A gorgeous throwback platformer with a stellar presentation.
When I played the LizardCube-made remake of Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap last year, I was struck by how modern that old game felt. Being such a faithful remake still made it feel dated in spots, but on the whole, it was amazing that a Master System game from 1989 was so great almost three decades later. While made by a completely different studio, the new spiritual sequel Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom is cut from a similar cloth. Monster Boy carries forward so much of what made the Wonder Boy/Monster World games interesting, with numerous transformations, an interconnected world, stout puzzles and platforming, and audio visual charm to the nines. Sometimes it still feels weirdly dated for a modern game, seemingly being too slavish to Wonder Boys of the past. More often than not, though, that occasionally archaic feeling doesn’t linger long, as Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom soars as a fantastic example of reviving a classic series years later.
The adventure starts off with you in control of a traditional human character—the boy hero Jin who is trying to get to the bottom of his Uncle Nabu’s reign of cursed chaos in the kingdom. After a brief intro as the sword-wielding human, Jin is cursed to transform into a pig. This kicks the quest into high gear, going back and forth throughout the reaches of this world, with each corner packed with combat, puzzle-solving, platforming, and many more transformations. The pig is limited—he has poor reach with his weaponless melee attack—but can butt stomp, sniff out secrets, and wield limited-use magic spells. It’s a good example of how the various transformations are differentiated, as all of them have different in-game uses. The snake can fit in small spaces but also shoot arcing projectile poison. The frog can swim underwater and use his tongue to interact with the environment. When you start to have the full suite of six transformations at your disposal, Monster Boy begins to soar as you have to use them in coordination to make your way through the game and uncover secrets.
To get to that point though, you have to weather some brutal and frustrating early difficulty spikes. As the pig, your actions are restrictive and it comes at a time when you have limited health. A few early segments with poison and lightning-spewing clouds wore on my nerves as the limitations of the pig made them arduous. In this early portion, I was not having a good time. Thankfully, adding more transformations to my arsenal that can be switched to at any point made things more palatable and immensely more enjoyable, though some late-game areas get frustrating in ways similar to the opening segments. I understand it’s rewarding to go back to a maddening area later with more powers, but even with secrets throughout different areas, Monster Boy is primarily linear. I never felt encouraged to explore until the endgame. Some power-ups and abilities do open up new areas and upgrades, but the critical path is ever present.
The hand-drawn art for all of the characters is adorable, especially seeing the cutesy animations of friends and foes. I never grew tired of the small sequence where the pig eats a power-up-granting plant and tries to restrict the little fart that comes as a result. The art does lead to small issues that usually crop up with hand-drawn games; hitboxes are sometimes hard to judge and jumps can be challenging since you’re not sure what constitutes a landing spot or where your character must land. This gets a little more troublesome with the variety of player character sizes, but it’s mostly worth the sacrifice since the art is so pretty. To complement the visuals, the soundtrack is one of the best of the year, with a variety of new and rearranged music from notable composers like Yuzo Koshiro (ActRaiser, Etrian Odyssey, Streets of Rage), Motoi Sakuraba (Golden Sun, Mario sports games), and Michiru Yamane (Castlevania, Suikoden). The Wonder Boy series has always had good music and this new assortment carries on the proud tradition.
The soundtrack, which reminded me so much of my time with Wonder Boy III and other entries in the series, is a great representation of the entire game. Monster Boy is a loving throwback to the old series, and while it isn’t cutting-edge or inventive, it’s a polished, amusing experience packed with a passionate affection for the original games. If I had to draw a comparison, it feels cut from the same vein as the New Super Mario Bros. series, except with much better art and music. Some warts do show up, mostly stemming from a steep early difficulty curve and occasionally hard-to-judge hitboxes and jumps, but on the whole, Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom is a fabulous entry in a relatively dormant series. My future-gazing hope is that this team can have another go and make it more of a bolder, modern game than a warm, loving throwback to a series clearly near and dear to them.