By Jeremy Parish

The adventure genre: One of gaming’s oldest and most established formats, it dates all the way back to the 1970s and early ’80s, where it was defined by primal landmark creations: Zork! Mystery House! Colossal Cave Adventure! Throughout the ’80s, the genre was refined and perfected through games like King’s Quest and Maniac Mansion. As for the ’90s, well, they turned out to be a transitional period for the genre. As it happens, this week’s Limited Run Games lineup offers a perfect window into how adventure games evolved in the first half of that decade.

Between The Secret of Monkey Island, Star Wars: Rebel Assault, and realMyst, this week’s selections provide a succinct summary of the adventure genre’s ’90s reinvention in a nutshell. We’ll dig into realMyst in an upcoming post. Plus, Monkey Island and Rebel Assault pair up neatly. Both came to us from developer LucasArts. Both are coming to you again, courtesy of Limited Run Games, in their Sega CD incarnations—complete with fresh, minty reproductions of the system’s notoriously fragile longbox cases. And both represent very different facets not only of LucasArts, but also of the way adventure games evolved to embrace the technological changes brought about by the advent of the CD-ROM format. 

The Secret of Monkey Island

Revered as one of the all-time greats of the adventure genre, The Secret of Monkey Island has been revised and remade several times throughout the years. In fact, this 1992 Sega CD release was noticeably different than the 1990 PC game that originally introduced Monkey Island to the world! LucasArts’s first release of the game appeared on home computers with limited color capabilities, and it ran off low-capacity floppy diskettes. From a technical standpoint, it was a masterpiece of making the most of difficult constraints; the small team behind the game converted some beautiful hand-drawn and -painted artwork down into 16-color images suited for EGA-standard computer displays, yet it never once felt compromised. On the contrary, many fans prefer the older, low-resolution version of the game to the more detailed visuals that came later.

LucasArts remastered The Secret of Monkey Island several times immediately following its initial release. First, they expanded its artwork to make use of a 256-color palette a few months after its 1990 debut. In 1992, they ported the PC game to CD-ROM, upgrading its music along with its visuals (and doing away with the need to switch out floppy disks). Finally, there were the console adaptations, which included the Sega CD version that shipped around the same time as the CD-ROM remaster. It splits the difference between the 16-color and 256-color versions. Sega’s console was capable of outputting 64 colors at once, so while this version looks less vibrant than the top-of-the-line contemporary version, it still looks great. And it sounds great, too, carrying over all the enhancements of the CD-ROM remake.

Tech and visual tweaks aside, one thing remains consistent across all versions of Monkey Island: The utterly ridiculous amount of content, puzzles, personality, and humor its creators stuffed into it… even in the original diskette version. The creative leads on Monkey Island—Ron Gilbert, Dave Grossman, Tim Schafer, and Steve Purcell—approached the game as a pastiche and satire of Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride. That seems especially fitting now that Disney now owns the LucasArts catalog, but it’s always been a fun premise. Players take control of an aspiring adventurer named Guybrush Threepwood, a young man whose confidence is matched only by his cluelessness and propensity for stumbling into trouble with the burly scalawags of Melee Island. 

“Out-of-his-depth nebbish stumbles his way through needless danger” is pretty much a cliché of animated comedy at this point, but remember that Monkey Island originally shipped a good five years before Pixar (the number-one purveyors of the trope) made its theatrical debut with Toy Story! This game is one of the definitive texts for the concept, and its writing and jokes remain every bit as sharp today as they were 30 years ago. Guybrush may be ill-suited for the pirate’s life, but he’s got a quick wit when it comes to flinging snarky remarks at large men with short tempers. The most famous scene in the game is its inventive “insult swordfighting” sequence, co-written by novelist Orson Scott Card, wherein Guybrush attempts to gain the upper hand in sword combat by using devastating remarks to lower his opponent’s guard. Like the rest of the game, it’s creative, unique, and hilarious. And it’s exactly the sort of madcap material that makes Monkey Island worth your time all these years later.

Star Wars: Rebel Assault

Where The Secret of Monkey Island stands at the pinnacle of the classic adventure game, there’s no reasonable definition by which you could categorize Star Wars: Rebel Assault in the same genre. It’s an action game at heart, and while it covers many different gameplay modes, it’s primarily a shooting game/target gallery in the classic arcade tradition. Think Revolution X, except with John Williams music instead of Aerosmith

Be that as it may, Rebel Assault still speaks to the direction adventure games had begun moving in the 1990s. The arrival of the CD-ROM format, which offered hundreds of times more storage capacity than diskettes and cartridges, invited developers to take advantage of its capabilities—not just for its massive capacity for data, but also for its ability to stream video and audio. The adventure genre began to change drastically in response to this new format; after all, adventure games typically emphasize story, and CD-ROM opened up an all-new way to present those stories. Both live footage and animation became tentpoles of the adventure genre. The medium suddenly became a star-studded affair as celebrities ranging from Christopher Walken to Burgess Meredith performed in front of a green screen to be inserted into video game cut scenes.

The downside to this baked-in footage, of course, was that it lacked interactivity. As the volume of pre-recorded content increased, CD-ROM adventure games grew more limited and, some critics complained, more simplistic. There’s a pretty thin boundary between the new wave of “interactive movie” adventure games that arrived in the ’90s and pure action games like Rebel Assault. For example, the shooting portions of Hideo Kojima’s Snatcher, which broke up that game’s deliberate adventure scenes, were the same kind of pop-up target gallery you find throughout Rebel Assault. Of course, Rebel Assault lacks anything in the way of real player agency; it’s all shooting, all the time. You can sometimes switch between different paths through the game, but all those paths consist of pre-rendered footage that you travel through automatically. The point of Rebel Assault isn’t about taking control of a dynamic story as in, say, Star Wars Galaxies; it’s about gunning down as many Imperial targets as you possibly can without crashing into the walls of Beggar’s Canyon or the Death Star trench along the way.

Even more than that, the point of Rebel Assault is that, well, it’s Star Wars. To fully appreciate the appeal of this game, you need to cast yourself back into the world as it was in 1993. The most recent Star Wars movie at the time, 1983’s Return of the Jedi, was a decade old. The last episode of original Star Wars media—the Ewoks cartoon—had concluded its televised Saturday morning run at the end of 1986. Although there had been a handful of tabletop games, comics, video games, and novels since then, Star Wars was largely a thing of the past. Nevertheless, fans continued to be incredibly enthusiastic about that galaxy far, far away.

Rebel Assault was like rain at the end of a long drought. Featuring more than an hour of Star Wars footage, mostly new (though some had been transplanted from the films), the game treated long-suffering fans to the sights and sounds of the movies, along with new characters, scenarios, and voiced dialogue. Most of the new material consisted of animated footage, some of it hand-drawn in a more photorealistic take on the LucasArts house style. Much of it was computer-rendered—and that includes the playable character, Rookie One, who occasionally hops out of his X-Wing fighter to shoot at Stormtroopers on foot. For every Star Wars fan who had waited years to experience more adventures in their favorite fictional universe, Rebel Assault was a welcome sight (and sound!)… and it would open the doors to even more ambitious works of interactive Star Wars entertainment, including Dark Forces and Jedi Knight.

There’s no question that, as a game, Rebel Assault feels awfully dated. But, as with our previous Star Wars classic reissues, it has tremendous value as a time capsule. It’s a look back into the early ’90s, before anyone could even begin to conceive of games that look like modern triple-A titles running at 4K resolution. Back then, the interactive movie adventure looked like it might be the future of gaming. As a result, more traditional works like Monkey Island fell out of fashion in favor of the flashier, more cinematic approach hinted at by Rebel Assault. The great thing about these Sega CD reissues arriving together is that, unlike pundits and consumers of the ’90s, you don’t have to pick one or the other; they’re both here and ready to be played, relived, and enjoyed. 

Provided you still have a Sega CD hooked up, that is. You do have a Sega CD hooked up, right…?

Image credit: mobygames.com

[The Secret of Monkey Island Classic Edition | The Secret of Monkey Island Premium Edition | Star Wars: Rebel Assault Classic Edition | Star Wars: Rebel Assault Premium Edition]

February 28, 2020