About time you took some vacations. Even a successful private investigator such as you needs them from time to time, to forget for a few days all those murders and mysteries. Few will disagree that, to exclude yourself completely from the rest of the world, and even from your very own thoughts, there’s no better option than a trip to a paradisiacal island with its beaches, palm trees, gorgeous women in bikinis and daiquiris. Just close your eyes for a few seconds and picture the scene: the warm sun toasting your skin. A cold breeze blowing the hair on your forehead. The soft sound of palm leaves gently waving in the wind. A gunshot in the distance. A dead body being washed ashore.
Welcome to Maupiti Island.
Before I start with this article I should let you know in advance that I’m intending this to be a tribute piece rather than a review, the reason being that this is a game I have greatly enjoyed in the past and replayed it countless times, so there’s obviously no way I could express an objective opinion about it. Instead, what I will do is mostly explain how it works and its many compelling features. I believe that Maupiti Island has been unjustly forgotten or rather not known well enough. I mean, how can you forget something if you never knew about it first? Also, I feel like I’m in debt with this title, that I owe it something in return for the many hours of fun (by now the best bargain ever) and so many fond memories it provided. Of all the adventure games I have played, this is the one that I keep revisiting often, because it really made me feel as if I had traveled to a paradisiacal island to end involved in a curious mystery and there are still things left to discover. This game is the prime example that you don’t need to have the latest technology to be completely immersed in a virtual world but “merely” a good design and story.
Maupiti Island was the masterpiece of the French-based company Lankhor, a prolific group of developers that published most of their games on the Amstrad CPC (read: prehistorical European computer system). It was a spiritual successor of sorts to their previous sleuthing adventure, Mortville Manor. While that’s another classic of its own league, Maupiti Island had many improvements, the most obvious being the incredible graphics. This is one technical area in which the game was a fierce competitor when compared to any other title at the time it was released: its graphics were truly some of the best ever seen on a computer screen. It was the kind of graphics that made everyone gasp over your shoulder when you proudly showed the game to your family and friends. They were hand-drawn but had a unique photorealistic feel to them and were also quite sharp, even with a 320×200 resolution (read: prehistorical monitors). Only Dark Seed two years later would manage to achieve this level of photorealism in my opinion but with help of a higher resolution. It was also one of the very first games to make extensive use of speech synthesis. Still, no technical prowess could save Maupiti Island from fading into absolute oblivion, in spite of the glaring reviews it received at the time. Sadly, Lankhor has been long out of business by now but will be fondly remembered by many folks. It was arguably one of the most important French game companies and, dare I say it, the only one from that country that truly produced consistently good adventures.
If there’s anything that could qualify as “cult adventure” (after all, the genre has practically become a cult thing by itself) then Maupiti Island is THE cult adventure. Quite a bold statement I reckon, but this long-forgotten gem, being unknown to so many people and yet spawning a huge and loyal following in Europe, has certainly earned this status. Those lucky enough to have enjoyed this game when it was first released two decades ago will likely agree with me: there’s a certain thing about Maupiti Island, about its breathtaking atmosphere and novel game mechanics, that managed to captivate the imagination of gamers all over the world and leave a strong lasting impression on them. Speaking of status, Maupiti Island could also be the bearer of some rather intimidating titles. First, and I’m not joking here, this is easily one of the most difficult adventure game ever. Indeed, I should make this very clear from the go: this game is only apt for masochistic gamers, it’s one of those few titles in which you will have to die and lose many, many times before you beat it. Now, before you begin to scream in disgust and ask why in hell am I even bothering to write about a game like this, be patient and read on: I promise there are good reasons and logic behind its gameplay. Finally, I will drop the bomb and go as far as saying that this remains the best detective adventure ever made and still the one to be measured against. Even memorable classics such as Cruise For A Corpse were predated and clearly influenced by the novel ideas in Maupiti Island, such as the complex interrogation system, and never came close to reproducing them.
But I’m digressing — I should be talking about the game itself.
SLEUTHING FOR DUMMIES
As you may have gathered from the fancy introduction, the story is about a private detective that rather unwillingly becomes involved in a curious mystery on Maupiti Island. The first intriguing events will actually take place during the boat trip to the island and, while we never experience them first hand, we will learn their details by reading diaries and speaking with the rest of the passengers. Suffice to say, the crew consists of some very shady characters, all of them having their own personal reasons for being on Maupiti. Every one of them suspects from each other and, on top of all this, a nasty sea storm lashes the boat and badly damages it. Things won’t get any better after everybody sets foot on the island itself: our unlikely hero (none other than the famous Jerôme Langé) will quickly realize that a female inhabitant called Marie was abducted under the strangest circumstances. Many have their own theories, some will even pursue investigations of their own, but you as Jerôme will attempt to find the ultimate truth by yourself — if not there wouldn’t be any game (doh). The story gets even more complicated when you realize that a previous girl also disappeared without trace and nobody wants to talk about that, there are hints of contraband in the region and even a very old prophecy of ancient natives is thrown in the mix. This paragraph alone should have been enough to make you hug the monitor at once and lick the cold plastic screen (at least that was my reaction) and yes, it’s all true: this really is the ultimate mystery in a paradisiacal island with a more than satisfying outcome.
So much has been argued about pixel-hunting that I think I should explain my views about it. A proper definition of this popularly unwanted feature would be something like this: “Pixel hunting means moving the mouse painstakingly to reveal a maliciously concealed/hidden hotspot on screen.” The key word here is “maliciously” which means a hotspot that is difficult to find on purpose with no clues whatsoever about its location. However, if the player is suggested somehow that a given screen contains a small object concealed within, then looking for said object wouldn’t be so unfair. This would be particularly true for mystery games which beg for your powers of observation. Now, in the case of Maupiti Island, almost every screen has tiny objects spread everywhere, but to say the game is full of pixel-hunting would be unfair and inaccurate since you as a detective are supposed to thoroughly look for clues. Whether those objects are meaningful or not, that’s up to you to decide. For instance, while searching Marie’s bedroom you can find a cigarette butt with your magnifying glass if you look close enough, which opens a whole new line of interrogation with other characters. Since this is the way the whole thing is supposed to work, I wouldn’t say it qualifies as malicious. All the screens have to be examined from top to bottom, and not with the mouse but with your sight, which makes the game feel quite in fact like an exercise in observation. To make matters worse, the interface doesn’t show a description when you move the cursor over objects which makes the gameplay feel much more challenging. That said, when you find the clues, damn if it isn’t exciting! Important objects appear more sharp and detailed under your magnifying glass and you actually score per each discovered hint, so the impression of a profound achievement is huge. I remember literally jumping out of my chair when I found a crucial clue that was telling me exactly who was involved in a murder.
What still amazes me to this day is just how well executed this game was. You are constantly in control of your actions as many events unfold around you. The liberty you have to explore the island at leisure is intimidating since you can practically visit every location present in the game from the very first moment and in any order you want. You could simply stay in your cabin and wait for the game to end without ever figuring out anything. There are no cutscenes or blatant plot exposition either: it’s up to you to investigate, discover and fit all the clues together. This also means that you have to perform great leaps of reasoning to solve a few mysteries and understand the story, which makes Maupiti Island one of the few games that makes you feel like you’re utterly alone and helpless. It’s not that the game is impossible to finish but it requires something truly rare nowadays: patience… lots of it. Fortunately, both the story and characters are fascinating — everybody is a suspect and seems to conceal dark secrets. I only wish the dialogues would have been better fleshed out since they mostly consist in very short and concise lines.
As mentioned, the interrogation system is marvelous and brings an extreme depth to the game. You can ask nearly a dozen characters what they did or noticed during a specific timeline, their opinion on other characters, show and give them items as well as interacting with them in many possible ways (no, not that way). As you learn new things and meet people, you are able to further discuss about them which makes it necessary to approach characters several times. It’s as complicated as it gets.
The music, while sparse and nearly nonexistent during the game, deserves a special mention too. The main theme is truly evocative with a jazzy feel to it that brings to mind images of Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca (in fact, in Mortville Manor Jêrome Lange looks a lot like him!). It’s a very memorable tune that is bound to keep lingering in your head long after the game has ended. It literally screams “detective story.” Other charming details include a change of color in the interface as you visit each location, such as a green tone when you’re in a muddy pond.
All in all, a game like this would be smashed by nowadays technical standards but, like many older titles, it shines with creativity and great design, as well as a clear willingness to engage in experimental gameplay.
TODAY IS GOOD DAY TO DIE
Allow me to set this straight: this game is unforgiving — very unforgiving. The world of Maupiti Island is incredibly active and many things are going on in the background while you’re poking around for clues. There are a certain number of crucial events that move forward the story and there is no way you can prevent them from happening. For instance, if you are holding an item that you know beforehand it plays a key part in one of those events (ie: a clue that the murderer drops in a crime scene) you will be killed without warning. Just like that. It actually does make sense if you judge the game in context: you can’t go around picking (or rather stealing) items without knowing their utility. These events happen mostly at night so at least you know when to be careful. Still, night incursions to spy on people are a must to solve the mystery so it’s not like you’re completely safe either.
These sudden deaths can be very frustrating but I can’t see any other way of solving this design issue considering the extreme freedom you have as the player. Similarly, if you are present during one of those events, you will be knocked unconscious — not even hiding (a rather useless feature of the game) will let you watch it. Also, you have to be extremely careful when dealing with the people in the island: for once, the way you interact with the gameworld makes a huge difference. You might be dumped out of Maupiti for no apparent reason but experience will show that this is nothing else than a natural consequence of your actions. Asking the same questions repeatedly, hitting people (yes, you can and it’s loads of fun), even dropping objects around (those Maupitians certainly like to keep their island clean) will ultimately result in your expulsion. This is what I mean by saying the game is unforgiving: once you do something wrong, there’s no way around it — you will fail.
Taking into account everything I’ve been saying so far, it becomes evident that no normal human being could solve this game in one sitting. Only after a third replay or so the story begins to make sense and you are reasonably able to determine what’s happening on the island. Then you can start solving some puzzles. I wouldn’t say this is unfair because the game is clearly designed to be played this way, but these peculiarities certainly make Maupiti Island a very acquired taste. It should be noted that, once you know exactly what to do, the game can be finished in a few minutes. Of course, you can forget about using a step-by-step walkthrough because you wouldn’t understand a thing. The only way to fully experience what this title has to offer is to slowly and methodically build your way towards the solution.
THOSE WERE THE DAYS
Like I said, I won’t try to hide my appreciation for this game. It’s a shame that it remains such a curiosity considering its revolutionary features and breathtaking depth and level of detail. Years ahead of its time, it predates most sleuthing adventures developed since then as well as the “pseudo-realtime” nature of games like The Last Express or Blade Runner. I would describe Maupiti Island as the closest thing to a graphical text adventure, boasting plenty of eye candy (at the time) and yet maintaining the level of detail and character interaction that can only be achieved in text-based games. It’s by far the most involving gameworld I have experienced, that’s for sure. Just thinking about all that went behind the scenes makes me feel dizzy: making a highly nonlinear game with a coherent story and no plot holes is already a hard task. Now making one boasting a complex interrogation system, day cycles, the ability to pick everything that isn’t nailed down, spy on characters, beat them and way more is an impressive achievement. The amount of care and detail put into this game simply boggles the mind. Of course, this wasn’t without its cost as the result was a rather clunky and bloated interface, perhaps the only indisputable criticism that can be made about the game.
Also, I can’t help feeling deeply nostalgic when thinking about Maupiti Island. Unbeknownst to an adventure community that was already being fascinated with the hordes of games from Sierra, Lucasarts and all their clones, products that were setting a new trend, this underdog somehow marked the end of an era. I haven’t seen, and it doesn’t look like I’ll ever see again, an adventure game or interactive fiction with the level of complexity of this title. Only a few offerings by Legend Entertainment came close. Whether this is good or bad, this article is no place to discuss it, but it does make you ponder: name one game released in the last twenty years in which you can bribe, contradict, hit and actually get an according response from characters… I thought so.
It doesn’t quite achieve the grandiosity of other contemporary titles but it’s a little world you won’t regret visiting for sure. Maupiti Island remains in my humble opinion one of the most intriguing adventures ever created and certainly one that earned an eternal install in my hard drive. Even long after finishing it, unveiling all its secrets and knowing the twists and turns of the story, there’s still an aura of mystery surrounding the game. I’m convinced that there are some things, be it character reactions or alternative paths, I might never learn about and, while this might unacceptable to some people, to me it’s invaluable because it means the game continues to live on. I’d rather not find about any of them and remember it this way, like an impenetrable fortress. After all, Maupiti Island is supposed to be a mysterious place.
Maupiti Island has been made recently available at DotEmu. However, there is a nasty bug present in older copies (all translated versions) that prevents you from reading any stuff (diaries, letters, etc) except while inside your cabin. If you already have the game, be sure to install the following patch by replacing the respective file to play more comfortably: Maupiti Island Patch