The classic Wonder Boy/Monster World franchise has seen quite the resurgence lately, thanks to a couple of remakes of the first and third title in the series and an all-new official sequel. In conjunction with Ryuichi Nishizawa, one of the original Wonder Boy developers and co-founder of Westone Bit, FDG Entertainment and Game Atelier have been working on a sequel for the franchise; however, it started its life as Flying Hamster II on Kickstarter. The game may not have "Wonder Boy" in the title, Sega owns the rights to it, Monster Boy not only lives up to its predecessors, but it may be the most remarkable and delightful entry into the franchise.
As a side-scrolling platformer, Monster Boy doesn’t shy away from the fact that it borrows elements from previous games while giving it a modern spin that will appease newcomers and long-time fans alike. The inhabitants of the Monster World Kingdom have been transformed into animals thanks to your barrel riding, overindulging uncle. Jin’s initial efforts to confront his uncle don’t go according to plan, and he gets transformed into a pig for his efforts. This is the first of five uniquely designed animal forms (six in total if you count Jin’s human form). This form should be familiar to fans of the series, as its based on the always smoking, one-eyed pirate looking shopkeeper that appeared in previous games. Regardless of the form, each one has a unique approach to combat, as well as traversal, requiring you to switch between the forms to make your way across the interconnected world. The environments are designed so that it gradually opens up as you progress through the narrative and unlock new forms, but it takes it a step further, as accessing new paths may also require you to purchase/find new pieces of equipment.
Jin’s pig form may be the first form, but it comes quite in handy across the entire 15-20 hour adventure. Using his keen sense of smell, you can locate hidden objects and doorways. While he is unable to wield any of your collected gear, he is the only animal form that can use magic spells (Jin's human form can also use them). Not to mention, his pig form is so, so kawaii, that’s cute for those that don’t speak Japanese. The magic spells are quite useful; however when initially acquired, they won’t have many charges. The boomerang is ultra powerful, but if you miss catching it when it returns, you are out of luck. Other actual spells, such as fireballs, lightning bolts, and mini-cyclones start with only a handful of uses. While you can recharge your spells at a shop (at the cost of some precious coins), you will occasionally find drops from defeated foes. Some equipable items can increase the drop rate, depending upon your immediate needs. However, as a pig, you can put your massive snout to good use to find hidden truffles throughout the kingdom. These truffles increase the number of charges for each of your spells, letting you unleash even more havoc on enemies and bosses. You'll need to maximize the number of charges for your spells to open late-game treasure chests.
This wouldn’t be the Monster World franchise without multiple transformations, and the rest of Jin’s forms doesn’t disappoint. As a snake, you’ll lose your ability to harness magical spells, but using your small stature, you can fit into tiny gaps no one else can access. Not only that, but you can slither and attach your way across slimy ledges, letting you move up and down walls and across ceilings with ease. You aren't entirely helpless, as you can swing your tail in a pinch for minimal damage, but your essential talent involves spitting acid at unexpecting foes. It also comes in handy to solve some of the game’s numerous environmental puzzles, activating crystals to illuminate darkened caverns and activating levers that would typically be out of reach. Once you collect the snake talisman (there's one for every form), you can strengthen your scaly head to break rocks blocking your path.
While your snake form can get you into tight spaces, and the pig form can butt-stomp to stun enemies and activate switches, the frog form helps you reach new heights, literally. He can wear and use equipment; however, you lose the ability to butt-stomp and use magic spells. The added equipment means you can utilize sets of armor, swords, and shields. The most significant addition in this form comes from your tongue, which can be used to slingshot yourself high into the air or used to swing from precariously placed rings. It’s a double-edged sword when used to attack foes. While eating mosquitoes can replenish your health, as long as they are not electrified, most other types can actually harm or leave you with adverse status effects, such as confusion (reversing movement controls), or slowness that will cause you to move slower than a snail through molasses. Some enemy weapons, such as bombs, and shields can be stolen using your tongue and spit back out.
The lion form is the backbone of your transformations, and one of my personal favorites to use. Like your frog form, you can fully equip any piece of equipment, but you gain a downwards thrust attack with your sword. His unique ability lets you smash through blocks, run across water, and damage weaker enemies at unimaginable speeds. Eventually, you’ll gain an upwards thrust that comes in handy to activate switches on ceilings, as well as giving you slightly more oomph to your jumps. With the inclusion of boots that give you the ability to double jump, this essentially gives you a third jump. Jin’s final transformation is a fiery dragon, with the ability to shoot fireballs, and fly. As the final form, it can neglect some of the previous level design mechanics, but I appreciate being able to traverse through previously explored areas with relative ease.
Regardless of the area you are in; there are shops littered throughout. The nurse station can replenish your health, and gives you the opportunity to purchase an elixir that will revive you if you happen to die, as well as a potion to negate adverse status effects, such as poison. As mentioned, the magic shop replenishes your magic spells, which are only used in the human and pig form. The map highlights any chest that you come across but did not open (marking it with a question mark), and warping portals let you return to past areas regularly. Eventually, you’ll earn a magical staff that enables you portal back from anywhere. There are even items you collect that can be given to the treasure master to mark any chest that you have yet to come across.
Weapon shops sell sets of gear; swords, armor, bracelets, and shields, all of which can be upgraded. Each piece and full sets come with bonuses, such as the ice body armor raising your fire damage resistance. On the other hand, the boots in the collection located in a secret treasure chest let you walk across lava without taking damage. It’s required to progress properly through the game; however, you are never directed towards their location. In this case, I became overly frustrated, thinking I was not understanding a puzzle mechanic until I tried a new route and just happened to come across them. The same can be said about the ice sword; however, it needs to be purchased from the shop, as well as upgraded in order to freeze projectiles. Without it, you won’t be able to access the required areas. Because of this, much of the game is gated off, not only due to progression but also from what equipment you have purchased or obtained. If you are like me and found yourself short on money, its best to find a spot to farm enemies over and over. Traditionally enemies respawn once you return to a previous screen. Even if you don’t leave the screen, enemies will eventually respawn, sometimes too fast.
During the last third of the game, the difficulty truly ramps up, requiring you to be precise with your timing and jumping, usually combining multiple forms in a single maneuver. You may have to use the frog’s tongue to launch yourself high into the air (or swing across a gap), then transform into the lion to perform an upward thrust to gain additional height, and then finally switching to the snake form to attach yourself upside down to the ceiling. Be swift with your movements, as you may have to outrun lava that is increasingly inching towards the top of the screen.
Projectiles are my biggest annoyance with the game’s combat system. If you need to block anything straight in front of you or directly above you with the shield, it's not a problem. Anything coming at you at an angle will most likely result in you taking damage, even if it appears like it would make contact with the shield. Most of the time, checkpoints are are well placed, although you may have to replay certain sections multiple times. It is almost punishing that you only respawn with only three hearts of health, especially when a single hit can practically wipe out your health.
When I initially saw Monster Boy for the first time, the game was oozing with charm; however, the amount of expression and personality with each form has reached incredible heights thanks to hand-drawn animations and beautiful environments. There is also an anime style opening cinematic and a stunning soundtrack to go along with the game, with each area having its own style and feel. The game emphasizes puzzle-platforming elements, as well as varying and uniquely designed mechanics to each of the boss encounters.
Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom is everything that you’ll want in an official sequel to the Monster World franchise. Regardless of the late game frustrations and spike in difficulty, it is one of the best modern day platformers I have ever played.Note: Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom was reviewed on Xbox One. A digital copy of the game was provided by the publisher/developer.