America - Front
America - Back
By Evan Norris 09th Dec 2018 | 2,170 views
The Wonder Boy renaissance continues with Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom. After two remakes—Wonder Boy Returns in 2016 and Wonder Boy: The Dragon's Trap in 2017—the Sega Master System/Genesis franchise is back again with a brand new installment. Well, sort of. Monster Boy is a spiritual successor, not a licensed sequel (although series creator Ryuichi Nishizawa assisted Game Atelier in development). No matter its unofficial status, Monster Boy is a terrific game, a worthy homage to Sega's underrated action-platformer series, and an outstanding example of a modern Metroidvania.
The game follows a young man named Jin whose uncle, drunk on royal nectar, uses his magic wand to transform all the denizens of Monster World into animal forms. Jin, transmogrified into a piratey pig, travels to the capital where he takes on a grand quest: find five magical orbs to break the magical curse.
Monster Boy is a 2D side-scrolling action-adventure game, built around animal transformations. Whereas in most Metroidvania titles characters enter previously gated areas after unlocking a weapon or discovering a power-up, in Monster Boy, as in Wonder Boy III: The Dragon's Trap, Jin deploys a unique animal from—accessible from a pie menu by pressing ZL or ZR—to open doors, break barriers, and cross uncrossable gaps. His pig form, for example, can sniff out secret areas and perform a ground pound; his snake form, unlocked early in the game, slithers up slippery walls; his frog form breathes underwater without a fuss and deploys a long, sticky tongue to grab rings suspended in air; and so on.
While swapping among animal incarnations can be tedious, the clever puzzle-solving, platforming, and exploration opportunities afforded by Monster Boy's signature mechanic are entirely worth it. Take one example, about 40 percent into the game. Jin enters a sacred chapel, where he must take the following steps to lower a ladder to the steeple: transform into a snake to climb an ivy-covered wall and then drop light fixtures from the ceiling; take the form of a frog to pull the fixtures closer to the ground with his tongue; and finally switch over to his porcine personification to hurl a fireball at the candles, lighting them. The game's 15-hour runtime (longer if you seek out every hidden golden armor piece, upgrade gem, and music sheet) is filled with episodes like this. You'll be adventuring back and forth across Monster World, up waterfalls, under hills, and across poisonous lakes, using specialized skills to find hidden treasure. There's an incredible thrill of discovery throughout.
When weapons, equipment, and enemies enter the equation, things get even more challenging and gratifying. At certain story intervals, Jin receives powerful items—ice boots, a mirror shield, etc.—that allow him to defeat monsters, reach far-flung areas, and solve environmental puzzles. Players can add to his armament collection by purchasing complementary pieces in weapon and armor shops, and enhance those pieces at forges by spending collectible gems. Enhance every item in a five-piece set to earn a special set bonus.
Many of these elements converge in Monster Boy's platforming segments, which can be surprisingly difficult and even fussy at times. In a volcano dungeon, the game's longest and most complex, players must equip ice boots to walk atop flaming enemies, transform into the lion to charge across collapsing platforms, and even transform mid-jump to avoid a sea of lava or a bed of spikes. You really must think on your feet (and off your feet) to make it through Monster World. Although Game Atelier throws a lot of curve balls at the player—and even a troll job worthy of Hideo Kojima in a late-game haunted mansion—the studio walks, for the most part, a fine line between inventive, surprising platforming and trial-and-error gameplay.
Combat in Monster Boy is decidedly less interesting than its collage of puzzles, platforming challenges, and secret areas. It doesn't compare favorably to the Souls-like skirmishes in Dead Cells or the luchador brawling of Gucamelee! 2—even though it's a better overall package than either of those titles. In Monster Boy it's straightforward, serviceable action-platforming fighting. That said, special weapons like spears and poison daggers and unique animal attacks do spice things up a bit. Anyway, boss battles tend to be far more engaging than fights with slimes, mushrooms, and ghosts. Many are clever, different encounters that demand brawn and brain-power. One confrontation involves destroying a giant poisonous frog from the inside, another sees Jin and a sidekick tag-team a shielded undead wizard, and one other takes place at the culmination of a 2D side-scrolling shooting segment.
This horizontally-scrolling episode is just one of many unique events in Monster Boy that make it one of the more dynamic and memorable games of the year. There's an Indiana Jones-esque escape from an unstoppable rolling boulder, a vertical climb above a pool of rising lava, and a race against a fleet-footed scalawag, among several more.
Monster Boy's graphics and audio are as extraordinary as its world design and action-adventure gameplay. Midway through development, Game Atelier moved from sprites to hand-drawn animation, and the results are spectacular. Character models are energetic and flowing, backgrounds are deep and detailed—there are a few areas where Jin can actually leap into the background to open a treasure chest—and the entire storybook world is bouncing and alive. The game's opening cinematic is glorious also. Music, composed by industry veterans Motoi Sakuraba, Michiru Yamane, and Yuzo Koshiro, among others, is catchy and bright.
It might not be an official sequel, but Monster Boy is an excellent heir to the Wonder Boy brand. With clever platforming, an engaging action-adventure formula, memorable special encounters, and an enchanting, vibrant world, it's a late contender for game-of-the-year. Some punishing platform segments and straightforward combat are small warts on a terrific, substantial, imaginative package.