After nearly 30 years of waiting — hoping, dreaming & wishing — my thoughts were as such “Please don’t break my heart Game Atelier. Don’t do it” I’ve held out all this time and here it finally is…. Monster Boy & The Cursed Kingdom.
At eight years old I crept downstairs; like a shadow I’d memorized all the steps that might make sound. Socks on feet, I crept cautiously to avoid any sound at all toward the glow of the tree. 6AM Christmas, 1989. The year I received one of the greatest presents that eight year old me could imagine. That year the jolly red portly gentleman with the white beard (care of mum & dad) delivered Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap.
Completing the first area I immediately felt full of myself, smashing the Mecha Dragon to bits with my trusty sword, before realising this was all a set up and then had to escape the castle as a fire-breathing lizard who couldn’t break toilet paper. To say I was hooked would be to use too weak a word.
I revisited the game maybe 40–50 times over the next 29 years and it never lost its charm — even if the challenge had been diluted by my improved motor skills. That 29th year though I felt like an 8 year old again, not only had DotEmu announced a remake of my beloved but Game Atelier (after some smart footwork due to a failed kickstarter campaign for Flying Hamster II) had announced a follow up in the spiritual successor Monster Boy & The Cursed Kingdom working with Ryuichi Nishizawa, its original creator.
Joy turned to dread as I imagined an absolute travesty of a remake and a rushed attempt to cash in on that remake & the successor. I needn’t have lost sleep, Game Atelier have smashed it out of the park.
Monster Boy & The Cursed Kingdom starts with a very familiar, blue haired protagonist meeting his freshly-transformed younger brother. The brother has been transformed into a small green dragon during a kerfuffle with his Uncle Nabu who had fallen drunk on royal nectar. While intoxicated the uncle had started slinging spells with a recently discovered magic wand, to the expense of the entirety of Monster Land. 15 to 20 minutes later, we too have been transformed into a pig and the townsfolk into assorted animals. The quest is afoot to return everyone to normal.
Those first few scenes could have easily taken an hour what with me soaking in nostalgia. The level design, whilst again familiar to me, has been rendered in 4K with a great use of colour. The levels not only look great, and clean, but it’s the little details that make a difference and show the quality you are gonna get over the next 20 hours. Wind in the trees, splashes in the water as fish break the surface, and the look on the crab’s face as it goes from blissfully oblivious to lobster knife fight with a quick jab from the pig. It’s beautiful.
The music is updated for today’s generation, but still features the same tracks as in 1989 intertwined with electric guitar and synth tracks to keep it current. I found myself humming along as I bounced through the pirate shores on my way to Uncle Nabu. Then as it switched up to a new boss track I felt the urgency of the situation. This carries throughout as new tracks are mixed with classic ones until the final confrontation with (REDACTED). Even 20 hours in — and returning to the shores to clean up a few bits — it’s still just as fun, having not got annoying.
The enemies are interesting, varied and I keep finding new ways to take them down. As I progress, the game opens up new spells and magic, new weapons and the obligatory opportunity to shape-shift into new animal forms. I really like the new characters but miss some of my old favourites (RIP Mouse Man). The game evolves further than before with new talismans which bestow new powers to expand the gameplay options — previously characters had traversal options, these still exist but offensive options and more also await.
You will need them too, the level design is excellent. Utilising the right mix of characters and equipment makes progress somewhat easier. You could try struggling on with the Pig but Frog or Snake might have an easier time if you look carefully. The later levels and the bosses have some inventive usage of the abilities to drive you to think outside the box at times and some of the secrets are real head scratchers for those looking for 100% completion. It helps the controls are both intuitive and super tight.
The addition of a map is welcome since the game is absolutely packed with secrets. Metriodvania-like in its usage, Monster Boy also displays certain icons when you see an item but can’t reach it so you can find it later. If you couldn’t see it though it won’t mark it up and that’s where Rainbow Drops come in. They come as a rare drop from bosses or purchased from a few hard-to-reach vendors, these can be spent late in the game to reveal the location of chests or upgrades on your map. You’ll never know whether it’s cash or a sought after heart upgrade until you open it.
Those secrets are not absolutely required though. You could blast though and I’d reckon the completion counter would be around 60%. You’d miss the point though, the game is actually easier and more enjoyable with many of the secrets unlocked but the hidden easter eggs to the series are well placed and hidden well.
Wonder Boy III was over pretty much straight after obtaining the Hawk as you could access the Vampire Dragon’s Castle. Monster Boy is just getting started at this point. You track pretty closely to The Dragon’s Trap in terms of areas and character unlocks. Beach, Forest, Temple etc etc, I feared I was closing in on the finish but Monster Boy kept throwing new areas and objectives at me after that. When I finally unlocked the last character there was still plenty left, including a trip back down memory lane.
It doesn’t try anything too far from it’s well proven formula, maybe that’s for the best for this iteration and next time we’ll see some more experimental additions. When it comes to attracting new players it’s still got it though. My daughters, after listening to me bleet on about it and watching me tackle the first hour, now both have their own save file and are well on the way to saving Monster Land. Maybe in 20-30 years we’ll come back to Monster Land & The Cursed Kingdom together and remember it as fondly together as we find our time with it today. If you have ever enjoyed side scrolling metroidvania platformer adventures, this sits right up there for me, pride of place, next to its inspiration.