down. We rank the titles by their artistic brilliance (and blandness).

Curse of Monkey Island art

Monkey Island is back! The LucasArts adventure game series is set to return this year, with the release of its sixth instalment, Return to Monkey Island. The gameplay reveal trailer has got fans all worked up – and not all for good reason. Return’s art style has caused such a furore that lead developer Ron Gilbert has pledged not to post about the game anymore.

Now, many are saying that art is subjective – but it’s not – which is why no one ever makes that remark about Michelangelo’s David (because it’s good). To illustrate this point, I’ve compiled the Monkey Island games in rank order of their art style, from best to worst, in an entirely empirical, unobjectionable and exhaustive list.

1. The Secret of Monkey Island (1990) 

The Secret of Monkey Island art

The Secret of Monkey Island’s art used hand painted works converted to pixels

Inspired by Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean theme park ride, this is the game which birthed a series now 32 years old and counting. The moment-to-moment gameplay was pixel art, which was then serviceable and is now aged, but it still appeals as an oldy-worldy artefact. The pixel art was always an abstraction for what computers simply couldn’t render at that time.

The game shines in dialogue and in cutscenes, where hand painted characters evoke more emotion and warmth than any 8K texture could ever hope to. It also boasts of unapologetically heroic box art by Steve Purcell, and came with a physical code wheel for copy protection, dial a pirate, which has been digitally recreated for posterity here.

2. The Curse of Monkey Island (1997) 

Curse of Monkey Island art

The Curse of Monkey Island ditched the pixel art

The series’ third outing went Full Throttle and left the pixel art for dust. Curse has the charm of a classic Disney film (remember those?).  This time around there are stunning set pieces featuring besieged forts, demonic rollercoasters, and volcanic eruptions, all brilliantly animated and bursting with vim and vigour.

Unfortunately, our protagonist Guybrush has been reincarnated as a gangly thing – there’s not enough meat on those bones – but if you can see the trees through the Threepwood, an audio-visual Odyssey awaits.

3. Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge (1991)

Monkey Island 2 LeChuck's Revenge art

The second istalment of the franchise was akin to a band’s disappointing second album

The disappointing second album. Revenge again features pixel art characters, living in a hand-painted world, but to its detriment largely forgoes the more intimate dialogue and cutscene instances of the first game. Writer and programmer Dave Grossman described the game as an “interactive cartoon” which is a good summing up, but unlike Curse, it’s more breakfast cartoon than Hercules.

The spirit of the game is much more cynical, cartoonish, and whacky. You feel less like a pirate and more like a contestant on a madcap gameshow – which was the intention – but it succeeds in its intent to its own detriment.

4. Escape from Monkey Island (2000)

Escape From Monkey Island Art

Escape From Monkey Island brought the game’s graphics into the third dimension

Whoever decided that Guybrush’s lower legs should be this thin is a jerk. This fourth instalment takes the series into the third dimension for the first time. The fidelity of the characters is low, and the textures are dismal and one-note. But because the game uses pre-rendered and stylistic backgrounds, it holds up better than most products of the early noughties. Colossus clouds and starry night dominate the skies, creating the sense that the player is caught in a dreamscape – appropriate since the game was easy to forget and made no sense at all.

5. Tales of Monkey Island (2009) 

Tales from Monkey Island Art

Tales from Monkey Island made Guybrush look ugly

If beauty is a descriptor for that which we are pleased to contemplate, then this game is ugly. The NPCs are ugly, the environments are ugly, and Guybrush is ugly. Some people have to be ugly in real life, so imagine their despair at having to be ugly in a game too. The ear ring, pony tail and goatee trifactor make Guybrush look like a zero-waste vegan shop owner with a penchant for Magic the Gathering and comic books. You do have to respect the bold design choice to make every NPC look like victims of the Oblivion character creation sliders though.

6. Return to Monkey Island (2022) 

Return To Monkey Island 2022 art

The newest instalment in the franchise has stolen the twinkle in Guybrush’s eyes and replaced it with a black hole

It’s fitting that what was inspired by Disney should be acquired and then killed by it. It’s the alpha and the omega, the circle of life, it’s like poetry – it rhymes! Return to Monkey Island can’t decide whether it wants to give me web advice for my SEO strategy, or sell me an in-app purchase on a pay-to-win mobile game. That’s because this art style could have been produced for any major corporation on the planet – it’s pathologically bland, interchangeable and typical of decades of convergence toward an uncreative monoculture.

The twinkle in the eye of 1990’s Guybrush has been extinguished, and substituted with a black hole, which is where these graphics would do well to disappear into. In a classic adventure game, there are no high-octane thrills or rapid twitch responses required, so the visuals have to do a lot of heavy lifting to carry a genre whose core gameplay loop involves getting stuck in the same spot for hours. Unfortunately, the only thing these visuals makes me want to return to, is the opticians. Interestingly, commentators have variously described these visuals as ‘perfect’, ‘wonderful’ and of course – ‘subjective’. If someone tells you that there is no such thing as truth, don’t believe them.

7. Escape From Monkey Island to The Bland Continent (2030)

alegria art style

The characters in Return mimic ‘Alegria’, an illustration style pioneered by Facebook, which has become short-hand for: multinational corporation. It depicts minimalist figures, often in motion, and having, as far as their featureless forms can convey, a good old time.

It brings me no joy to see Monkey Island swept away by global currents – but the fact the niche series has been shows nothing is safe. The entire art and media landscape is becoming plagued by endemic blandness, and a dearth of genuine artistic spirit.

The original Monkey Island game was made by a small team working directly out of Skywalker ranch. Steve Purcell and the developers settled on a style that channelled something like the spirit of old action serials and Errol Flynn films. Perhaps because of that distinct style, the series performed modestly in the US, and better in Europe.

But for Disney, and other conglomerates, that’s not enough. There is a burgeoning market in Asia, ripe for wallet pilfering. Characters then are uprooted from culture, and given purple faces, rectangle skulls, and soulless black eyes – this way they hope new markets can impose themselves onto characters – so that their products have ubiquitous appeal.

It’s an attitude central to global capitalism, which frets about alienating any segment of an audience by exerting any kind of stance, visage, or opinion, not a priori approved by the present zeitgeist. The end result is that all design meets at the intersection of maximalist prospects for profit. You know a Bollywood film by seeing it, but a Hollywood film takes place in the same realm as Return to Monkey Island – a globalist fantasy land where profit rules. Whether it’s a social media platform, a dating app, a video game, a cartoon, or an advert, it all looks the same. If it’s trite to quote Orwell, then I’ll conclude tritely.

“The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

Leave a Reply

More like this