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Monster Boy Review - Is This Sega Classic Remake Just a Cash Grab?

VO: Riccardo Tucci
Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was no shortage of animal mascots headlining brightly-coloured platforming games, providing the gaming community with some of its most enduring and beloved icons. Monster Boy for the original Sega was one of those games that managed to make itself stand out with unique mechanics and great level design. Now Monster Boy is back in Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom.

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Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was no shortage of animal mascots headlining brightly-coloured platforming games, providing the gaming community with some of its most enduring and beloved icons. While that moment may have come and gone for much of the industry, the action-platformer genre that such games helped define still lives on.

However, today we are faced with “Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom”, a rather pointed attempt at revitalizing specific design cues from that era. A spiritual follow-up to “Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap” - itself a remake of a much-loved Master System game – there’s no mistaking the intent behind the creation of “Monster Boy”. It wants to be the loving homage to a style of game forgotten by many, but is it capable of delivering on its promise?

“Monster Boy” opens in rather straight-forward fashion: our hero is an adventurous boy named Jin, whose quiet island-dwelling existence is shaken up after his uncle wrecks havoc on the realm. Specifically, Jin’s uncle uses magic to transform various people into sentient animals, with Jin getting targeted soon after. However, rather than being tied to one particular animal Jin gains the ability to shift between different animal forms, with certain powers tied to each.

From there Jin’s quest grows to resemble a standard fantasy adventure, complete with a handful of magical objects that will fix the big problem and a vaguely sinister character whose villainy is a surprise to all but the audience. The game seems almost conscious of this familiarity in setup, though, keeping overarching plot details minimal and focusing more on the moment-to-moment action. Further, the character dialogue is sharp and well-paced, with many a charming exchange or amusing aside to keep the tone light.

The action is both where “Monster Boy” is at its most obviously nostalgia-driven and where it’s most strong, distinguishing itself as a rather compelling platformer with a balance of design new and old. Much of one’s time is spent charging through a handful of themed zones, battling an eclectic range of enemies and searching for all manner of hidden treasure. Each location is vibrant in lighting and colour usage, each littered with traps and pitfalls that feel appropriate to the environment.

It really is quite enjoyable to charge through a grassy plain or hop across underground ice-slicked platforms, learning how best to traverse the various terrain and when to switch between Jin’s forms. As with other action-platformers and titles under the ‘Metroidvania’ banner, there’s an expectation that items and abilities unlocked later in the game are to be used for opening up passages and progressing further in previously-explored areas. Where in some games the act of doubling back might come off as tedious, here it’s constantly gratifying and joyful thanks to delightful level design.

Not as delightful are the moments of questioning the game’s puzzle logic. We found more than a few sections, like near a crashed pirate ship and a later volcanic stage, where the means of progressing were incredibly obtuse. Platforms hidden high above the player’s line of sight, context-sensitive block movement puzzles – there’s challenging the player and then there’s asking them to guess what the developer is thinking.

Fortunately, those moments are usually followed by some rather clever boss battles. Each boss has their own unique means of targeting the player, and each demand careful usage of the latest animal form Jin has attained. The scale of these foes, the variety of battle stages and terrain, it all adds to the sense that each and every fight is rather special.

Jin’s animal forms aren’t the only things in his toolbelt, though. “Monster Boy” takes a few cues from role-playing game design; it features an inventory system and upgrade mechanic which requires spending stones that are found scattered in chests throughout the world. Jin can find not only new weapons and armor pieces, but also health upgrades that add to his heart meter. Additionally, finding an entire set of armour – of which there are several unique ones – and fully upgrading them grants Jin a certain bonus or additional power.

As mentioned before, the zones and locales in “Monster Boy” are quite varied, in more ways than one. The flame-themed creatures of the volcanic region are distinct from the flora and fauna of the forest, which in turn differentiates itself from the cave and sewer zones. Truly splendid area themes underscore the action in each place, with the music as a whole lending further charm and child-like whimsy to the game.

And that’s the thing: playing “Monster Boy” has this kind of joyous energy to it, hearkening back to a time where kid-aimed platformers were not only the trend but regularly inspired and engrossed us. Every element and every facet are implemented here with a clear love for the material and for the genre. Infuriating puzzles aside, “Monster Boy” is nonetheless well worth the time to play and thoroughly fun to take in.

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