Let’s consider a conundrum facing point and click adventure games about pirates.

We might expect it to feature some sort of combat. Pirates led a fairly violent life after all. I mean “boarding ships and taking stuff” was pretty much their job description. Even if you don’t go down that route, because your pirate hero is actually kind of useless, there are other situations where he or she will end up in a scuffle. I imagine when there was a dispute over who drank all the grog, or which idiot got the ship stuck on a sandbar, it wasn’t resolved with reasonable discussion and a firm handshake.

That said, combat scenes never fit all that well into those adventures. When sitting down to play one, I would get into the mindset of methodical exploration, investigation and puzzle-solving. I would expect to walk into a room, survey the scenery, items and characters. Then try picking things up, talking to people, seeing if any items I have right now enable a useful interaction with anything I’m seeing now. All a nice relaxed pace, over a cup of tea.

What I wouldn’t want was to find myself suddenly mashing the keyboard, swinging a sword around. That would be jarring, an unwelcome change of pace. It’s a particularly poor fit for Lucasarts adventures, which aimed for a welcoming, stress free style of game where you can’t make errors. Over in Sierra where you could randomly fall down a trap door or get murdered by an angry troll at any moment, I suppose the danger of combat fits a bit better.

Looking at some Lucasarts games, he fistfights were (IMO) the least appealing part of Fate of Atlantis. They were wise to make this part entirely optional. Meanwhile Full Throttle gave us biker fights based on a basic system of hard counters (each weapon is very good against one other type). It wasn’t terrible but it dragged on a bit.

So how should a developer implement swashbuckling swordplay in a pirate game? For The Secret of Monkey Island, Ron Gilbert and co hit on a neat solution: turn the fighting into dialogue-based puzzles.

I’m sure many of you remember how it works. Combatant A insults B. B tries a clever response. If the response matches the insult, B wins that round and then fires off an insult of their own. If their answer falls flat, A wins. Overall victory goes to the winner of three or four rounds.

Thank you, mobygames.

The Monkey Island protagonist Guybrush Threepwood is kind of a dorky loser, and is not known for cutting wit. So you start off with a pitiful range of both insults and responses. As you roam the moonlit pathways of Melee island, you invariably blunder into aggressive, swaggering pirates. You will lose a lot, at first, but every new line that that your enemies speak is added to your own library. Soon you can humiliate and bellittle your way past any cutthroat on the island.

The really clever bit is when you have to fight the swordmaster, as part of three trials to prove yourself a proper pirate.  [puzzle spoiler follows!] Her set of insults is entirely different to anything you’ve so far encountered. This is initially bewildering and you may be swiftly knocked on your ass. If you pay attention though, you realise that you are not as defenseless as it seems. For each of her insults, one of your responses makes sense, just not in the way originally intended.

Before when a pirate said “My handkerchief will wipe up your blood!”, you would say “So you got that job as janitor, after all.” Well, that also works if you’re told “My name is feared in every dirty corner of this island!”

It’s just one of the ways that Monkey Island was such a clever, creative game, one of the all time finest of its kind.