Available On: PC, PlayStation 4, Switch, Xbox One
Nostalgia for the action-platformers of the 80s and 90s have helped fuel the modern indie game industry, from spiritual successors to direct recreations. Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom is a modern take on the old and underrated Wonder Boy series.
The first new Wonder Boy game since 1994 has been given an astonishing overhaul, with gorgeous hand-drawn animations, a bombastic musical score, and a lengthy campaign that hits every checkbox of regional themes. Unfortunately it also dregs up some of the more unforgiving challenges and obtuse puzzle designs of that era, holding back an otherwise fantastic original entry.
The titular hero is Jin, a spiky blue-haired warrior who finds his fantasy realm under assault by monsters. Its citizens are transformed into anthropomorphic beasts, a fate which soon befalls Jin. But Jin can acquire new bestial forms to transform into, unlocking unique abilities and access to new paths and treasures.
As a pig Jin can sniff out hidden platforms, switches, or clues. He can also discover magical truffles that grant magic spells, like lighting bolts, fireballs, and a mini-tornado. A tiny snake form grants access to hard to reach places. The Frog, Lion, and Dragon forms allow Jin the full range of his equipment as well as unique traversal abilities, like swinging with his frog tongue or flying on dragon wings.
Each form has to be earned by defeating a boss in a different region, creating a slow and gentle curve. By the time I finally got the frog form, and could actually use my sword and shield again, I was already several hours into the adventure. Each earned form offers a big boost in power and utility, and opens up more of the world.
Returning to previous areas gets easier thanks to the generous teleportation network. Later I’m given a staff to instantly teleport from any area – perfect! But the world map, while lovely, leaves a lot to be desired. The map can point out various paths, but fails to properly designate which abilities I’ll need to gain access, resulting in too much wasted time.
The hand-drawn world of the Cursed Kingdom is gorgeous. I’ve played a lot of 2D platformers and they rarely use such vibrant color and cheery enemies and characters. It’s a joy to explore many of the diverse regions, from the icy Crystal Caverns to the jungles surrounding the Lost Temple.
And I can’t praise the amazing orchestral soundtrack enough. Every region has its own track, an eclectic mix of groove, jazz, synth, and big band melodies that had me humming long after I turned the game off.
The adventure gradually introduces more puzzle elements and new forms. But the difficulty curve takes a harsh nose dive around the halfway point. Save points and check points are thankfully numerous and generous, but it’s never fun replaying the same section half a dozen times because of a slightly mistimed jump. Later dungeons, like the volcano, feature too many insta-kill penalties, making an already lengthy dungeon (and game) more than wear out its welcome.
Many difficulty woes can be alleviated by wearing the right equipment. Instead of finding most treasure in the wild you have to purchase them with gold. But gold is earned at an agonizing pace. And no amount of equipment will help solve frustrating puzzles. These difficulty spikes were egregious enough to derail much of my enjoyment throughout the second half.
Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom is rated E for Everyone with Fantasy Violence and Alcohol Use. The artwork and dialogue is bright, cheery, and very kid-friendly, and defeated enemies simply poof away. The gameplay can be very demanding, however, harshly limiting to one, then two situational forms early on. The difficulty spikes in the latter half can be very frustrating as well. This is a very challenging game for adults, let alone kids and teens.
So much of Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom is a joy to experience, and it’s not just the art and music. The way each animal form grants specific attacks and movement abilities, and the clever way the various regions are intertwined with each other. Dealing with hideous challenges and replaying levels ad nauseam were par for the course in older games. It’s annoying that these elements wormed their way into an otherwise modern masterpiece of a 2D action-platformer.