The Greatest Graphical Adventure Games Ever Made

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Matt Barton's picture

The Secret of Monkey Island: A true classic?The Secret of Monkey Island: A true classic?I recently was visiting the Adventure Classic Gaming site and enjoyed a review of The Secret of Monkey Island, Gilbert's 1990 classic point-and-click that, for many people, represents the very pinnacle of the genre. While I have played all of the Monkey Island games and enjoyed each one immensely, I sometimes wonder if people don't seem a little too enthusiastic. For the same reason that I'd be dubious of someone who claimed that The Princess Bride or The Pirates of the Caribbean was the best movie ever made, I'm a bit leery of people who make similar claims about Monkey Island. Fun, definitely. Well crafted, sure. Classic--I agree. But I find that my list of the best GAGs looks much different from most that I've found on the net, mostly because I think a truly great GAG has to do more than amuse you.

For me, the best GAGs are the ones that suck you in, make you think, and change you somehow as a person. Other critics seem to think what matters is the popularity of the game. Don't get me wrong--I'm not saying that a great GAG can't also be entertaining. If it were boring, I probably wouldn't have the patience to sit through it. But a great GAG has to do more.

I also must take people to task who insist that an adventure game's quality depends entirely on its puzzles, and that stories and characters are ultimately irrelevant. Although I've played excellent games that did focus mostly on puzzles (Sentinel: Descendants in Time comes to mind), again I see no reason why these games wouldn't have been improved by a more compelling story and characters. So, in short, what I've done with the list below is try to think of games that I feel are, if not great, at least greater than the usual sorts of games one sees on these lists. Now, keep in mind I'm not basing this on which games are innovative or groundbreaking; I'm looking at these solely to see which were especially moving or compelling. Note that I haven't placed this in any special order; they are all great games that deserve attention.

Bad Mojo. In 1996, GotGame entertainment presented us with what appeared at first to be purely a gross-out title: Bad Mojo. You play as a character who has been transformed into a roach (echoes of Kafka's bizarre story "The Metamorphoses" and Burroughs' "Naked Lunch" are evident). Although the puzzles and gameplay are certainly innovative, what makes the game stand out are the unsettling ways the game depicts the depraved lives of poor, bitter people living in squalor. By the end of the game, your attitude towards the characters (including your avatar) changes dramatically, and I daresay you may be led to reflect on your own life as well. In short, Bad Mojo is a brutal game that I wouldn't dare play before breakfast, but it has appeal for anyone with a stomach for wit and taste for human depravity.

Beneath a Steel Sky. Revolution's 1994 masterpiece made the rounds on several platforms, though it's the Amiga version that I remember best. The overall look and feel of the game remind me most strongly of one of Terry Gilliam's darker films, particularly Brazil, but also with hints of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. What makes the game stand out is the intoxicating mix of dark humor and political satire, but what makes it all work are the great characters and writing. I was also consistently impressed with the great artwork, much done by the comic artist Dave Gibbons.

The Dig. Although LucasArts is certainly one of the most beloved and successful GAG developers of all time, it's usually not for this 1995 game based on ideas from Spielberg and Orson Scott Card. Essentially, it's a science fiction with many twists, but it mostly involves exploring an alien planet and discovering what destroyed them. However, what makes this game so strong is the rich interaction among the three characters, and the dramatic situations they find themselves in. It's fascinating to watch what happens as discipline erodes and desperation sets in among the characters. The Dig has always been one of my favorite GAGs.

Dreamfall: The Longest Journey. The first game in this series was 1999's The Longest Journey. Funcom was praised for the game, but it's one of those games that you really don't appreciate until you've played enough GAGs to really get a feel for the genre. It's flawed, but what it does right is does masterfully: namely, getting us to know a multifaceted character (April Ryan), seeing her through some very tough times, and learning a lot about ourselves as we go along. It's one of those rare games where the characters are more than just dialog boxes. However, it's really the sequel Dreamfall that really shows what Funcom can do. Again we're presented with well-developed, multi-faceted characters, an engrossing story, and a message that stays with you long after the game is over.

Gabriel Knight II: The Beast Within. I have a very soft spot in my heart for Jane Jensen's Gabriel Knight series, and although I greatly enjoyed all three, the one that I remember most is The Beast Within released in 1995. Many modern gamers might object to the use of full motion video or the somewhat clumsy animation, but rich rewards await those willing to give this game a fair chance. From the moment the game begins, the player is thrust into the middle of an exciting and dramatic story, and introduced to truly intriguing characters worthy of an emotional investment. Again we are presented with a compelling narrative, and it is truly an unfeeling individual who won't be affected by the pathos of the ending. After completing this game, I would strongly recommend the excellent third game, Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned, which has a somewhat more complicated interface (I actually think it's one of the best ever designed once you get used to it). I only wish Jensen would make one more Gabriel Knight game!

Syberia. B. Sokal's two Syberia games caused quite a stir among GAG fans, and even helped win new fans to the genre--and it's not hard to see why. Microid's Syberia is one of the best point-and-click adventures ever made, with an utterly enthralling setting, fiendishly clever puzzles, endearing characters, and a deeply moving story. The phrase I think best describes the game is "magical realism," where the fantastic exists alongside reality in a strange but revealing struggle. Sokal makes the most of this divide, showing us a gritty and bitter post WWII-Russia alongside amazing mechanical automatons. Much like with the Longest Journey, we are again presented with a character who is going through a very difficult transition, and it's hard to walk away from these games without a feeling that you have just been through a similar transformation. It's powerful and moving stuff. The "sequel" is really a continuation of the story; play them both and play them in order.

Myst IV: Revelation. When I first started my forays into graphical adventure games, I was not suitably unimpressed with Cyan's epic Myst series. My feeling was that they had been over-hyped, and too much had been made of their wonderful graphics enabled by the recent adoption of CD-ROM technology. It didn't help that Myst and especially Riven were so difficult that they left me feeling more frustrated than anything else. Years and nearly a hundred GAGs later, I am much more willing to acknowledge Cyan's genius for creating truly fantastic worlds. Indeed, Cyan stresses that they make worlds, not games, and this is not merely an advertising slogan. The appeal of these games is definitely in exploring their strange, surreal, and utterly captivating worlds. With Myst IV: Revelation, Cyan seems to have reached the pinnacle of GAG perfection. The graphics are breathtaking, the interface is highly intuitive, and the characters and story are just present enough to make the game compelling without breaking the spell. This game is about as close as I've ever come to actually feeling that I had been transported away from my computer and taken on the role of explorer/tourist in some exotic realm. I also greatly enjoyed Myst V: End of Ages, and sincerely hope Cyan isn't serious about putting this fine series to rest.

The Crystal Key 2. Although I was unimpressed with the first Crystal Key, which struck me as little more than a cash-in on the Myst craze, I was much more pleased with the sequel, which is distinct enough from the first game to make one question if the word "sequel" is really accurate. No doubt one reason why the one game is better is the involvement of Kheops Studios, whose other games are some of the most fun I've had with the genre (I'm thinking here particularly of Voyage and Return to Mysterious Island). While Crystal Key 2 offers good puzzles and fun characters, there is also a message here about war and environmentalism that pushes it into more serious territory.

Frankenstein: Through the Eyes of the Monster. Although some might consider Amazing Media's 1997 Frankenstein game little more than an effort to cash-in on the full-motion video craze of the mid 90s, they're missing out on a rich and quite invigorating title with much more to offer than gimmicks. The brilliant twist here is that the player plays as the monster, a perspective that radically changes how most people have experienced Mary Shelley's classic story. Although it is not perfect, it is hard to deny the disturbing and unsettling feeling this little gem inspires in the player. What does it mean to be human? How are the mind and body connected? Age-old questions, and they are explored here in exciting new ways. A masterful performance by Tim Curry certainly doesn't hurt, either.

So there you have it. These are the games that I would insist have more to offer gamers than simple fun, though there is plenty of that here, too. I think the list is probably more revealing for what's not on it that for what is--for instance, you don't see Monkey Island, Loom, Day of the Tentacle, Sam & Max Hit the Road, any of the King's Quest or Space Quest series, or Grim Fandango--games that I like or even love but not in the same way as the ones above. No doubt, some people will simply not understand why I don't consider these "great" in the same way as The Dig or Syberia is great. What I would encourage you to do is try some of the above games with the same mindset you might approach a classic novel or critically acclaimed movie. It's not going to be all "shits and giggles," but you may come away the better for it.

Comments

Amy Mason (not verified)
I haven't been able to

I haven't been able to finish Syberia yet, but I have to agree with you. There is something to be said for a game with deep story and something a little more serious than the used boat salesman. I actually enjoy Secret of Monkey Island, but I don't quite see why it got the term "Classic" and some of the others didn't. Thanks for helping me addd more games to my list of must plays.

Bill Loguidice
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Monkey Madness
Amy Mason wrote:

I haven't been able to finish Syberia yet, but I have to agree with you. There is something to be said for a game with deep story and something a little more serious than the used boat salesman. I actually enjoy Secret of Monkey Island, but I don't quite see why it got the term "Classic" and some of the others didn't. Thanks for helping me addd more games to my list of must plays.

I think there is one simple reason why the Monkey Island games, particularly the first one, are so fondly remembered and put into the class of "legendary": humor. There have been plenty of dramatic games, but games that are genuinely laugh-out-loud funny are exceptionally rare. When something is a great example of its genre - as Monkey Island certainly is - AND has genuine comedy with memorable characters, the fact that it's a classic and held in such high regard really is not that hard to understand.

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Bill Loguidice, Managing Director
Armchair Arcade, Inc.
(A PC Magazine Top 100 Website)
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Matt Barton
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Monkey Island
Bill Loguidice wrote:

I think there is one simple reason why the Monkey Island games, particularly the first one, are so fondly remembered and put into the class of "legendary": humor. There have been plenty of dramatic games, but games that are genuinely laugh-out-loud funny are exceptionally rare. When something is a great example of its genre - as Monkey Island certainly is - AND has genuine comedy with memorable characters, the fact that it's a classic and held in such high regard really is not that hard to understand.

I completely agree with Bill here. I like them all, but the first Monkey Island game really holds together even today. There's just something likable about the game and characters like Guybrush Threepwood. It's no coincidence I used movie comparisons like The Princess Bride and Pirates of the Caribbean. I see the same sort of thing in those movies; they're silly, sure, and should not be taken seriously. On the other hand, they are good entertainment, and people enjoy quoting lines from them and re-watching them from time to time. However, I would laugh aloud if I heard somebody say, "You know, The Princess Bride really changed my life." C'mon, dude. The thing is, there are GAGs out there (see above) that can do precisely that, but people new to the genre are automatically pointed to Monkey Island, King's Quest, Sam & Max, Broken Sword, etc. and never get to experience the more serious side of the genre. It'd be like someone new to movies who was shown The Princess Bride but never Lord of the Rings, and had no idea that kind of movie even existed.

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yakumo9275
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my views... are confused...

Im more a traditional text adventure guy but for GAGS, the ones that really blew me away, Future Wars, Zak McKracken, Gold Rush (imo the best sierra adventure, admittedly was by non sierra people!), morteville manor, lure of the temptress

its hard to really pin this down for me, as I've played through since Transylvania on the apple and up. Sometimes I dont want to draw a line between graphical IF and GAGS. Then I start wthinking well Flashback rocked and its a graphical adventure... or close enough.. and then I start thinking about old cinnamaware titles like sinbad and defender of the crown.

then I just get all confused because I didnt like beneath a steel sky and thought monkey island was just nice but it was no zak...
(and I thought day of the tentacle was awefull)...

-- Stu --

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