Insult Sword Fighting is Monkey Island's most iconic puzzle. The point-and-click adventure series from LucasArts is undoubtedly one of the most famous games from the '90s, and it still serves as a best practice roadmap for organically weaving humor through world, puzzle, and combat design. While there are plenty of gags we could point to that best reflect the heart and comedy that runs through Monkey Island, Insult Sword Fighting is arguably the most beloved of the lot.
As Guybrush Threepwood travels along Melee Island in the Secret of Monkey Island, he has to spar with scores of pirates – but victory isn't dependent on fast finger reflexes, but rather your capacity to leverage a quick, biting quip. Threepwood has to spar with scores of pirates in a war of words, learning insults in preparation for a showdown with the Swordmaster. From there, he has to think on his toes, applying what he has learnt along the way against the Swordmaster, who is equipped with an entirely new set of put-downs.
The Secret of Monkey Island's Ron Gilbert and Tim Schafer recounted the origins behind Insult Sword Fighting to Retro Gamer magazine for issue 212 (opens in new tab), as part of a cover feature exploring the 30th anniversary of the Monkey Island series. With Gilbert announcing that a Return to Monkey Island is on the cards, we have reprinted the making of Insult Sword Fighting in anticipation of the series' return.
"You fight like a dairy farmer"
If you want to explore more fantastic stories from gaming's past, you should subscribe to Retro Gamer magazine (opens in new tab).
One of the major issues that director, codesigner, and writer Ron Gilbert had with rival point-and-click games from Sierra was how "they started to throw action" into their adventure games, with "arcade sections where you had to rely on quick reflexes to get through stuff."
To him, adventure games were about logic – an aspect that has carried through all of his games, before and since the 1990 classic released. Expectations for a pirate game be damned, he wasn't about to change his principles for The Secret of Monkey Island. "We had to have some sort of sword fighting in a pirate game, but I didn't want to do a twitch-type game, and that's where the insults worked perfectly, because now the sword fighting became puzzle-solving."
The eureka moment came during one of Gilbert's regular brainstorming sessions at the studio. On this occasion, he pulled the team together to watch old Errol Flynn-era pirate movies for inspiration. "One of the things that I noticed from watching those movies was how much time they spent talking to each other; how much time they spent insulting each other, and throwing barbs at each other. And it just seemed to me from watching those movies that it was really more about that than it was about actual sword fighting."
Tim Schafer, who served as codesigner and writer on Secret of Monkey Island, recalls the issue of sword fighting came up during one of the team's daily afternoon brainstorming sessions. "Those brainstorm sessions that Ron set up in the afternoon – I still always try and do those in the same way [at Double Fine] – we would be like, 'We're in this room, and we're not going to leave until we have two puzzles.'"
"How appropriate, you fight like a cow."
At the time, Schafer was still wondering what type of action mechanics the sword fighting sequences should follow. When Gilbert suggested replacing the action completely for a dialogue-based insult trade-off, Tim was worried people would feel really "ripped off" if they didn't actually get to sword fight.
"I was like, 'I don't know if people are going to like this insult sword fighting, because I think they're going to expect it to be like a Karateka sword fighting style: high attack, medium attack, low attack; high block, medium block, low block,'" Schafer remembers.
However, Gilbert went with his gut, in what turned out to be a visionary move. Schafer adds, "I think that was a really brave creative choice to make – I couldn't believe we were doing it. It was the right thing to do, for sure, and I didn't fight it for very long. I think those lessons from Ron about not being so scared about weird ideas that you haven't seen before, but in fact fighting for those exact ideas, was a lesson I've carried with me to this day."
We'll hope to see more Insult Sword Fighting in Return to Monkey Island when it launches in 2022. While information is light, we do know that Ron Gilbert will be directing the project, and that series co-creator Dave Grossman will be returning too – as will Dominic Armato, the fan-favorite voice of Guybrush Threepwood.
If you want in-depth features on classic video games delivered straight to your doorstop, subscribe to Retro Gamer (opens in new tab) today.