As you may be able to tell from my main image, I am a fan of the Monkey Island series. I’ve played and enjoyed plenty of other classic point-and-click adventures along my gaming path but Guybrush, Elaine and of course Murray’s outings remain amongst the top of my all-time favourites. (Yes, I know Murray arrived in the third game and technically not in the ‘classics’.)
How excited I was then to discover that Ron Gilbert, the brain behind the Might Pirate™ was returning to his roots (albeit without his Lucasfilm Games buddy Tim Schafer, but instead alongside Gary Winnick of Maniac Mansion fame – a game I criminally missed out on) with his brand-new title Thimbleweed Park. Studying early screenshots of this new adventure alongside one of the pair’s older games would birth some challenge in separating old from new to the untrained eye – which for many in this case, myself included, brought huge excitement.
The graphics, the inventory system and the gameplay mechanics all barely distinguishable. The sight of words like ‘Look at’, ‘Pick up’ and ‘Use’ in 2017 instead of mapping them all to certain keys or buttons was like travelling back in time and so it would carry through to the game’s release. However, we are talking about a genre of game that has effectively been dead for 20 years, so would it hold up in today’s market?
The answer is a definite YES! I can’t speak for newcomers but based on the critical reception the game has received since launch you can only assume that adventurers young and old have enjoyed their retro tale in a far more pixelated world then they are used to. The puzzles are what you’ll be mulling over for the bulk of the game, and they are an absolute success. Wacky and original but usually simple yet challenging enough to figure out, saving us the horrendous situation we’ve all faced of desperately using every single item with anything we can in the hope something will finally work. Having said that, there were a few occasions in which I was seemingly hopelessly stuck only to stumble across the solution through dumb luck, discovering that it was forehead-slappingly obvious in the first place.
The characters, of which there are five main ones, are diverse and amusing enough but not the highlight of the game. The funniest without doubt being Ransome the *beeping* clown, with teenage Delores kind of a bore sometimes and the two federal agents not offering too much diversity between each other. Franklin, Dolores’ Father, is certainly much more diverse but for reasons I can’t go into for spoiler-y reasons (although you can see him in a lot of promotional images for the game). Switching between the five is thankfully instantaneous and easy, although these strangers do seem happy to give each other stuff they’ve found without batting an eyelid, and never question why they are all heading in the same direction.
The minor characters definitely add character and charm-a-reno to Thimbleweed Park, including a former watch-repairman turned drunken hobo, a postal worker with an endless supply of crap jokes, two costumed sisters calling themselves the Pigeon Brothers and a voodoo lady (of course). The town itself is easy to navigate thanks to maps that you can (once solving the puzzle) interact with at anytime to fast travel, and it has that lovely sleepy neon 80s vibe about it. One exceptional feature that quietly thrusts the game into the modern day is the ease of manoeuvrability as well as a much quicker walking pace, that is sorely lacking in some older titles.
Now the humour is on the whole a big hit, with many odd-ball and random quirks to events keeping the player amused, as well as plenty of famous fourth-wall smashing asides (the tickbox in the options to have toilet roll go under or over a particular favourite). A large basis for the jokes however, and my biggest gripe of the game is indeed the relentless throwback to former games. It’s clearly very deliberate and to say it’s on-the-nose is an understatement. It doesn’t just happen once or twice therefore it eventually becomes quite tedious. I was expecting callbacks and references, maybe the odd “fine leather jacket” here and “you’re playing a video game by the way” there but it almost feels like they are relying on the references and their history so much that this game isn’t able to stand on its own two feet. This is a fantastic game, and would have been so without a single reference, but the nail is hammered so hard that my enjoyment slightly crumbles around it, culminating in an ending that is not very imaginative and slightly disappointing (although the final puzzle itself is excellent and hypocritically VERY 2017).
(EDIT: The developers have now in fact included an option to remove the ‘annoying in-jokes’! Clearly I wasn’t the only one who felt frustrated by this, but I do hope that at least some are left in because they can be funny)
This game raised the question in my mind then whether we should keep moving forward with new mechanics or occasionally hark back to what we once loved about the our preferred medium. I have spoken about remasters before, but I’m talking now specifically about the sort of classic reminder we have here with Thimbleweed Park. Is there a place in our library for a new old-school (oxymoron alert!) selection of games? Shovel Knight would certainly say so, and Undertale also springs to mind. Advancing technology is always in the best interest for us videogame enthusiasts but I don’t think these callbacks are harmful in any way. What the best ones achieve so effortlessly, like the titles mentioned, is integrating modern mechanics without us even knowing. Let’s face it, if Super Mario Bros was released for the first time today then no one would give it a second look with its basic structure, repetitive level design and lack of real progression. But it’s the ultimate classic that newer games can only hope to emulate because it had that key ingredient for any successful game – it was fun and accessible for its time.
Keeping the new games fresh yet nostalgic is key, yet it’s such a demanding and integral feat to pull off. Keeping new and old fans happy is a thankless task, and perhaps why such great modern classics are so few and far between.
Speaking of moving forward (even if I wasn’t) I am now on Twitter and Instagram! If there’s anyone here who has got this far and enjoyed what you’ve seen then give me a follow or a like or a pat on the metaphorical back then please do so. I’m looking to add much more varied content include videos and such like in the future!
Twitter : @RandomSteaming