The Wonder Boy side-scroller series has been around the mid-eighties, but the core gameplay features – like the Metroidvania level design and the ability to morph into different animals, each with their own special abilities – haven’t really changed all that much with each release. Today’s title, Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom, is a spiritual-sequel of sorts by series creator Ryuichi Nishizawa in collaboration with the clever clogs at Game Atelier. And by jove is it a wonder!
Our hero, Jin, stumbles across his wacky Uncle Nabu flying around on a broomstick, turning people into animals with a magic staff. The king’s court magician requests that the spiky-haired lad to retrieve the five fabled Animal Orbs to turn everything back to normal. Throughout his quest, he finds new special abilities that allows him to progress even further.
Throughout the game, you’ll be collecting new morph abilities and upgrades. After battling foes in Jin’s human form, he’ll be turned into a spellcasting pig who can sniff out clues. After that, there’s the snake, which is good for climbing up sticky walls and fitting into tight spaces. You’ll be able to acquire new weapons and gear once you unlock the frog ability after a couple of hours of gameplay, and this is where the game begins to shine its brightest. There’s also the lion, who can smash through walls and platforms, and a dragon, which allows you to fly.
Soon enough, you’ll be flipping between each form and cycling through your unique pieces of gear in order to solve environmental puzzles and reach previously-inaccessible areas. As complex as the level layout is, you have a very helpful map at your disposal. Shortcuts and warp zones can also be uncovered, but a few more of the latter would’ve at least curbed some of the annoying backtracking that you’ll end up doing at times (especially in The Volcano). There’s also a whole heap of secret collectibles scattered across the map, like music sheets, special gems for upgrading equipment, and fragments of ultra-powerful equipment. Finding them is tricky, though the rewards are no doubt worth it.
The aforementioned puzzles aren’t too challenging, but some of them will likely take you a few minutes to crack them. They won’t slow down the gameplay too much, and the solution is eventually made clear after a bit of experimentation. The platforming and combat can feel consistently tricky, so you can expect a whole load of traps and troublesome foes that can sap your health, mess up your controls, and so on. Frustrating little blighters…
Its boss battles aren’t too daunting; most of them can be beaten in the first try. They’re tense, however. Some of them require you to morph between each animal in order to slip through a small slalom course before reaching a weak spot. Moments like these give you limited time to pull them off; it’s not always about spamming attacks at opportune times. No need to worry about getting stuck on them, at least.
The developers really went above-and-beyond with making the visuals as stunning and mesmerizing visuals as possible. Each environment is incredibly detailed, with an explosion of luscious colours in each. Enemies, items and characters are all drawn by hand and are beautifully animated, especially some of the quirky facial expressions they make. Plus, it has a stunning anime opening video that’s well worth a watch.
Then there’s the music. Video game composer legends Mirichu Yamane (Castlevania) and Motoi Sakuraba (Dark Souls) are but a few of the composers that have collaborated together to deliver a truly cracking soundtrack. There are some delightful ditties and invigorating tracks to enjoy, whether you’re whistling along to the jaunty theme of Skull Rock Beach, or jamming to the sweet guitar notes in The Volcano. Honestly, it’s surprising it never got a soundtrack release.
Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom is a marvellous Metroidvania, with hours of laborious but incredibly enjoyable platforming, puzzles and combat. It can be infuriating at times with some of the obstacles and enemies it’ll throw at you, and while it’ll definitely require a fair bit of backtracking, progressing through it is immensely enjoyable. Its soundtrack and graphics are all top-notch, too. The whole thing is a cracking adventure that side-scroller fans will mostly adore.
Review copy donated by developers.