The Wonder Boy series did pretty well for itself in the late 80s with half a dozen titles released between the arcades and Sega home consoles. However, it could never really find the type of mainstream success that would carry it past the 16-bit era of the mid 90s. Now, launching nearly 30 years after the debut game, Monster boy and the Cursed Kingdom marks the first original sequel in a very long time with hopes of introducing this old franchise to a new generation of gamers.
It seems only fitting to begin with the graphics as they will be the first thing to seemingly jump off the screen and practically demand the admiration of the audience. The beautifully rendered watercolor painting style backgrounds blend wonderfully with the foreground sprites which are clearly anime inspired. These two contrasting styles never impede one another and actually serve to create a higher feeling level of depth than many other 2D games. My time with the title was spent on the recent PC port which I was able to run seamlessly in 4K however there is no doubt in my mind that this game wouldn’t look anything but amazing regardless of platform or resolution.
Many games can provide a nice screenshot to adore but with Monster Boy there is also a beauty in its motion. You will be able to enjoy character animations and spell effects without being marred by any technical issues such as clipping or frame rate dips. All of this is held together with brilliant creativity displayed in the diverse landscapes visited, enemies designed to hide their danger behind an appropriate level of cuteness and engaging boss battles. I can’t say enough how much of a joy it was to see this game in action.
Let’s get the story out of the way; it’s pretty acceptable but hardly memorable. You are Jin, a boy who is peacefully fishing, when he is interrupted by his Uncle Nabu as he flies by throwing magic at everyone, turning them into animals. After a short pursuit, Jin also falls victim to the magic when he is transformed into a pig. Don’t worry though as this is only the first of many animals he will turn into during his adventure. With the occasional guidance from his brother Zeke, who has been transformed into a dragon, Jin sets out to recover 5 orbs that the king’s court magician has advised him will restore everyone to their original state. I often say this but while the story is rather lacking it doesn’t need to be much more for this genre.
Metroidvania titles are about their game play, level design and sense of discovery. This is where Monster Boy knocks it out of the park. Jin lives in a world that is a blast to explore, primarily because there are rarely occasions where you can go more than a couple screens without finding a secret or a potential secret that needs to be returned to with a new ability. While a few more fast travel points might have been nice it really does feel like the developers tried to limit the amount of backtracking that is required.
If there is one thing that I would have liked to see refined a bit more, it’d be the controls. It’s not to say that they were unruly or even lacked precision but there were a few rare occasions where they came off as a bit stiff. Most of these were relegated to instance of platforming which luckily were never overly predominant in the game and therefore could be classified more as a nitpick rather than an outright flaw.
You can almost double the approximately 15 hour playtime if you want to, by trying to find every last collectible. Everything from upgrades to your health and spell charges to new gear and lost music sheets will put your thoroughness to the test. Notice that I did not refer to it as challenging since the games difficulty, especially in its puzzles, is not particularly daunting. It’s more a case of desire to retrace old steps with new abilities in order to become as powerful as possible that will be the hurdle.
Counting the original human state there are ultimately 6 different transformations that will become available and they will all provide assistance with combat or world traversal. The snake form for example can stick to certain walls while as a pig you gain the ability to sniff out hidden markings or items. Even the weapons and armor will provide benefits to exploration such as the metal boots that will open up underwater exploration or even a piece of armor that will light up to allow visibility in dark corridors. Almost every upgrade can serve dual purposes.
Take the frog form for instance, sure it can use its tongue to swing on hoops but it also comes in handy in combat to stun foes from range or if you are fighting mosquitoes by instantly swallowing them and even regaining some health. It can be said that the combat in the game initially feels somewhat shallow but thanks to good pacing and finely tuned progression it expands enough to not make it feel like a chore.
Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom is a fabulous return to form for some but more importantly the perfect launching point for most when it comes to this franchise. This is an easy recommendation as the cartoony presentation and lighthearted approach allows the younger audience to enjoy the game while the solid mechanics will appeal to older fans of the genre.