The Screaming Narwhal might seem like a strange name for a Caribbean pirate ship, but in the world of Monkey Island, that kind of eccentricity is par for the course. In years past, the Monkey Island series earned a cult following for its quirky humor and entertaining adventures. Launch of the Screaming Narwhal, the first episode in the new Tales of Monkey Island series, does a good job of drawing on the franchise's strengths, stranding Guybrush Threepwood on a strange island with plenty of obstacles to overcome and jokes to crack. The brightly colored cartoony aesthetic works well artistically, but there are some technical hitches that can occasionally make it a bumpy ride. Still, there's enough good-natured humor and clever adventuring here to make it worth the trip.
Launch of the Screaming Narwhal begins where you might expect an adventure game to end. The hero (Guybrush Threepwood, Mighty Pirate) is about to rescue the girl (his wife, Elaine) and defeat the nefarious villain (LeChuck, evil poxed pirate). These characters, as well as a few more you'll meet along the way, are carried through from the first four games in the Monkey Island series, and fans of those games will find references to those and other LucasArts' adventures peppered throughout this new episode. Fortunately, Narwhal's humor doesn't rely too much on the past, and most of the jokes are accessible to first-time Islanders. While the game is rarely laugh-out-loud funny, it maintains a fairly constant level of cleverness that is sure to elicit some chuckles, more than a few groans, and plenty of wry smiles--a style reminiscent of LucasArts' adventure classics.
After his villain-vanquishing efforts go awry, Guybrush finds himself stranded on Flotsam Island. It's here that your adventuring really begins as you set about exploring the town and surrounding jungle, chatting up locals, and picking up anything that isn't nailed down. You can walk around using the analog stick or by pointing the remote at the screen and holding down the A button. The pointing method can result in some strange turnarounds and awkward maneuvering, so it's best to stick with the nunchuk. Interacting with the environment is a simple point-and-press-A affair, and the inventory menu is easily accessible via button press or onscreen selection. You can also hold the Z button to run, which is a welcome feature when you're traversing familiar territory once again.
Though running is speedy, it can also be a bit choppy. Screaming Narhwal isn't the smoothest game, and its visual sluggishness is exacerbated when you're running about. It's not so bad that it spoils the fun; it just takes some of the shine off. The colorful environments make Flotsam Island a cheery place to explore, but there are a few oddities that have the potential to be distracting. Jungle floor textures don't always match up seamlessly, creating straight lines that run across the sandy ground. And the emissions coming off of Guybrush's afflicted appendage sometimes appear as boxes rather than vapors. These glitches don't detract from the gameplay in any significant way, but they might make you wish things were prettier.
Though Flotsam Island isn't very big, there are a good number of puzzles to solve and intrigues to unravel. Speaking with the locals will get you started, and though there are an oddly limited number of character models (fat or skinny, and that's about it), each one is distinctly garbed and has his or her own weird personality. Your early adventures establish you as a pirate of distinction on this tiny backwater where you'll start a bar fight, discover buried treasure, and commandeer a ship. Of course, you accomplish these tasks in goofy roundabout ways that provide plenty of opportunities for clever item use and general silliness. Usually, it won't be too hard to puzzle out what to do next, but if you get really stuck, you can ratchet up the hint frequency and Guybrush will chime in with helpful observations to steer you in the right direction.
Your later adventures include two characters that are bound to recur throughout the Tales of Monkey Island series, and dealing with them is appreciably more entertaining. They have more robust personalities and help set the course for not only your escape from Flotsam Island, but also future episodes. The presence of multiple episode-spanning intrigues bodes well for the future of the series, and you'll likely be looking forward to the next one (The Siege of Spinner Cay) when you finish Launch of the Screaming Narwhal. If you're still hungry for more once you've finished, there is a Treasure Hunt minigame that puts you back in the strange noisy jungle with a number of treasure maps. While treasure hunting isn't all that entertaining, you do uncover some amusingly named idols that are usually good for a chuckle.
While it doesn't quite herald a new golden age of adventure gaming, the first episode of Tales of Monkey Island is funny and engaging enough to entertain for the few hours that it lasts. Fans of the Monkey Island series will get a kick out of the old references and familiar characters, while newcomers will find a clever adventure that kicks off the episodic run with style. Despite its lackluster technical performance, Launch of the Screaming Narwhal is a good way for anyone with an appetite for humor and adventure to spend 1,000 Wii points ($10).