The Metroidvania genre has had a large boom recently. At this rate, there’s a higher probability a new game would fit within the specific parameters of this oddball genre than anything else, if we’re being honest. It’s an intriguing genre that is has just as many winners as it does complete backfires. The magic behind the mashup of Metroid and Castlevania style gameplay is the freedom to explore what’s essentially a flat open-world platformer, with all the backtracking and ability to make discoveries off the well-beaten path. Previously blocked passages and doors become new opportunities – once you’ve got the necessary equipment (and memory) to finally break through.
But while some games lean far too heavily into the genre, Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom feels like a breath of fresh air. It’s a game that feels far more like a platforming Zelda than it does any Castlevania or Metroid – or hastily pasted combination of the two. As a matter of fact, I oddly feel that it’s essentially like a 2D version of 2018’s God of War and the fact that developer Game Atelier pulled it off is kind of brilliant.
Monster Boy is a spiritual sequel of sorts to a series with a confusing lineage, one that stretches back to 1986 when it was a Sega-exclusive, eventually stretching further to become Adventure Island on non-Sega platforms. Curious gamers also shouldn’t confuse The Cursed Kingdom with last year’s Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap, which was actually a fully redrawn remake of the 1989 Sega Master System original. This is an entirely new game, from a completely different developer and different set of artists, though fans will be happy to know series creator Ryuichi Nishizawa was still involved.
Monster Boy starts you off as Jin, a boy who gets turned into an animal by his Uncle Nabu who just happens to be turning everyone else into animals as well. As you scour the land looking for Orbs that can help you fix this whole mess, you’ll gain access to the ability to change your state from being a pig to a snake as well as a few other forms as well. When you consider how many games from the era Monster Boy began, i.e. mid-to-late 1980s, animal transmogrification was a pretty big deal, thus making this new adventure feel a lot more accurate.
The game has a surprising amount of depth underneath its adorable character designs and those amazingly detailed levels. It’s rare for a game these days to be challenging, cute and rewarding but Monster Boy uses its smart level design to its advantage by always presenting new ways to interact with its world. Each animal type offers unique methods of combat and solving puzzles that always feel inventive and fresh. Which is great as many of the labyrinths are peppered with different mechanics requiring you to switch back and forth between animals and human.
On top of different animals and their respective abilities, there are also tons of items scattered throughout the world with a wide assortment of tasks. Ice swords create frozen platforms on waterfalls while different shoes help you sink straight to the bottom of a lake. All of these items are unique, making each find a rewarding discovery. They can also be upgraded, adding yet another layer of depth as you’re adding hearts, visiting shops and uncovering hidden secrets just waiting to be discovered over a 20+ hour playthrough.
The difficulty level slowly builds up as you traverse through levels, meaning you’ll feel bigger and more powerful as you progress, confident in taking on the next challenge. But there were times I was genuinely confused by what to do next, or where to go. I’d usually figure this out through trial and error, but the lack of a quest log did occasionally lead to some unnecessary struggle.
The story and mechanics play beautifully they’re highlighted with a vibrant and lively soundtrack and an even sharper visual art style. The music is always upbeat and carries a ton of the charm, offering infectious grooves that incorporate trumpets, guitars and saxes. I’m not sure what else I can say about those colorful visuals… the spectacularly animated sprites really made the game a joy just to look at.
On its surface, Monster Boy doesn’t necessarily feel like it’s anything different or extraordinary. Other than its amazing visuals there’s not much to catch your glance in even the most generous screenshot gallery or trailer. But once you actually get your hands on the game, you can tell that it feels, plays and unfolds in such a way that feels more fresh than you would’ve thought. It so effortlessly blends familiar nostalgia with unfamiliar adventure.
With its wallet-friendly price, beautiful visuals and boppy soundtrack I had more fun exploring the world of Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom than I did many other games released this year, budget or otherwise. While it could be easy to categorize it as another Metroidvania clone, there’s a lot more going on here than you might think – and that’s part of its charm. It’s been a great time for Monster Boy fans, with last year’s Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap remake and now this, and my only hope is that it doesn’t fly too far under the radar. There’s plenty of love on display here, and the developers should be proud.