Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom

Introduction

Although Westone’s Wonder Boy series garnered a following, its association with the popular developer Sega arguably ended up being its undoing. This is because 1991 marked the debut of Sega’s mascot: Sonic the Hedgehog. Seen as their answer to Nintendo’s Mario, Sonic the Hedgehog’s debut game proved to be a gigantic hit. As a result, Sega began primarily focusing on their popular character. The game marked a stark paradigm shift in Sega’s output, causing many of their older franchises to fall by the wayside. This included their former mascot, Alex Kidd. Despite not having been developed by Sega themselves, Wonder Boy was afflicted as well. With Sega electing not to export what would end up being the final installment, Monster World IV, to the West, the series quickly fell into obscurity.

Sixteen years later in 2010, an independent developer in Paris, France named Game Atelier was founded. They made their passion for the medium clear from the beginning, wishing to one day create a surprising, joyful, thrilling game everyone can enjoy. One of their first games was Flying Hamster – a colorful horizontal shooter. Their effort was a success, being downloaded over one-million times across the various active platforms at the time. Game Atelier took this opportunity to set their sights higher when it came time to make a sequel. To fund the game, they looked to the crowdfunding site Kickstarter.

Helmed by one Fabien Demeulenaere, Flying Hamster II was to provide a completely different experience from its predecessor, being an action-RPG platforming game with a shapeshifting protagonist. Parallels to the Wonder Boy series – more specifically, the Monster World installments that followed the original arcade game – were not a coincidence. Mr. Demeulenaere and his team were big fans of the series, and Flying Hamster II was to be both a loving tribute and a spiritual successor to those games with a projected release date in mid-2015. Before it could be determined if the creators reached their funding goal, the project was suddenly cancelled. The developer announced a partnership with FDG Entertainment, a company founded in 2001 that specialized in producing and publishing games for Java-compatible hardware. For the next year, no new information would be revealed.

Game Atelier then broke their silence by announcing their newest project: Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom. Although Westone had filed for bankruptcy and liquidated their assets in 2014, Sega only owned the names of the games. This meant that series creator Ryuichi Nishizawa was able to retain everything else. As fate would have it, Flying Hamster II caught the attention of Mr. Nishizawa, who was flattered that his work struck such a chord in Game Atelier. From there, he used his ownership of the series’ rights to transform what would have been a spiritual successor to Wonder Boy into a canonical installment. Collaborating with Mr. Nishizawa, Mr. Demeulenaere and his team finished and subsequently released their game in December of 2018. Twenty-four years had passed since the release of Monster World IV when Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom saw completion. Outside of the comic book industry, not many people can claim to have directed an official installment of one of their favorite series. Was what Mr. Demeulenaere created worthy of marching under the Wonder Boy banner?

Analyzing the Experience

WARNING: This review will contain unmarked spoilers for Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom and the series thus far.

The protagonist of this game is a young man named Jin. He and his brother Zeke live in Monster World, a land that has known peace ever since a warrior named Asha defeated the extraterrestrial threat known as Biomeka. The tranquility comes to an abrupt and jarring end when Jin’s uncle, Nabu, arrives on the scene riding a magically propelled barrel. Nabu then uses his magic to transform a fish in the ocean into a monster. Jin chases after Nabu only to run into a small, green dragon. To Jin’s shock, the dragon turns out to be his younger brother, Zeke. They ascertain that Nabu has been causing a lot of mischief throughout Monster World. Determined to get to the bottom of this, Jin departs on a journey to stop his uncle from making things worse.

In the span of six games, the Wonder Boy franchise managed to cover a significant amount of stylistic ground. The original game was a platformer highly similar to the original Super Mario Bros. Its direct sequel, Wonder Boy in Monster Land, added role-playing elements to the proceedings, making it a true rarity in the arcade scene. Although many series around this time would experiment with the second installment only to have the third return to form, Wonder Boy III: Monster Lair went even further off the rails by being one of the few titles to blend platforming and shoot ‘em up elements.

When Mr. Nishizawa and his team decided to make a direct sequel to Wonder Boy in Monster Land, Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap, they reintroduced the role-playing elements and took cues from Nintendo’s pioneering, exploratory title, Metroid. This style persisted to the series’ fifth installment, Wonder Boy in Monster Land, but Monster World IV would place a much heavier emphasis on platforming, thus bringing things full circle. As a result, while the Wonder Boy series certainly had a distinct identity, no two games managed to be exactly alike. One could even say Wonder Boy in Monster World, the least innovative title in the series, accidentally crafted its own identity by virtue of bringing no significant changes to the table.

With six highly unique predecessors, one might wonder exactly how Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom plays. As the series’ most famous entry, Mr. Demeulenaere primarily modeled his game after The Dragon’s Trap. As is tradition for the series, Jin’s primary means of defense is a sword. Pressing the attack button causes him to thrust the sword forward. The weapon Jin begins the game with, the aptly named Legacy Blade, has a decent reach and he swings it at a moderate speed. In terms of combat proficiency, Jin is a lot like Asha, being able to perform a combination attack when the player presses the attack button thrice in succession. The player can also hold up on the directional pad or control stick when pressing the attack button to cause Jin to swing his sword diagonally upwards in the direction he faces. Conversely, by pressing down on the control pad while Jin is airborne, he will lunge and strike at the ground. Not only does this damage any targets unfortunate enough to get in his path, enemies close in proximity to Jin’s landing will be momentarily stunned.

As he makes his way through Skullrock Beach, Jin happens upon a blue, flying creature who introduces himself as Pepelogoo. It is the same type of creature who accompanied Asha on her journey to free the four powerful spirits trapped by Biomeka. Not coincidentally, Pepelogoo is currently on a journey of his own to find a certain green-haired woman. Unfortunately, his journey has been impeded by a flower monster that shoots fireballs. With the path ahead blocked by this monster, Jin decides to lend a helping hand.

The solution to this problem is for Jin to explore the area and find a treasure chest containing a shield. Shields in Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom work as they did in previous installments. When Jin is not attacking, he has his shield raised by default. The shield protects him from most projectile attacks. When you have him use the shield against the flower monster, you can observe its ability to reflect its fireballs right back at it. Later shields can reflect different kinds of projectiles, though if it is incapable of doing so, they will usually vanish. Shields can also reflect certain melee attacks, but it’s not recommended to use it in such a manner. After Jin clears the way, Pepelogoo thanks him before flying off.

As you’re navigating Jin across the platforms, you may miss a jump or two. Luckily, the days in which falling into the water instantly kills your character are in the past. Indeed, like Shion, Jin floats to the top whenever you have him jump into a body of water. Not so luckily, you will soon discover you will need to navigate a body of water in order to advance, for an important item lies beneath the surface. To remedy this problem, Jin can visit an armorer’s shop to purchase a pair of Heavy Boots.

This allows the player to become acquainted with switching equipment. At a given time, Jin can utilize five different pieces of equipment at once: weapons, shields, armor, bracelets, and shoes. Although the idea of switching equipment debuted in The Dragon’s Trap, the interface bears more similarities to that of Wonder Boy in Monster World in how Jin’s stats are measured in a more abstract fashion. He has three different parameters: attack, defense, and speed. Rather than giving you the raw statistical data, each parameter is given a level. Intuitively, higher levels translate to better performances for a given stat. Without any alterations, Jin has an offensive and defensive rating of one and a speed rating of two.

Equipping the Heavy Boots decreases Jin’s speed stat by one level. However, by their very nature, whoever wears them will sink like a stone in water. This serves as a stark contrast to The Dragon’s Trap wherein the only thing players had to consider when choosing equipment were the numbers. One sword could give Bocke a unique advantage that never rendered itself obsolete, but there was little reason to use it for its intended purpose. Needing to use the Heavy Boots thus foreshadows the kinds of considerations you will be making as you’re deciding any future loadouts.

Diving beneath the surface reveals a significant change in how underwater excursions are handled. Bocke had the inexplicable ability many classic video-game protagonists in that he was incapable of drowning. Although he eventually gained access to a piranha form, all it did was enable him to swim. The next two games handled this a bit more realistically; Shion could not dive underwater without the aid of magic trident while Asha was completely incapable of swimming at all, relying on Pepelogoo to save her whenever the situation presented itself. Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom takes cues from Sonic the Hedgehog by having an oxygen meter. He can even recover it in a manner similar to Sega’s mascot – by breathing a large air bubble. If the oxygen meter is depleted, Jin quickly begins taking damage.

Like his predecessors, Jin’s health is measured in hearts – of which he starts with three. Like his predecessors, Jin can carry a single elixir that restores his health if it is ever depleted. Although Jin is quite a skilled fighter, it is important to know that he isn’t as durable as Asha. While Asha would only be knocked back when running into enemies without an immediately obvious defense mechanism such as spines, Jin takes damage by colliding into them. Moreover, while hearts measured the number of hits Asha could take in Monster World IV, they function more as a traditional life meter in this game. How much damage he takes depends on the source along with the armor he is wearing. This does mean that Jin can lose several hearts’ worth of health at once. As expected, a higher defense rating translates to less damage taken overall. On top of that, many hazards are powerful enough to deplete Jin’s entire health meter at once, so one always needs to exercise caution.

Jin may lack Asha’s hardiness and athleticism, but he does have one distinct advantage over her: magic. Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom runs the gamut of spells familiar to anyone who has played The Dragon’s Trap. Depending on the spell, he can throw fireballs, conjure up miniature tornados, summon lightning, cast bombs, and toss boomerangs. Pepelogoo introduces the means by which Jin can acquire these spells: Super Truffles. His claims that the truffles want to be eaten are dubious at best but doing so confers onto Jin the ability to use whichever magic they represent. Like in Wonder Boy in Monster World, spells have a specific number of charges that can be refilled through random drops. However, resting at an inn will not recharge Jin’s magic. This is what the magic shops are for – by paying a small price, Jin can purchase a charge from these vendors.

For that matter, visiting an inn is not how one records their progress either. Along the way, you will discover glowing statues with a serene woman’s face. Passing by these statues will save the game automatically. The statues come in two varieties. The larger statues restore Jin’s health in addition to saving the game. Admittedly, I can’t say I’m overly fond of this system. Most Metroidvania games allow players to manually save whenever the opportunity arises. This was helpful because you never know playing these games blind the danger lying ahead. Saving with barely any health left could cause the player to paint themselves in a corner. Not only that, but because money is rather scarce for a significant portion of the experience, you are not afforded a reasonable chance to experiment with any of the potential equipment you can buy. This isn’t helped by the relatively high number of save points positioned around shops.

I will say that the idea of a Metroidvania game saving automatically isn’t bad in of itself. Hidetaka Miyazaki, the man who directed Dark Souls and Bloodborne, proved it could work when he took this simple proposition to the other extreme end. His games constantly saved automatically, but the key difference between them and Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom is that they were optimized appropriately. Dying in Dark Souls, while a significant setback, still sent the player character back to the last checkpoint with their health completely restored. This means even if the player decided to save in a less-than-ideal spot, they could still get past the dangers if they were persistent enough. If worst came to worst, doubling back was a viable option as well. It also served to underscore the difficult, though fair, nature of the game; every decision you made was final. If you killed someone who could lend you their assistance, there was no bringing them back. It demonstrated how difficult your trials and tribulations can become when you foolishly decide to burn your bridges.

To its credit, Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom does try to account for the player’s inability to save manually. In most cases, getting defeated merely sends Jin back to the last save point. If he had particularly low health when you decided to save, a token amount is restored upon revival. Where the proposition really falls apart is whenever the game automatically saves as a result of a scripted sequence. In these situations, the game saves the player into a position from which they cannot reasonably escape. The two most egregious examples occur at the beginning of the game before the first boss fight and later after Jin springs an Indiana Jones-style boulder trap. The latter situation is especially bad because it requires magic to progress, which is not normally restored upon defeat.

There is a silver lining in that these situations are rare and do grant some form of mercy. If you repeatedly lose to the first boss, Zeke will helpfully fly in and give Jin an elixir. Similarly, failing to outrun the boulder multiple times will eventually restore Jin’s magic. I can even understand the reason why the team thought making the game save in such a fashion would be appealing. After all, whenever you lose to a difficult boss or fail an elaborate action sequence, you are just itching to give it another try. Having to trek all the way back to the event in question runs the risk of making the player lose their concentration. Nonetheless, while the game’s save system is easy to account for, it does have a bad tendency to work against the player on occasion.

When Jin reaches Nabu, his uncle continues to act irrationally. Using his magic, Nabu summons a giant squid. What I admire about this boss fight is that it signposts to the player the level of challenge they should expect out of the experience. If you decided not to take the time to learn how Jin controls, you don’t have a remote chance of winning. I can imagine this would be a shock to anyone who played any previous Wonder Boy game, which usually begin with an easy boss as a warmup. The giant squid, on the other hand, tells players that once they’ve left the tutorial area, the game will not hold back.

As the first area of the game, Skullrock Beach, does an excellent job introducing the core mechanics organically. Although characters do set aside the time to explain the mechanics directly, it does require players to pick up on details that aren’t outright stated. By the end, they will have a good idea of how the game plays. Punctuated with a challenging boss, and you have yourself the ideal tutorial stage.

In a devilish twist, the player is then told to disregard a significant portion of what they learned when an irate Nabu curses Jin, transforming him into a pig – a decidedly familiar-looking one, at that. Adding insult to injury, he is then thrown into the sewers below. Jin’s involuntary initial transformation is reminiscent of Bocke’s curse at the hands – or claws, if you will – of the Mecha Dragon wherein he found himself inhabiting the body of a Lizard-Man. Both are characters who find themselves cursed and must find some way of undoing it. Practicably, however, anyone who played The Dragon’s Trap could tell you that the Mecha Dragon’s curse was only so in the most nominal sense of the term. Shopkeepers were less keen on peddling their wares to a dragon-like creature after having been recently terrorized by one and Bocke’s stats had been reduced significantly lowered as a direct result of the curse. Neither of these problems changed the fact that his new form could breathe fire. Having a free, ranged attack in a game more suited for close-quarters combat made the decrease in raw stats an acceptable tradeoff.

By contrast, Jin’s curse is much more of an actual setback. The most significant problem with his new form is that he cannot use his equipment at all, being too fat to use them. Compounding matters is that his attack, while as strong as his starting sword, has a much worse range. On top of that, he now automatically sinks to the bottom of any body of water he comes across, though he retains his decent speed. The situation isn’t completely grim, though. One of the most useful aspects about Jin’s new form is his enhanced smell. By using this ability in front of a cloud of dust, he can potentially uncover a hidden item or a clue to help him overcome an obstacle.

Upon escaping the sewers, Jin and Zeke emerge in the Village of Lupia whereupon they meet Mysticat. He is the personal advisor to Lupia’s crown and is just as determined to reverse the mischief Nabu has caused. As your encounters with the shopkeepers indicated, Nabu didn’t stop at placing a curse upon Jin and Zeke; the entire populace has been transformed into monsters. Mysticat claims that the only way to set things right is for Jin to find five Sacred Orbs scattered throughout Monster World.

The premise of Jin’s quest initially lends itself to a bit of humor because he is effectively going out of his way to solve a problem that is, at worst, a minor inconvenience for the townspeople. Even Jin himself begins taking the absurdity in stride, which makes for an amusing juxtaposition whenever he performs heroic deeds. It’s as though Mr. Demeulenaere and his team conceived the scenario with the realization that the Mecha Dragon’s curse wasn’t much of one. One person, who has been turned into a panda, even remarks that her new paws make kneading bread much easier. The most negative reaction to these bizarre circumstances is courtesy of one couple, transformed into foxes, who are distraught that their children were turned raccoons instead. In a way, this development demonstrates how much artistic ground the medium had covered since the series’ inception. Something that would’ve been considered a genuine cause for alarm or a source of much angst in older works is instead accepted with minimal fuss. The game doesn’t even go the route of Monster World IV by having the townspeople slowly lose their sense of reasoning the longer they remain cursed; they remain affable to the end of the experience.

The first Sacred Orb Jin seeks is within the Misty Woods to the west of Lupia. If there is one substantive problem aside from how saving is handled, it would be the sequences that follow Jin’s meeting with Mysticat. Even when you navigate him through the sewers, the pig form’s lack of range is a significant problem. It becomes much worse as you navigate Jin through the Misty Woods where enemies have a distinct advantage over him. Spiders can launch webs, which slow down Jin’s movements if they hit him. A far more pressing threat would be the bats, which fly in erratic patterns and move much faster than Jin. Along with the bad maneuverability of Jin’s pig form, the game has a surprisingly high barrier to entry given its colorful appearance.

One could respond to these threats with magic, but they are of limited quantity, and refilling them isn’t easily accomplished. You must either farm spells or buy charges at a shop. The former method isn’t efficient given that random drops in general are rare. Not unlike Breath of the Wild, this is not a game in which you can easily recover health by defeating enough enemies. This means, for the first few areas, you have to tough things out. Then again, the latter method could easily cause your funds to run dry. In the end, there is no trick to getting through the Misty Woods; you just have to play it safe and memorize the layout the best you can.

Once you have traversed the Misty Woods, you will come face-to-face a snakelike creature. One shouldn’t be fooled by its diminutive size, as its venomous attacks can cover significant portions of the field. It’s not terribly difficult – especially compared to the giant squid, and defeating it grants Jin the first Sacred Orb. Upon receiving it, Jin finds himself assuming a form nearly identical to the monster he just vanquished. This is the basic formula for the duration of the experience. Vanquishing the bosses guarding the Sacred Orbs grants Jin a monster form of the same species. The process is highly reminiscent of Mega Man in how you fight against a boss with unique powers only to gain them for yourself upon defeating them.

This setup shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone who either watched the introductory cutscene, gazed at the cover art, or just read up on the game’s basic premise. Although the ability to throw fireballs can be useful or make for a neat parlor trick, Jin’s true power lies in his ability to shapeshift. Indeed, unlike Bocke, who changed forms multiple times involuntarily as a result of being cursed by each dragon he faced, Jin has complete control over this power. That is to say, he does not have to use a special chamber or a magical sword to switch forms; all it takes is the correct button inputs.

Although it would appear the developers tipped their hands, they still successfully threw a curveball at the player in exactly how the central mechanics work. The introductory cutscene is deliberately misleading in how it prominently features Jin in his human form. In the actual game, you will discover that Jin cannot revert to his normal self just because he can now shapeshift. The Dragon’s Trap stood out in that the entire point of the game was to remove what most contemporaries would consider an annoying status ailment. Even if other games occasionally made such curses permanent, chances were good the player could resolve the issue in a sidequest or two. Much like how using the Salamander Cross to remove Bocke’s curse directed led to the credits rolling, you won’t ever see Jin in his human form again until you’re about to tackle the final region.

Just the fact that the player can switch Jin’s forms at will is enough to declare it an improvement over the corresponding mechanic in The Dragon’s Trap. However, the developers didn’t stop there. One of the subtler issues present with The Dragon’s Trap concerned the matter that certain monster forms were objectively better than others. Bocke’s Mouse-Man form was usually considered the worst due to his short reach and annoying controls trying to get him to stick to checkered platforms. As such, players would only use him when necessary. Meanwhile, Bocke’s Lizard-Man form had the opposite problem in that he theoretically lent himself to many applications but couldn’t be used after defeating the second dragon.

This is a problem that Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom directly addresses. Each monster form Jin acquires has some kind of parallel to Bocke’s. The pig is the equivalent of Bocke’s Lizard-Man form, being the weakest from a statistical standpoint. However, after acquiring the first Sacred Orb, you learn the second transformation doesn’t render it useless because Jin’s new snake form cannot use magic. Because Jin’s pig form was the result of a curse rather than a magical artifact, it could be considered his default state until he undoes the damage caused by his uncle. As such, while later orbs confer stronger transformations, you will use the pig whenever magic is required. Enemies in this game can occasionally have elemental weaknesses, and the pig is the only one capable of exploiting them early on.

Magic does become less useful over time for various reasons, but it never becomes outright obsolete. Throughout the game, you will find chests that can only be opened by hitting them with a specific spell enough times. These chests tend to contain very useful items such as Life Hearts, so it pays to remain on the lookout for Super Truffles even after magic becomes impractical for fighting enemies. Indeed, unlike The Dragon’s Trap, the player actually has to go out of their way to acquire Life Hearts. Even a reasonably diligent player could wind up unlocking all the monster forms and still miss more than half of the Life Hearts. While magic isn’t required to open every chest containing a collectable, this aspect along with the pig form’s enhanced sense of smell ensures he will always have a use – even it’s purely for utility rather than combat.

Although not as renowned for its difficulty, Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom does have one striking similarity to Dark Souls in that it does have a fairly high barrier to entry. Anyone who wants to see things through to the end in either game needs to power through a wall. Once you’ve done that, the game finally clicks, and the quality increases dramatically. In Dark Souls, that moment occurred when the player character rung the first Bell of Awakening whereupon the game revealed its true identity as a Metroidvania. In Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom, the game officially becomes good once you’ve obtained the Snake Orb.

The snake’s small size makes it an analogue to Bocke’s Mouse-Man form, although the exact way it is utilized is slightly different. As mentioned before, Mouse-Man had the ability to stick to checkered tiles, which was cumbersome for many reasons. To begin with, you needed to press down on the control pad to activate it. The only indication you did it correctly is that Bocke began walking in place. Having him walk up walls and ceilings was difficult because all of these tiles were perfect squares, requiring the players to change directions at ninety-degree angles. Jin’s snake form has a similar ability, being able to stick to moss-covered walls. It is much easier to use because all you need to do is have Jin leap at the walls, and he will automatically stick to them. Moreover, owing to the advent of analog sticks, accounting for any change in slope curvature is easier than ever before.

Because of how he uses his snake form to navigate enclosed areas, the mechanic could be seen as the Wonder Boy answer to Samus Aran’s Morph Ball ability from Metroid. In both cases, the hero foregoes raw power in exchange for mobility. If so, the game inverts the concept in that, when you unlock the snake form, he is actually more powerful than his cursed self. While the snake’s offensive power is comparable that of the pig form, he has a distinct advantage over him in his ability to spit venom at his enemies. Giving the smallest form an inexhaustible ranged attack immediately resolves the biggest problem with using Mouse-Man, for you no longer have to get extremely close to enemies in order to defeat them. Only after Jin obtains the next three orbs does the snake form fulfill its intended role in a more traditional fashion. Being unable to use equipment, the snake’s damage output and defensive capabilities will eventually fall behind – much like how Samus’s standard Morph Ball bombs eventually only see use when opening passageways.

Defeating the boss at the end of the Crystal Caves awards Jin the Frog Orb. Versed gamers may end up drawing a comparison to Majora’s Mask when they realize Jin’s frog form can use the equipment his previous two couldn’t. Like Jin, the protagonist, Link, found himself cursed by an antagonistic character. In his new form, Link was unable to use his basic equipment. It is only after he reverted to his human form that he could use them again. You are briefly introduced to a fundamental mechanic, and then the game forces you to fight privilege of using it once the gloves are off. Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom follows a similar principle, but Jin doesn’t regain the ability to use his equipment by lifting the curse. Like Bocke, he simply acquires a monster form capable of properly holding a sword and shield.

With the ability to use equipment once again, the game wastes no time introducing the crafting system. Examining the Heavy Boots reveals two properties that are locked. To unlock them, one must bring the piece to a blacksmith. The first upgrade to the Heavy Boots allows Jin to walk at a normal speed when wearing them. In order to do this, one must gather the necessary materials. At first, Power Gems are required to enhance the properties of a piece. When they surpass a certain threshold, you will need Legendary Gems to bolster them further. Whichever gem you end up using unlocks a single upgrade.

When considering your equipment loadout, it’s important to know that each piece is actually part of a set. The game makes this clear through the layout of the menu itself. It is presented in a ring format with each piece in the set placed in that spot. For example, you will soon find an Ice Sword capable of freezing water. Accordingly, every ice-themed piece of equipment will be placed in that slot on each menu. Should you fully upgrade every piece of a given set, equipping them all will give Jin an additional bonus on top of the ones bestowed upon him by each upgrade. Returning to the previous example, donning a full set of ice equipment enhanced to their maximum level will render Jin immune to fire damage.

Regardless, it’s important to learn what advantages the equipment pieces carry because receiving the Frog Orb represents a significant spike in difficulty. In this regard, Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom takes a lot of cues from contemporary Metroidvanias. While one could trivialize the difficulty of older games upon finding a significant portion of the upgrades, efforts from the 2010s expected players to find them as soon as possible. The result is that even with all the upgrades, the games were still challenging. This game is similarly optimized in a fashion that assumes you’re constantly updating your equipment from here on out. It can be difficult to make choices given their sheer abundance, but even the short-term benefits some of them grant can allow the player to make just enough progress to secure other advantages.

Also scattered throughout Monster World are fragments of Golden equipment. That one would have to scour every inch of the world to find these fragments correctly suggests they are the best pieces of equipment in the game once assembled. After saving some children from a monster, their father, a blacksmith himself, thanks Jin by offering to forge these pieces for him if he collects them all. Only the Golden Sword is required to complete the game, but the other pieces are highly recommended as well. Equipment this good requires an equally rare means by which to enhance them. As such, only Golden Gems will suffice.

Naturally, Jin’s frog form has his own advantages. Frogs are famous for their stretchable tongues, which they use to capture insects. Jin himself can use it to eat any insect monsters he may come across, which even restores his health slightly. Outside of combat, he can utilize it to grab onto rings or inexplicably suspended bows. Grabbing onto a ring allows him to swing to the other side while the bows will shoot him in the direction marked on the riser. When introducing the ability to grapple in a platforming game, programmers need to exercise caution. With a system that requires players to input specific directions in a short amount of time, it is easy to not account for the player’s reflexes. The Thunder Claw ability from Mega Man 8 stands out as an example of how not to implement the idea. The limited range of the weapon coupled with the fickle hit detection of the grapple points made using it for this purpose extremely frustrating.

Fortunately, Mr. Demeulenaere and his team understood this and made the grappling system easy to use. All you must do is hold in the relative direction of whatever you’re trying to latch onto in order to do so. This ensures that even when you need to latch onto multiple rings or bows in succession, it is easy with enough practice. The arrows imprinted on the bow’s riser gives a nice visual cue as to which direction they need to hold quickly enough as Jin is sailing through the air. These sequences may take a few tries, but it’s not terribly different than any other platforming challenge you may have encountered – in this game or otherwise.

Being an amphibious animal, the frog also serves the same purpose as Bocke’s Piranha-Man form. In this form, he can freely swim underwater without fear of drowning. Although getting this form relatively early may make the oxygen meter redundant, one must still take caution during underwater excursions. The frog cannot breathe in mud, and if he ever encounters narrow corridors underwater, the snake is the only one capable of navigating them. Powerful currents also must be considered, as even the frog is completely at their mercy.

Once Jin emerges victorious against the monster hiding in the Lost Temple, he gains the Lion Orb. This is the most obvious parallel to The Dragon’s Trap, as one of Bocke’s cursed forms was of the same species. Nonetheless, Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom goes in a different direction with the idea. What powers dragonlike lizards, mice, piranhas, and hawks would have were intuitive enough. Bocke’s Lion-Man form stood out from the others in that he did not have an obvious power. Mr. Nishizawa and his team sensibly made him the strongest monster form, but otherwise, his primary power lied in his ability to swing the sword downward. This was handier than it sounded because other forms couldn’t normally break destructible blocks directly beneath them, though it still didn’t really tie into the motif.

Mr. Demeulenaere and his team resolved this discrepancy by giving Jin’s own lion form the ability to dash. Any enemy or breakable block unfortunate enough to reside in his path will take damage. He can even use this to run across and leap off the surface of a body of water. However, keeping with the spirit of The Dragon’s Trap, the lion form can plunge his weapon into the ground. His remarkable combat ability makes the lion form ideal for taking out land-based threats, and his sheer speed makes simple navigation much faster.

Finally, given the typically antagonistic role they have played since Wonder Boy in Monster Land, it seems ironically appropriate how Jin’s final monster form is that of a dragon. To acknowledge its significance, the dragon’s introduction ends up being the most bombastic. After obtaining the orb, Jin gets launched into the air and begins flying automatically. Although Monster Lair is generally considered to be the series’ black-sheep entry, Game Atelier acknowledged it by making this sequence a fully-fledged shoot ‘em up sequence. The best part is how seamless these transitions are. Then again, given how the protagonist can change forms on a dime, it makes perfect sense the gameplay itself can also be so multifaceted. It is then capped off in the best way possible – by defeating the dragon Jin just fought when it returns for round two.

When Jin lands, you become properly acquainted with his new form. By repeatedly pressing the jump button, Jin can fly for a short duration. Pressing the button normally reserved for magic causes him to breathe out a fireball. Should you choose to experiment, you’ll happily discover this ability can be used as a substitute for a fire spell if you’re trying to open a chest of that requires them. The best part is that unlike Bocke’s Hawk-Man form, the dragon does not take damage in water despite his ability to breathe fire.

Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom obviously wasn’t the series’ first foray into the Metroidvania subgenre. However, discounting the remakes of the original Wonder Boy and The Dragon’s Trap, it was the first entry the series to debut after the term had been coined. The genre’s name is a portmanteau of Metroid and Castlevania. Released in 1994 and 1997 respectively, Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night were the games that led to enthusiasts naming the subgenre. Both games are lauded classics that many enthusiasts consider to this day to be the absolute pinnacle of design and atmospheric storytelling. With no shortage of classics to compete against, where, exactly does Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom fall when compared to them? After seeing everything the game has to offer, I can declare Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom to have been one of the single greatest two-dimensional Metroidvania titles of all time, surpassing both subgenre-naming games in that regard.

There are several reasons why this is, but the game truly shines in its level design. I speak no hyperbole when I say you would have to go back to games such as Donkey Kong Country 2 before you get level design this good. While Metroidvanias are primarily about exploration, Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom places equal importance on platforming. The areas have such an intricate design and integrate the monster forms in such unique ways that it will leave you awestruck. Jin’s ability to grapple using his frog form’s tongue is impressive by itself. When you use it to rotate a room ninety degrees clockwise in the middle of a miniboss fight? It’s nothing short of incredible.

The dungeons themselves also have a lot in common with those of the average The Legend of Zelda installment. I say this because starting with the Lost Ruins, stages begin to sprawl out more, requiring you to clear out areas, find keys, and solve puzzles. They even follow a similar pattern wherein progress is impeded until you find the main treasure – talismans. Four of these talismans enhance each of Jin’s monster forms – apart from the pig. They allow him to break rocks as a snake, carry objects as a frog, leap into the air as a lion, and fly and breathe fire indefinitely as a dragon. After that, you can use the talisman to progress through the rest of the dungeon until you reach the boss, which serves as an exam for what you just learned.

Although the Metroidvania is a respected subgenre, some find the genre a bit tedious due to its methodical nature, which involves a lot of backtracking. I’ve never had a problem with that, but I understand where those who don’t come from. Going back and forth across the same few areas would make for an insufferably slow experience without some kinds of mitigating factors. The best Metroidvanias do indeed possess these qualities, but otherwise, excessive backtracking would make it increasingly difficult to appreciate the level design. It’s not like a platforming game such as Super Mario Bros. wherein you only go through a given stage as many times as it takes for you complete it.

With the way dungeons are designed in Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom, Mr. Demeulenaere and his team found a way to have the best of both worlds. Many times, you will face an obstacle that, once circumvented, changes the layout of the room. Not only does this make backtracking easier, it also ensures that subsequent playthroughs can still surprise you. In addition, the game has the courtesy to give players a means of teleportation. You will quickly find a portal in Lupia Village that, once activated, allows you to warp to any of the others throughout Monster World.

However, Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom goes a step further with this concept by giving Jin the Teleportation Rod. True to its name, Jin can use this to create portals of his own. The portal he creates remains until he uses the rod a second time or the player quits the game. This allows him to easily retreat from a dangerous situation. Giving the player the ability to teleport at any time sounds as though it would destroy any semblance of challenge the game may have presented, but it is balanced well. This is because it takes a few seconds to create the portal, which makes using it in close quarters nigh impossible.

Even if you are patient and smart enough to effectively use the Teleportation Rod to avoid defeat, you will eventually happen upon problems you cannot circumvent by hitting them enough times. This is because one field in which the game excels is in its puzzles. In most action-adventure games, puzzles usually amount to using your newest toy on the obstacles you couldn’t previous pass. They could be used in increasingly complicated permutations, but what you needed to do was usually obvious. When playing Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom, don’t be surprised if you find yourself taking a few minutes to solve a puzzle. This is because many of the puzzles require observing your surroundings, thinking things through logically, or even just good timing.

The reason I find myself drawing comparisons to Donkey Kong Country 2 is because many of these dungeons have unique mechanics. The Haunted Manor, which is visited after Jin obtains his dragon form, is particularly remarkable because it gives him the ability to possess and explore certain inanimate objects. Among other things, you can use fans to break open new paths, smash open walls with a suit of armor, or possess the dial of safe to learn its combination. Eventually, Jin teams up with Pepelogoo, who can eat ghosts and project beams of light, the latter of which is controlled by using the right analog stick. While the stages leading up to the Haunted Manor aren’t quite this bizarre, the same creative energy can be observed in them as well. Wanted to see a frog man escape from a giant, rolling boulder or a lion man walk on lava with Ice Boots? Then this is the game for you.

I am also obligated to remark that Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom has some truly incredible boss fights. By the late 2010s, boss fights had become something of a lost art. Boss encounters in most Western AAA productions at the time entailed fighting an opponent who either possessed more health than their underlings or blatantly broke the game’s rules to drag things out. This was likely a result of the AAA industry taking cues from Hollywood, and, in the process, penning grounded premises. After all, it wouldn’t make much sense for a random human to survive ten headshots – no matter how tough they may be. Furthermore, as storytelling became more advanced, writers had to find ways to prevent the protagonist from dominating everything, thus becoming a Mary Sue. This is where the rule-breaking opponents came into play. By having indignities befall the protagonist whenever they and the main antagonist exist within the same space, writers could ostensibly solve this dilemma. Even so, it was a true shame that developers became less interested in boss fights because triumphing over the one opponent you could never defeat formed the basis of many enthusiasts’ greatest memories with the medium.

This is what made Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom such a breath of fresh air in 2018. The boss encounters display a level of creativity that had been long lost in Western AAA productions by then. These are not the kinds of fights you can win through brute force. You must take time to study the boss’s patterns and react accordingly. Jin’s encounter with the monster guarding the Frog Orb brings to mind a similar situation from Yoshi’s Island in how he must destroy the creature from the inside, quickly navigating a series of moss-covered walls to do so. Then, there is the Undead Wizard, which many fans cite as the single best boss fight in the game. The first two phases involve destroying his barrier with Pepelogoo’s power. Once the wizard decides to get serious, he destroys the floor, causing the three combatants to fall into an infinite void. From here, the game once again becomes a shoot ‘em up. Something like this would have stood out in the 1990s but seeing it in a late-2010s game not made by Nintendo was commendable.

As if the game needed any more advantages, it features an all-star cast of composers consisting of Yuzo Koshiro, Motoi Sakuraba, Michiru Yamane, Keiki Kobayashi, and Takeshi Yanagawa. Yuzo Korisho is especially renowned for his work on Streets of Rage, though he also made a name for himself composing many memorable themes from Nihon Falcom’s Ys series. His influence is highly evident when one hears the volcano’s theme, which features his signature synth-heavy rock style. Motoi Sakuraba is one of the most famous composers in the medium, scoring Golden Sun and Dark Souls among other works. His is a style that is immediately recognizable; it grabs your attention immediately, spinning an epic through notes alone. With many people lamenting Konami’s downfall in the mid-2010s, Michiru Yamane’s presence on this project was a beacon of hope for everyone. Although her style naturally lends itself to the gothic horror motifs of Castlevania, it feels right at home in this game as Jin finds himself in the Haunted Manor. Lastly, Keiki Kobayashi and Takeshi Yanagawa have cult followings as the main composers behind Ace Combat and Etrian Odyssey respectively. From a conceptual standpoint, bringing together such disparate composers would be a questionable move. In the hands of the daft, it would deprive the work of cohesion. In practice, they manage to work well off each other, enforcing the central premise through music in addition to gameplay and visuals.

As this is going on, you will undoubtedly notice just how incredible the artwork manages to be. The medium had come a long way since the 1990s. Gone are the sprites possessing two or three frames in their movement cycles and in their stead are ones with fluid animation. The artists went the extra mile, programming unique animations for each form – no matter how obscure the action may be. They even have their own idle animation. The snake coils up for a nap, the frog eats a fly, the lion roars, the dragon exhales flames through his nostrils. The pig parodies the propensity developers have of flipping asymmetrical sprites by revealing the eyepatch is covering a perfectly functional eye – though he switches back when he realizes the audience is watching.

Then, of course, there are the backdrops themselves, which, in true Metroidvania fashion, manage to tell a story all their own. The locales Jin visits do run the gamut of standard video-game areas, but the experience puts a subtle, subversive twist on them by taking the monster forms out of their element. The snake would seem suited for a forested area or a desert, yet you make the most use out of him in the ice-themed Crystal Caves. Similarly, the dragon would seem right at home either in the volcano or the open skies. In truth, he is at his handiest when exploring the Haunted Manor. Between this game and Lizardcube’s exemplary remake of The Dragon’s Trap, the Wonder Boy spawned two installments that were looked as well as they played.

More than anything, what I especially admire about Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom is that it was a passion project in the purest sense of the term. Despite being a largely standalone sequel, the game does pay homage to its predecessors. This is apparent when you visit the church in Lupia and see Wonder Boy, Bocke, Shion, and Asha all immortalized in stained glass. For those who have played through the entire series up until this point, there is something special about having personally experienced journeys that are now considered legend.

Indeed, anyone familiar with the Wonder Boy series knows this is hardly the first crisis Monster World has faced. First, an evil being named King kidnapped a young woman named Tina, prompting her boyfriend to save her. Sometime thereafter, a fire-breathing dragon began terrorizing the land. This time, a new hero named Bocke rose to the challenge and slew the dragon. The dragon was revealed to be a robot from outer space, which turned out to foreshadow the existence of another, more menacing foe in the form of Biomeka. A hero named Shion repelled Biomeka’s invasion, though he couldn’t finish him off. It wouldn’t be until many years later that Asha finally dealt the coup de grâce.

One late-game fetch quest requires Jin to find artifacts associated with three of these heroes: the hatchet wielded by Wonder Boy, the Salamander Cross Bocke used to lift his curse, and the ocarina Shion played to open the door of that game’s first dungeon. This does raise the question as to why none of Asha’s belongings are revered in a similar fashion. After all, she was the one who defeated Biomeka once and for all. Wouldn’t she be considered the hero to end all heroes? It turns out that Pepelogoo’s own journey to find a green-haired girl foreshadows Asha’s true fate: she is very much alive. If you find every single collectable, you will be treated to a brief scene wherein Pepelogoo finally reunites with her.

While the townspeople aren’t terribly affected by Nabu’s curse, you do get the sense that something isn’t quite right as Jin nears the end of his journey. At one point, the guards imprison a professor who can help Jin on his journey. This requires Jin to storm Castle Lupia’s dungeons and rescue him. This proves to be a little difficult because the guards have an advantage on their home turf, making a direct confrontation impossible after a certain point. If Jin gets caught, the guards throw him in the cell opposite the professor’s. Fortunately, in what is a classic, time-honored tradition in video games, the guards’ imperceptive nature ensures Jin can escape using his snake form.

Not content with incorporating shoot ‘em up elements, the game dabbles in the stealth genre as well. Considering most games not suited for stealth typically falter when introducing elements thereof, it’s impressive that Mr. Demeulenaere and his team found a way to make these sequences work so well. This is because stealth games are, at their core, puzzlers. In this situation, you’re merely applying your knowledge in a different way.

As it eventually turns out, Mysticat wasn’t interested in gathering the orbs to lift Nabu’s curse. He wanted to present them to his master, Lord Xaros, so he could take over the world. The exact second Jin collects the Human Orb from Nabu, Mysticat reveals his deception, turning Jin, Zeke, and Nabu to stone. He then uses the Sacred Orbs to open a portal to the Dark Realm, thus allowing Xaros’s influence to spread. It is revealed that Nabu had discovered the plan himself, causing Xaros to brainwash him. By causing this untold chaos, Mysticat was able to convince Jin that he needed to collect the orbs in order to lift the curse. On the surface, this sounds like an ingenious plan, but it does have a major blind spot. Mysticat clearly didn’t have a contingency plan in place Xaros, in true evil-overlord fashion, decided he had no more use for his closest follower. Indeed, once Xaros is restored to his full power, he wastes no time getting rid of Mysticat.

Luckily, the spirits of Shion, Wonder Boy, and Bocke arise from the artifacts Jin collected and him along with Zeke and Nabu. The three of them then journey into the Dark Realm with Pepelogoo following thereafter. The final area goes out on a glorious note with an excellent remix of the Mecha Dragon’s castle theme from Wonder Boy in Monster Land as Jin journeys through the perilous Dark Realm. To help him through, he is given the Human Talisman, which allows him to teleport past barriers. True to form, the game allows you to become familiar with the mechanic before soon throwing tougher permutations your way.

In a work that offered no shortage of gameplay twists, the final battle against Xaros tests everything you learned throughout the experience, forcing Jin to most of his monster forms to defeat him. All in all, it is a perfect note upon which to end the game.

Drawing a Conclusion

Pros:

  • Excellent level design that puts unique spin on the Metroidvania
  • Monster forms add a lot of variety to proceedings
  • Incredible soundtrack courtesy of a team of veteran composers
  • Beautiful animation
  • Successfully builds upon past installments
  • Interesting scenario
  • Fluid controls
  • Legitimately challenging
  • Creative boss fights
  • Ability to teleport greatly expedites backtracking
  • Inventive, dynamic gameplay
Cons:

  • Inability to save manually
  • Immense difficulty in first few areas

Despite being one of Nintendo’s biggest franchises, the 2010s were not a good period for Metroid fans. The year 2010 marked the debut of Metroid: Other M, which was, at the time, the single most controversial game to ever bear Nintendo’s personal thumbprint – or Team Ninja’s. The reasons as to why this was are complicated, but the characterization of protagonist Samus Aran proved especially polarizing with many calling the narrative out on its sexist undertones. Fortunately, Yoshio Sakamoto, the director of the game, took the criticisms to heart and produced Metroid: Samus Returns alongside the Spanish developer MercurySteam, restoring much of his credibility when it was released in 2017.

The other series associated with the subgenre, Castlevania, wasn’t as lucky. In the mid-2010s, Konami, the company behind the series, would squander all their goodwill through a corporate restructure that saw their efforts focus entirely on the manufacture and distribution of pachinko machines. When the hellish conditions executives imposed upon their employees were revealed, Konami became the target of many an enthusiast’s ire. Depending on who you ask, the final straw was either their cancellation of Silent Hills or their interference of the production of Metal Gear Solid V, which caused the game to be shipped only half-finished. That the esteemed Guillermo del Toro swore off working on video games ever again as direct result of the Silent Hills debacle only rubbed salt on the wound. Either way, every single one of Komani’s franchises suffered as a result of their newfound complacency – Castlevania included.

As a possible response to these unfortunate developments, several independent artists took it upon themselves to fill the void left by the titans’ absence. Many of them, such as Axiom Verge and Ori and the Blind Forest, were highly acclaimed and pleased many fans of the subgenre. How does the collaboration between Ryuichi Nishizawa and Fabien Demeulenaere fare in the face of such tough competition? When Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom debuted in 2018, I believe history to have repeated itself. The Dragon’s Trap may not have been the first Metroidvania ever created, but it achieved a level of quality exceeding that of the original Metroid, thereby demonstrating what the subgenre needed to do to evolve. That it ran on such a unique premise only made the game more enticing. Meanwhile, although Metroid: Samus Returns was indeed what the franchise needed to regain its goodwill, I concluded the game fell short in a number of ways – most notably in its control scheme. When Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom arrived on the scene, it managed to deliver an experience that outshined Samus Returns in every possible way.

Despite being acclaimed by those who played it, the game didn’t receive much in the way of publicity upon its 2018 release. There are many possible reasons why it didn’t resonate with journalists, but I propose it’s because they weren’t used to games selling themselves purely through their gameplay. Hardcore enthusiasts had no such complications because they were able to discern what does and doesn’t make good gameplay through firsthand experience, but journalists often failed to see the forest for the trees in this regard. While there were exceptions, they often ended up proving the rule. Dark Souls is often considered one of the best games ever made, yet the initial critical consensus wasn’t overwhelmingly positive. It didn’t become a true phenomenon until a few years later when it demonstrated a long-lasting appeal its contemporaries didn’t possess. Nintendo continued to receive acclaim through gameplay-heavy experiences, yet one couldn’t escape the notion that they were grandfathered in. For any aspiring developer in the latter half of the 2010s, passion and innovation simply weren’t enough. Developers needed to dance to the critics’ tune or risk falling into obscurity.

Regardless of the exact reason, it is unfortunate that Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom didn’t receive much attention because it is easily one of the best games of the 2010s. I say this because it is something not many creators at the time dared to be: fun. By owning the inherently fun nature of the medium, it emerges an effort superior to many contemporary critical darlings. Within the Wonder Boy series’ original run, Mr. Nishizawa and Westone displayed a level of creativity that could only be rivaled by some of the most prolific developers out there. I consider it a true shame that their success didn’t continue because I firmly believe if it had, they would have become one of the greatest developers in the business. In this regard, they were the Eastern equivalent of Looking Glass Studios; highly innovative, yet their successes translated to quiet triumphs that would only be lauded retrospectively. Even if it took some time for the Wonder Boy series to grasp to its true potential, it was a sight to behold when it did. It stands to this day as a true labor of love, and one absolutely deserving of your attention.

Final Score: 9/10

8 thoughts on “Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom

    • Lizardcube did an amazing job with that remake, didn’t they? They’re in the middle of making Streets of Rage 4 right now, by the way. And while that was indeed an excellent remake, everything you liked about it and more can be found in this game.

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  1. Oh, boy! The more I read about this game the more I feel like I missed out on a great experience when I let it slip under my radar. Since Animal Crossing is just around the corner, I will put it on my must-play list for the next time the Switch hits a drought.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s not your fault; journalists completely dropped the ball here by not giving it more attention. I’m not even sure how I found out about it; I was probably just browsing the internet randomly and stumbled upon it by accident, though the remake of The Dragon’s Trap likely had something to do with it. It’s a shame because it seriously is one of the best 2D Metroidvanias out there. Hope you enjoy it when you finally get around to play it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: February 2020 in Summary: System Shocked! | Extra Life

  3. So, “one of the single greatest two-dimensional Metroidvania titles of all time”. That’s a pretty heavy endorsement there. Those screenshots do look gorgeous, and if it’s the boss fights and level design that’s making it work, I would say that that’s actually a lot rarer to find good quality in then the traditional gameplay.

    The way you lay it all out here, it’s kind of amazing that this has come so far. A professional fan-made spiritual successor crowd-funding project, which you can get a dime a dozen, turned into an official series entry with big names backing it that apparently hit exactly where it needed to and perhaps made an even better game than the original? That’s a transition I wouldn’t have seen coming.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, you know me; I don’t make statements like that lightly. It was exceptionally rare to play a game in 2018 that wore its boss fights and level design as badges of honor, so if you’re looking for a new kind of experience like that, Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom is for you.

      I know I’d be ecstatic if a love letter to a favorite series of mine ended up becoming a canonical installment. That Ryuichi Nishizawa was involved in the project is the cherry on top of the sundae. I stand firm that it’s one of the best games of the 2010s, so if you end up picking it up, I consider that a job well done.

      Liked by 1 person

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