Balancing indie trends with respect for the tradition and spirit of the franchise to which it belongs, the game is a marvel that is difficult to qualify, using its long quest to explore, with success, a myriad of mechanics and gameplay styles
The path that led to the materialization of Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom was a tortuous one, to say the least. Originally planned as a sequel to Flying Hamster, a cute shoot ‘em up with one extravagant premise, the game intended to bring the titular rodent to the ground and dress him up in a knight’s armor, sending him on a sidescrolling adventure through a large kingdom. From the get go, it was clear that the massive turn the unexpected indie hit was taking had one source of inspiration: Sega’s Wonder Boy series, which – though born inside an arcade cabinet – had etched itself into the collective memories of a generation when it reached full maturity in its third and fourth installments, released – respectively – for the Master System and Mega Drive.
It was a link vividly noticeable in graphics, music, and signature gameplay elements, but even if the Wonder Boy franchise did hold a considerable fanbase that was hungry for a taste of a similar experience, the Kickstarter project meant to fund the game did not acquire enough traction. Falling considerably short of its proposed goal, the campaign was canceled slightly before its deadline. Rather than simply fading into obscurity, however, the sequel to Flying Hamster was actually being rescued behind the scenes, as it was announced indie publisher FDG Entertainment was stepping in to carry the game towards its completion. A long period of silence followed that reveal, and by the time the title resurfaced – after one year under the radar – massive changes had occurred.
What had started as some sort of homage had in fact become a revival. The starring rodent had been scrapped, the spotlight had been given to a blue-haired hero, and Flying Hamster II had been transformed into Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom; effectively, a new chapter of the Wonder Boy saga and also the first totally new product to carry that mantle since 1994. And although long-time admirers of the universe may feel insecure about the prospect of having a relatively new developer take care of such an important reboot, both those who are versed in the series’ lore and those who are newcomers ought to find little reason to complain about the package that has been delivered.
Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom has Jin as its protagonist. Living a quiet life in a seaside village, his tranquility is interrupted when his uncle, Nabu, who works as the royal jester, flies – while mounted on a barrel – over the boy’s home and causes a whole lot of destruction around the vicinity with a wacky assortment of spells. Suspecting there is some fishy business behind such odd behavior, Jin vows to chase his reckless relative. Quickly, he finds out the man has turned the entire population of the land into animals. Aided by the king’s adviser, the appropriately named Mysticat, the hero is told that the only way to revert the curse his uncle unleashed is by gathering five animal orbs that are inconveniently scattered around Monster World. Immediately, looking not only to lift the spell but also to find proof of Uncle Nabu’s innocence, Jin begins his journey.
Within an indie marketplace that is increasingly looking to build meaningful narratives, that no-frills setup causes Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom to stand out considerably from its peers. Surely, as Jin advances and starts amassing the orbs, the story will move forward: he will meet some characters that have been affected by the curse; he will investigate matters and learn new details that indicate where his next stop should be; and the main plot itself will gain extra contours and twists. But, from the beginning, when five powerful artifacts are used as an excuse to make the hero explore the world in which he inhabits, it is obvious that the script is not there to feed the gameplay or even accompany it; it actually exists just to give a reason for the journey to happen.
And, in that sense, Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom is neither good nor bad. It is only a product that respects the staples of the adventures released during the gaming era when the franchise it belongs to reached its peak: the 16-bit days. Besides nodding to that time in plot format, the game also does so via its music and graphics.
When it comes to the former, the title boasts a soundtrack whose every bit references the tunes packed in Sega’s most famous Mega Drive franchises; with a distinctive production style and a notable energetic feeling, the game’s songs would cause anyone blindly listening to them to accurately pin them down as being a product of the gaming industry of the 90s. Meanwhile, in relation to its visuals, Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom exhibits a smooth hand-drawn look that – although obviously not viable back then – equally presents a connection to that age in character design and artistic style, amounting to a nice graphical middle ground between contemporary tendencies and nostalgia.
That same intriguing balance can be observed in the title’s gameplay, but – in that particular case – the laurels for that characteristic should actually be attributed to a somewhat pioneering feat of the Wonder Boy series itself. Although, at heart, an action-platforming saga, the franchise toyed quite early with non-linearity, to the point that its third entry (titled Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap) is considered to be among the first examples of the Metroidvania genre. Given Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom drinks heavily from that specific predecessor, it also falls into that category, making it aligned quite neatly with many of the major efforts of the modern independent scene; however, since some of the genre’s traits are toned down in favor of the good-old straightforward jumping over pits and avoiding traps, the game ends up feeling, despite visible complexities, like an old-school platformer.
Any sort of definition that can be given to Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom, though, will fall short from telling the whole truth about the adventure it contains. Saying it is a Metroidvania applies to a point; after all, besides taking place in a fully connected world filled with different scenarios, it also uses upgrades to the main character’s abilities as a way to open the path towards new locations. Yet, that statement does not quite account for the fact Jin’s journey is filled with moments that, whether due to their structure or pace, do not fit inside that genre. At the same time, labeling it as an action-platformer works because many of its segments – especially those that connect major locations – are built on basic combinations of obstacles and foes; but, contrarily, that stamp does not stick entirely due to how it does not encompass the layered puzzle-solving elements found in some of the game’s parts.
And therein lies the beauty of Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom. It is impossible to box it. There is one particular chain of events in the game that defines such mercurial nature. Departing from a village where they must do some talking in order to discover how to move forward, Jin is launched towards a series of three locations that – respectively – behave like a basic level of sidescrolling platforming, with the caveat that this one goes from right to left; a maze-like structure that is filled with corridors that mix jumping with puzzle-solving; and, finally, a shoot ‘em up sequence.
It sounds like too much variety for any game to handle, especially one that proposes to tie those pieces together into one uniform world, but Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom does not just take care of that task: it passes with flying colors. And if that aforementioned variety already feels impressive and alluring, it is important to note the game does more than that, as it also features at least a couple of brain-teasing dungeons that would be right at home on a The Legend of Zelda installment that opted to go the sidescrolling way, a dozen boss battles that are as physically thrilling as they are visually exciting, a dash of stealth, some RPG elements, and a handful of heart-pumping moments that will pose brutal tests to one’s reflexes and speed.
Part of the reason why Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom is able to do so much is directly related to the variety of skills Jin has at his disposal. For starters, as the journey goes along, he will come across pieces of armor that will grant him unique abilities. A certain shield, for instance, will reflect light like a mirror, whereas another will make enemies’ projectiles bounce back towards them. Meanwhile, the Ice Sword will let the protagonist temporarily freeze waterfalls, hence blocking their flow and opening the way forward, and the Prince Tunic, which glows in the dark, will give players the power to see the dangers lurking in pitch black places. Finally, there are boots that will allow Jin to sink to the bottom of the ocean, walk on water as well as lava, and even not fall through clouds when stepping over them.
These abilities already amount to quite a bit. They are, however, far from being the main course, as that title actually goes to Jin’s transformations. As it turns out, the hero’s human form only comes into play during the adventure’s final leg, for in the game’s early stages he is hit by a spell that makes him a pig. As the journey progresses, and orbs are acquired, the protagonist will be able to access another five metamorphoses, with Jin’s original shape being the last one that is recovered. And, as one might expect, these different forms are – by all means – the heart and soul of Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom, being responsible for opening the door to major possibilities both in terms of platforming and puzzle-solving.
As a pig, Jin can unleash five magical attacks (bomb, fire, boomerang, tornado, and thunder) which are also available to his human self, and use his powerful nostrils to reveal hidden clues. As a snake, he can climb walls covered in moss, spit venom, and enter small holes. As a frog, he can use his tongue to swallow specific enemies, swing on hoops, and carry items in his mouth. As a lion, he can viciously blast through blocks either horizontally or upwards. As a dragon, he can fly and produce fireballs. And, as a human, he can dash through traps, enemies, and projectiles.
Little by little, Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom gives players access to those skills, and whether by exploring them on their own or in conjunction, it uncovers truly remarkable gameplay moments which, joined by the adventure’s variety in level design, keep fueling the experience through the fifteen hours its main content should last for without a hint of repetition or stagnation.
Alone, that concept could be enough to make Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom garner a great deal of praise. The game, nonetheless, goes beyond all of that by tinging its fabric with a light RPG touch. Most of that comes from the armors Jin can acquire and the updates that can be bestowed upon their individual parts. In total, there are eight sets, each with five pieces, and while some of those are mandatory for the completion of the quest (like the boots that grant the hero a double jump), others are entirely optional and can be either purchased at stores – which also sell potions and other refills – or found across the overworld, which is the case for the legendary Golden Armor. Regardless of their status, armor parts can all be upgraded once or twice by being embedded with collectible precious stones; a process that ends up unlocking interesting side-effects.
These precious stones are, in fact, one of the many types of items that Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom reserves for those who want to go the extra mile in relation to exploration. In general, despite the Metroidvania setup of its world, clearing the game does not entail a lot of backtracking, which should be good news to those who are bothered by it. For starters, the title is (with one exception) pretty clear as to where players need to go next, since it constantly highlights the current destination with a marker on the map. Moreover, save for one or two central locations that work as hubs and a specific segment towards the end of the adventure, most areas do not need to be revisited after they are cleared, as even those with especially labyrinthine ways are entirely self-contained.
Revisiting previously cleared scenarios is, therefore, a task reserved to either those who are seeking full completion or the ones who need an extra boost to overcome segments that are giving them trouble. And independently of the goal, Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom will deliver satisfaction, whether it is in the form of nice secrets, interesting puzzles, engaging platforming challenges, and – of course – valuable rewards. Besides the precious stones, the game also has treasure chests loaded with a bit of cash, music sheets, upgrades to the number of times magic spells can be unleashed without being refilled, twenty-five fragments of the Golden Armor, and seventeen extra health containers. And be it via in-game clues or through the map’s cues itself, finding most of those can be a rather natural process to players who are willing to retrace their steps to see where their new abilities can take them.
As good as it is, Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom is not without a couple of stumbles. Firstly, in bosses and in regular segments alike, the game can be quite hard, which is far from a problem in itself. The issue appears, however, due to how it occasionally mishandles that challenge. While the big bad foes are always preceded by a checkpoint and even offer an automatic difficulty-adjustment feature to those who are struggling, regular segments are filled with brutal moments – and a few borderline trial-and-error traps – that will make one wish some savepoints were not so distant from one another, which will naturally generate some frustration. A similar problem arises from the scarcity of warping locations, which turns a few trips – both mandatory and optional – into affairs that feel unnecessarily long.
Finally, as a minor nitpick, it is annoying how some chests, in addition to being devilishly hidden, are also locked by magic seals that require that a spell be used multiple times (occasionally an amount that players have yet to gain access to), rating as an artificial wall that makes some detours and revisits be painfully fruitless. It goes without saying, though, that, faced with so much greatness, those problems do little to truly harm the game, ranking – instead – as slight annoyances.
Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom is, ultimately, a phenomenal revival that went through one crooked path in order to become reality, making its existence as much of a victory as its stunning quality. Materializing as a product that balances indie trends with respect for the tradition and spirit of the franchise to which it belongs, the game is a marvel that is difficult to qualify, as it uses the full extent of its long quest to explore a surprising myriad of mechanics and gameplay styles, succeeding in all of them with the same level of competence.
As such, whether it is in action, in platforming, in shooting, in exploring, or in puzzle-solving, the game will please all sorts of audiences, conquering the hearts of those who were around to see the saga peak and then disappear, as well as drawing in a group of gamers who were never aware of the Wonder Boy property. Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom achieves that status because it is relentlessly inventive and impossibly charming. And surrounded by numerous contemporaries who have explored the same genre, it is able to qualify as one of the very best.