I love The Curse of Monkey Island. It’s easily one of my all-time favourite games. However, there’s always been a reference in it that I’ve been missing out on until this year. When walking into Blondebeard’s Chicken Shoppe on Plunder Island, there is someone sitting at a table labelled as a “quiet patron.” This skeletal patron is wearing a button, and upon further investigation the button says “Ask me about Grim Fandango,” a reference to the “Ask me about LOOM” sales pitch conversation from the original Secret of Monkey Island. He also bears more than a passing resemblance to Grim Fandango’s protagonist, one Manuel Calavera. He also happens to have a knife embedded in his back.
Until this year, I hadn’t had the opportunity to play Grim Fandango for myself, as the game has been commercially unavailable in stores for over a decade. Finally, in 2015, Grim Fandango has been re-released and remastered with an additional director’s commentary, updated graphics, and tweaked controls. While it would have been nice to have had a more complete remaster which included reformatting and updating the world to suit widescreen monitors, the original joy of Grim Fandango continues to shine through thanks to the excellent characters, brilliant voice acting, and hilarious dialogue. Just be prepared to have a walkthrough handy if you’ve never played it before.
Grim Fandango is set in the Land of the Dead; the place where we all end up after our mortal lives have been extinguished. Manuel “Manny” Calavera is a travel agent at the Department of Death, who helps to usher people from the Land of the Living on their four year journey across the Land of the Dead, with the ultimate aim of reaching the Ninth Underworld (the Land of Eternal Rest). Manny, however, cannot leave himself, because as penance for his sins he has to work off his debt by selling travel packages to the newly deceased. It’s never explained what Manny did during his life, and Manny himself confesses he doesn’t know what sin he committed, which is a neat touch to leave a portion of his personality shrouded in mystery.
Manny is on the lookout for a saintly figure to whom he can hopefully sell a ticket on the Number Nine express train to the Ninth Underworld, and thinks he’s found one when he intercepts the details of one Mercedes “Meche” Colomar. However, the Department’s computer system says she isn’t eligible for anything. Along the way of trying to correct this injustice, Manny is drawn into a tangled web of intrigue, revolution, and organized crime across the game’s four acts. The overarching plot of Grim Fandango isn’t as memorable as the individual moments that comprise it; whilst it does propel the characters along fine for the most part, you’ll occasionally have to read a plot summary to remind yourself what’s going on.
To be true, the real nugget of Grim Fandango’s lasting appeal is the character conversations. Manny is a nice, well-rounded protagonist whose friendship with the engine-obsessed demon Glottis is heartwarming and romantic relationship with Meche is always charming. Glottis himself could easily have appeared scary, but he’s actually a loveable soul. Other characters, such as the leader of the revolution Salvador Limones, or nightclub owner Olivia Ofrenda, have equally well-developed personalities and interests. The jokes and quips haven’t damped with age, and the strength of the writing still shines just as brightly. The apex of the game is definitely Act 2, set in the Casablanca-esque city of Rubacava. With Manny dressed Humphrey Bogart-style in a white tuxedo, you can explore most of the art deco city at your will, from the high roller casino to the sailor’s tattoo parlour, where a hard-drinking Seaman Naranja is having some scrimshaw work done.
Graphically, there are two styles to choose from: original or remastered, which can be switched between at any time. These update all animated objects in the world, including characters or moving elements, to be in higher resolution without any of the obvious pixilation. The updated graphics are good and blend well with the old backgrounds for the most part, except for some occasional inconsistent shadowing. However, the pre-rendered backgrounds remain the same in both modes, and also remain resolutely in 4:3 aspect ratio. Whilst there is an option to stretch the image to fit your screen, it is definitely recommended you play in 4:3, otherwise everything looks unnaturally fat. It would have been great if work could have been done to really fix the game so it displayed correctly in widescreen, but this was probably an insurmountable challenge given the time available. Nonetheless, the craftsmanship that went into the old backgrounds is still clearly apparent, from the looming zeppelin hanging over Rubacava to the Department of Death’s Aztec designed exterior.
The music has been rerecorded with a full orchestra, and it sounds simply fantastic. The smoky jazz that plays as you wonder Rubacava is straight out of On The Waterfront, and the big band that enlivens the Nuevo Marrow casino helps to set the mood perfectly. The developer commentary is also handled very neatly, in a similar way to how it was implemented in previous LucasArts re-release Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge Special Edition. When standing in a certain part of the world, you can press a key and hear a snippet of conversation about a particular aspect of the game’s design, or a funny anecdote relating to the development process.
Time has not been so kind to Grim Fandango’s puzzles, which range from the obtuse to obscure. It may sound bizarre to recommend playing with a walkthrough, but I genuinely advise it. There are one or two silly sections, such as the repetitive Petrified Forest fiery beaver puzzle, which will leave you scratching your head in frustration. That said, Grim Fandango has never been about enjoying puzzles, and if you come looking for good ones you’ll mainly be left empty-handed. The game has always been about the characters and the dialogue, and they more than make up for any gameplay shortcomings. A proper point-and-click interface has also fixed the majority of the problems with the oft-bemoaned tank controls, meaning you can get through almost the whole game without touching the keyboard. There are also one or two other elements that might catch modern audiences out, such as the lack of an auto-save and Manny’s ridiculously cumbersome inventory, but these are really niggling issues.
I’m delighted to say that Grim Fandango was, and still is, a classic. It’s never going to mean to me what The Curse of Monkey Island does, but it’s a smart, slick, stylish adventure game with a fantastic cast, excellent voice acting and a brilliant setting. So long as you have a walkthrough handy to get through some of the more bizarre puzzles, the allure of the Eighth Underworld will continue to call, hopefully for many more decades to come.