I have to wonder how many people have sat in abject anticipation for the arrival of Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom. As someone who grew up with a predominantly NES upbringing, things like the original Wonder Boy games didn’t really make an impact into my life until much, much later. Sure, when I played Wonder Boy and the Dragon’s Trap last year, it was fun, it was beautifully drawn, and I generally walked away with a good experience. However, there wasn’t anything about it that tapped into a deeper wellspring of emotions and nostalgia: it was just a good-looking, tight game. As Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom is a spiritual sequel to the series (due to Sega keeping a tight grip on the name Wonder Boy), it’s hard to say how long time fans will find the game. As a relative newcomer, however, I can say that it captures a lot of the great elements of gaming gone by, while updating with quite a few modern mechanics and certainly up-to-date graphics. But, as some people will find, the nods to the past also involve a few headaches in terms of making it work with the same level of difficulty that you’d expect from the older games.
In Cursed Kingdom, you are thrust into the mantle of Jin, our blue haired hero who is merely trying to live his life and have a good time doing so. These simple plans go dreadfully awry when his Uncle Nabu decides to break into the King’s storeroom and get hysterically drunk off royal nectar and also steal a magic wand in the process. None of this makes a damn lick of sense, but the original title of the game was Wonder Boy and the Wizard of Booze, so take that as you will. Anyways, Nabu is so tanked that he turns everyone in the kingdom into animals, including the talking animals, who are now different animals (one poor fox family now has twin raccoon children). Jin is immediately turned into a pig, throwing a wrench into your plans of buying armor or wielding a sword. Hearing rumors from townsfolk and his own brother (who is now a tiny dragon) of several orbs that once broke a curse on their kingdom, Jin sets out to help his uncle sober up by force and set everything right. Though, as you can imagine from the title, this is not an easy expedition, and Jin has a lot in store for him.
Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom is a MASSIVE adventure platformer, where you’ll be running around through several different kinds of levels, above the trees and below the waters, as you find the different orbs that may provide solace and also figure out exactly who helped influence your dear until into becoming a raging jagoff. Nearly every animal and insect you encounter are aggressive, and you can’t help but fight them through a combination of might and magic. You’ll have plenty of chances to collect gold and buy different upgrades as time goes on, including some sweet magical equipment that you can permanently have on regardless of your form. There’ll also be a bunch of secrets, like hidden chests and various side quests that can be embarked upon as you see fit. From returning lost sheet music to the otter bard to gathering gold pieces for the blacksmith to make you some bitching equipment, there’s never a lack of things to do in Monster Boy, and very rarely is there a lack of direction.
As the title implies, you also will eventually get a chance to change into other animals. Unlike Dragon’s Trap, where you slowly cycled through the different animal forms and basically did different chapters as different animals, Monster Boy finds that the orbs to solve the problems of the kingdom also grant him the chance to change into other animals at will, slowly unlocking different segments that he will encounter and some he may have already seen. There are a couple of tantalizing treasure chests that you see right at the very beginning, before you even become a pig, that you will not be able to touch in any capacity until you unlock the dragon and frog forms much, MUCH later on in the game. Hell, you can spend a good thirty minutes playing before you even get transmuted into your first form, and I think I put a solid two hours down before I gained my first secondary form, which is a very helpful snake that can get into small spaces and climb moss-covered walls. As you might glean from this, the game is a long journey and a slow burn, but not without its charm and merit.
Firstly, the design and love of Cursed Kingdom is unparalleled. Game Atelier has put three long years into this title, and everything pops and looks phenomenal. In the same vein that I praise the Shantae series for being able to incorporate gorgeous animation and great character sprites into such a lengthy game, so, too, does Monster Boy bring a lot of colorful heart and warmth into everything from the dingy and dark forests to the magnificent castles and store rooms. There are certain opinions about the graphical quality of games, and many people think you either need the uncanny valley realism of things like Metal Gear Solid or you just need to go insanely indie, like Nidhogg. I love that Monster Boy hits a sweet spot in the center, where everything has a sufficiently anime quality without going full anime. When the pig form squats down, I love that he straight up lies on his side and props up his head. When you smack a spider, the way they helplessly swing back and forth on their own thread like an irate pinata is endearing. And when you run into the first major boss of the game and it turns out to, initially, be a decoy, it’s the damn funniest thing I could have imagined. There was no expense spared in making this game look like the dream the team collectively had.
And there is something very rewarding about a game that falls into the old hat of adventure titles while keeping present day expectations alive. You know that you’ll be looping back to see old stuff through new lenses once you unlock certain magics or forms, but you just have to bookmark it in your mind, because there’s so much unfolding before you in a constant, deliberate pace. You need to make time in order to fulfill the sidequests, simply because you could accidentally buffalo ahead to the end of the game without realizing how much you’re leaving behind. You get caught in the rhythm and the feel of the journey, letting everything drag you along, willingly, towards the next area, the next boss, your next form. So when I remembered a treasure chest that needed a whopping twenty fireballs to open up some time later when I finally had the ability to do that, I was proud and satisfied with myself to keeping my brain sharp and my interests at heart.
One additional point that needs a bit of love is the phenomenal soundtrack that rings throughout the Monster Boy saga. With an equal amount of ambient, curious strings, wistful moments of winds and some seriously driving guitar, I haven’t been as engaged with a soundtrack since my time with Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of DANA. It really takes a lot to make sure that something sounds akin to game soundtracks that were released close to decades ago, but incorporate the range and abilities that are included with modern orchestra and digital performances. Some of the best music comes at the most innocuous times, like attempting to dash across poison rivers or a dynamic puzzle to unlock in frog form. Even the opening song is given the proper treatment, having two different versions (English and Japanese) that are interchangeable through the menu. Aside: I like the vocal range of the English version, but the Japanese version just feels better attuned with the sweet riffs. Definitely try both.
Now, it’s not all rainbows and sunshine with Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom. For one, there is a serious difficulty curve within the game in terms of bosses and save points. You can’t automatically save, you have to rely on these fountains that you walk across to save your game. Usually they are properly spaced and give enough of a challenge to keep you on your toes, but there are some places where it seems DREADFULLY unfair how far apart you have to travel to save. One such instance is when you need to cross a long river on an automatically moving boat, and, if you miss a platform or get knocked off by a bat, you die and gotta start again. Tough, but not unfair. The very next room, though, is full of insta-death spikes that, should you fall, will kick you back to the beginning of the boat ride. This isn’t even mentioning that you need to have a lightning magic on hand to actually get out of the room, and, if you accidentally used it all up fighting the bats, you need to keep killing some very tricky spiders in hopes that one of them will drop a lightning bolt so you can get to the save point in the very next room. It stuck with me to the end of the game how bizarre this setup was.
Speaking of magic, if you can, you’ll be relying a LOT on it for boss fights. Not only are some of the guardians impossible to beat without certain magics, there are plenty that are just outright annoying to fight otherwise. Having the ability to throw ranged weapons, including tornadoes that bounce around and clear out all the minor enemies that bosses summon, is invaluable, especially since you tend to take damage a lot. And it helps that said minor enemies tend to drop recharges for the various spells, encouraging you to keep being a warrior wizard. Still, as you get more complicated as a hero, your reliance on spellwork can relax a little. Who doesn’t love turning into a snake, slithering under the enemy, and then polymorphing into a lion knight with a hit like a truck? Once the game really gets momentum, it cooks like none other, giving you a ton of versatility in how to approach the different legs of the game and how you want to play it out. But I do wish that you could cycle through magic a little more cleanly: after you get more than two spells, the popping up of the menu to select each spell, especially in the heat of battle, is downright annoying.
EDIT: It was helpfully pointed out to me by the developers that I had completely missed an option in the menu to turn the ring selection for both characters and magic on or off, and that was my bad. I often feel like I do my best to vet options, but sometimes things get missed, and I don’t want to throw the game under the bus in that regard. I will say the ring selection is more convenient with shifting monster forms, but I like rifling through the magic quickly as a static “left or right” form. Additionally, I’m now seeing that my initial note about magic use makes it seem like the game is one note in that regard, when, in actuality, you only rely on magic for some earlier fights, and there are plenty later on where you CANNOT pitch spells. Even though I personally used magic a lot since I stayed in the pig form whenever I could (I just found him cuter), the game shouldn’t be maligned to be thought of as strictly a spell tossing game. Especially not when you have things like elemental sword attacks later on that make life a lot cooler. So, original paragraph kept in, but due justice given to represent Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom better.
Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom is a magnificent feat of a game, injecting a real sense of wonder and excitement into a title that both nods to the past and stands proudly on its own. There’s a ton of replay value in terms of finding all the secrets and fetching all the side quests, not to mention the main game can easily take several days to get through. If you’re a fan of the originals, you gotta try this one. If you like adventure platformers, this is one of the better ones out there. If you love good implementation of HD Rumble, then you definitely want to pick this one up. It’s hard, sure, but it’s damn good. Excellent work, Game Atelier.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Nintendo Switch code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to email@example.com.
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