“Swordfighting is kinda like making love. It’s not always what you do, but what you say.” Anyone who’s played The Secret of Monkey Island is likely to recognise this smooth line from Captain Smirk and be familiar with insult-swordfighting.
For May’s EXP Share collaboration, DanamesX over at Tales from the Backlog is asking everyone to share a gaming-related thing that they’re good at or proud of. For example, are you great at identifying voice-actors without looking at the credits, do you hold a record for a speedrun or have you 100% completed a video game series? It’s none of these things for me – but what I can do is remember every insult response from the first Monkey Island release.
As Smirk himself continues: “Any fool pirate can swing a sharp piece of metal around and hope to cut something but the pros, they know just when to cut their opponent with an insult, one that catches ‘em off guard. You see, kid, your wit’s got to be twice as sharp as your sword.” Wannabe pirate Guybrush Threepwood must complete the Three Trials to fulfil his dream of becoming a buccaneer, one of which is to defeat the mighty Sword Master – but as his mentor teaches him, it’s more than just how you handle your weapon.
Our hero must track down opponents on the roads of Mêlée Island and challenge them to a duel to improve his skills. Sometimes they’ll shout an insult he has never heard before and so he’s forced to reply with a poor ‘I am rubber, you are glue’ before losing ground. It’s not necessarily a negative thing though: it means he now has a new line to test out on his next rival and, if they manage to respond successfully, he can add another move to his insult-swordfighting repertoire.
These lines are legendary among adventure gamers. The most well-known is ‘You fight like a dairy farmer’ because it’s one of the first Guybrush learns, but other favourites include ‘I’ve spoken with apes more polite than you’ and ‘People fall at my feet when they see me coming’. Throw one at a true Monkey Island fan and they’ll immediately counter with the correct retort: ‘How appropriate, you fight like a cow’, ‘I’m glad to hear you attended your family reunion’ and ‘Even before they smell your breath?’.
The reason I love the insult-swordfighting mechanic so much is because of how well it fits into both the Monkey Island world and adventure genre as a whole. It’s believable to see pirates duelling on the roads of an island somewhere in the Caribbean and the lines used perfectly sum up the humour that runs through the entire series. It’s such a great way of adding a touch of excitement to a point-and-click without resorting to a horrible action sequence or tedious minigame.
LucasArts captured the cerebral nature of an adventure game along with the thrill of a classic movie battle while letting us express our inner swashbucklers. The formula is mixed up later in the game when Guybrush is finally good enough to take on the Sword Master; you can’t just use the lines and responses you’ve already heard in the same way and instead must consider what would be the best comeback to her challenges. ‘How appropriate, you fight like a cow’ becomes the flawless retort for ‘I will milk every drop of blood from your body’.
The mechanic makes a reappearance in The Curse of the Monkey Island but with a twist. As explained by Rene Rottingham after he boards Guybrush’s ship: “On the sea we fight it a little differently. On the sea, all your insults have to rhyme. So when I say ‘Every enemy I’ve met, I’ve annihilated!’, you say ‘With your breath, I’m sure they all suffocated.’” It also appears in Escape from Monkey Island – but our hero is utterly defeated when he doesn’t understand his opponent’s Australian-themed insults.
Regular Later Levels’ visitors will already be aware of just how much The Secret of Monkey Island means to me and how it introduced me to adventure games as a kid. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve played since then, most recently for its 30th anniversary in October last year, but I’ve spent enough time on the roads of Mêlée to be able to know right insult response off by heart. I’m not sure any other mechanic in a point-and-click has captured the attention of gamers as much or been so suited to its setting.
If you’d like to brush up on your skills, head over to the online insult-swordfighting game created by Karza. And by the way: soon you’ll be wearing my sword like a shish-kabob!