The remade Wonder Boy: The Dragon's Trap was only the appetiser, an appetiser that had us longing for more. The main course, in this case, is the return of the Monster World series and even though it took its time to arrive it's finally here. Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom is the fifth entry in the Wonderboy/Monster World series. It's a completely new game that was created along the same structure and foundation as its predecessor but taking advantage of current technology, especially when it comes to visual design and animations.
The creator of the original games, Ryuichi Nishizawa, has supervised the whole process, making sure the game plays like the old ones. That why it's so easy to find the guiding thread in the entire title and we found references in every nook and cranny. Developer Game Atelier has started from the simple premise that from the very beginning lends importance to an unknown hero, Jin. His uncle obtained a magical weapon making him mad in the process and he transformed the whole population into different animals.
Luckily, Jin got turned into a pig, and even if it's not a clever or a quick animal, he has a wonderful sense of smell that will be useful to find secrets all around the world. Specifically, some truffles that give him the ability to manage five different weapons. Starting as a pig, the pursuit of the orbs that might just return the population to its normal state begins. However, they turn the protagonist into other creatures the moment he gets them. A sneaky snake that gets through holes and spits venom, a frog that can hold on to ledges with its tongue and doesn't drown, a lion that charges powerfully and tears walls down, and a dragon that can spit fire and, naturally, fly.
Finding the six transformations means a lot of exploration, combat, platforming and puzzle-solving across the game's huge map. It is roughly five or six times bigger than the one in the Dragon's Trap remake from last year and completing it won't be as easy as the art style and that sweet music may suggest. There is an everpresent sense of challenge, despite this, you always progress a little bit before you get stuck, either if it's a puzzle that you cannot figure out, a more demanding platform section, or a combat zone in which the enemies show no mercy. Game Atelier has designed it while calculating everything so there isn't anything that slows the pace, and any difficulty spikes are followed by enjoyable moments that lower frustration.
For those who don't know this game style yet, Wonder Boy represents the side-scrolling genre in a free and sectioned off open world that unfolds before your eyes as you obtain the powers and skills that you need to access each new zone. We're not just talking about the character transformations you get from the orbs, some are unlockable skills or even items, like armour and boots that are immune to fire or that let you double jump.
That meticulous design is incredibly precise, but it hides a linear story that is always there because as was the case in Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom there is only one right way forward and the rest is just wandering around - or backtracking for secrets that were previously inaccessible. The developer avoided excessive exploration by giving us two ways to figure out whether there's anything left to discover, the advice that NPCs give us and the map in the pause menu (as the grid isn't complete if there are still places to explore). We really appreciate this help, but this doesn't mean that you won't get stuck because even it's helpful there's enough complexity here to still make it a challenge.
If you think that the general design of the world is superb, you won't be disappointed with the design of each zone. The line between fun and boring 2D levels is very thin, so it depends on how the designers place enemies, platforms, treasure chests, etc. You never feel lost and there's always something to aim for. The game does a great job of reinventing itself and bringing new challenges to the player. The magic here comes from changing characters, and when you get further in the story you'll notice that puzzles are not solved with a single character. The frog jumps in the air towards a wall, but to hold on to that wall you must change into the snake, so you must transform yourself mid-jump, for example.
There are recognisable elements in each scenario, some as traditional as the beach, the forest, a floating village, or a volcano, but everything has been expanded. Each area has a unique touch that makes it natural for one specific transformation, but without leaving the rest behind. Meanwhile, there are some brilliant puzzle zones, like the inside the volcano. Also, we cannot leave the references to past titles unmentioned. Suddenly you are in Wonder Boy III: Monster Lair, the always moving side-scrolling arcade title, playing what amounts to a shoot 'em up. It's not the only tribute we found to Sega's past, like when you find a giant pinball reminiscent of Casino Night from Sonic 2. To round off, there are some great boss battles wherein you must think first and attack later because things may not always be what they first seem.
Technically and in terms of gameplay, Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom is superb, and it comes with a high-quality presentation. Like the Dragon's Trap remake, it also uses cartoon animations that makes for a very vibrant, living game that shows every hit, fall or gust of wind (even when you're standing still and waiting). But there's more, much more than a colourful canvas here. It's a modern game that doesn't skimp on resources and creates thousands of details so that the scene, whatever it may be, always offers something. Elements like cold or hot weather can produce visual variations and small particles always appear when they are needed to make a scene livelier. It's a pity that the soundtrack is not as good, as it was a little too sweet. Everything is so cheerful and lively, and some of the tunes take it too far.
We played the game on Nintendo Switch because we thought that it would adapt perfectly to portable gaming, and it did; it's very enjoyable, but it's better on a larger screen. Particularly on PC and consoles with improved resolution, you can see all those little visual details that make this game so good. It runs smoothly, although we found one or two bugs and noted a couple of objects that loaded too late. During the first hours, we also noticed some very short but unexpected loading times (in the menus too) and watch out for some platforms that can be confused with the background as they gave us a few headaches.
Game Atelier has achieved what they set out to do; prove that a classic game can fit perfectly in the modern world. The team knew how to imitate the old style formula to create a huge and perfectly designed map, but they added some small touches of their own to further the Monster World formula. Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom excels thanks to its beautiful levels, entertaining puzzles, and action-packed platforming.
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