The hand-drawn 2D platformer has become such a common occurrence over the past couple of years that it might as well be a genre of its own. Since its launch, the Switch has seen its fair share of these, from Hollow Knight to Toki (the latter of which was released this week).
One of the most notable examples of this was last year’s Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap, an utterly gorgeous remake of the 1989 Master System game. While fans and newcomers alike loved it, it would’ve been nice to have had an entirely new adventure rather than one that was nearly three decades old. Step forward Monster Boy, a spiritual successor developed by French studio Game Atelier in collaboration with Wonder Boy’s creator, Ryuichi Nishizawa.
While it may not be an official Wonder Boy title, it’s clear right away that Monster Boy is a modern day sequel in all but name since its premise – a Metroidvania game starring a lad who can transform into different creatures – is taken straight from The Dragon’s Trap and should be immediately familiar to fans of the series.
To be clear though, this isn’t a remake like the Dragon's Trap was. With a completely new developer comes a completely new game, and a completely new plot to boot: you play as Jin, a young chap who lives in Monster World. One day his Uncle Nabu suddenly goes mad and starts flying around, turning everyone in the kingdom into animals. It’s up to Jin to find out why his uncle has suddenly flipped his lid by collecting special sacred orbs that allow him to transform into different creatures.
The first transformation, which appears around 15 minutes into the game, turns you into an eyepatch-wearing pig (a character who will be instantly familiar to Wonder Boy fans). He has a jumping ground-pound move and the ability to use magic, but he can also use his snout to sniff away ‘scents’ and reveal hidden secrets. These mechanics alone would be enough for most games, especially since each new type of magic you find – fire, lightning, tornadoes and the like – is used in different scenarios, too.
As you continue to progress through the game’s enormous world map, though, and collect the various sacred orbs, you’ll add new creature transformations and be able to switch between them at will, giving you a whole host of new abilities. The snake, for example, can fit into smaller gaps, stick to walls and spit a green acid that can trigger certain types of switch. Meanwhile, the frog can use his tongue to grab grapple points, swinging and catapulting his way around the environment. By the time you’ve added the lion (who can charge into barriers) and the dragon (who can fly), you’ve got more tricks than a Las Vegas conjurer.
It isn’t really until you unlock the frog ability that the game starts to come into its own, though. While the pig and snake make for some basic yet entertaining puzzles, the frog (and other transformations you get after that) can equip different weapons, boots, shields and the like, giving the game a light RPG element. It also gives you yet another set of abilities to make use of: the different types of boot alone let you sink to the bottom of water, perform double jumps, melt ice under your feet and so on.
With so many different abilities and sub-abilities this could very easily become overwhelming, but Monster Boy does a good job of making sure you’re gradually introduced to them one at a time and given a few puzzles that make use of them before you find the next upgrade. That’s not to say it doesn’t eventually get a little perplexing, mind you: by the time you’re near the end of the game and armed with more moves than a chess master, you’ll sometimes find yourself stopping in your tracks and going over your huge list of abilities in your head, trying to think of the right one for certain situations.
That’s the end of the game, but the beginning’s no cakewalk, either. Monster Boy may be a brand new adventure but it’s still very much a homage to its Master System predecessor and it makes no bones about offering a game with a 1980s difficulty level. There are plenty of platforming sections that will potentially have you pulling out clumps of hair, but somehow it always manages to find that delicate “one more go” balance. You may find yourself spending 15 minutes trying to clear a single section with a couple of jumps, and yet the checkpointing is so generous you’ll never feel aggrieved.
All this old-school gaming goodness is wrapped up in one of the most beautiful-looking packages we’ve seen in a 2D platformer. The hand-drawn locations and characters are fantastically animated (especially the pig) and everything feels like you’re conducting an episode of your favourite anime series – something which is helped by the superb animated introduction sequence, complete with its own theme music (which comes with both English and Japanese vocals, selectable in the Options screen).
Speaking of the music, the soundtrack on offer here is sumptuous. With an all-star line-up of composers including Yuzo Koshiro (Streets Of Rage), Motoi Sakuraba (Golden Sun) and Michiru Yamane (Castlevania: Symphony Of The Night), Monster Boy sounds every bit as immaculate as it looks. It’s safe to say the presentation levels are off the charts here.
As a retro-inspired platformer, it’s close to perfect, but not quite. Inexperienced gamers may get frustrated at the steep difficulty curve; although the game takes its time to gradually increase your list of abilities it isn’t so delicate when it comes to ramping up the pressure. As such, you can expect some fiddly jumping sections and tricky enemies fairly early on (especially given that your first form, the pig, is unarmed, making combat pretty hairy).
It can also be annoying switching between characters, especially once you’ve got a full roster. Pressing the switch button freezes the action and brings up a selection wheel each time, which can really interrupt your flow. When things get particularly complex later on and you require a bunch of different animals to solve complex puzzles, we would’ve really welcomed the ability to just flip between transformations on the fly instead of having to manually select them on the wheel each time. [Edit: we've since discovered that there is indeed an option to disable the selection wheel and instead cycle through your available forms, so you can ignore us on this one!]
These are really the only quibbles in what’s an otherwise outstanding game, though. When Lizardcube remade Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap that was one thing, but when a relatively small studio decided to create an entirely new game based on the series – especially one that was originally designed to be something completely unrelated and only became a Wonder Boy homage later in development – it’s fair to say many were dubious. The reality, though, is that Game Atelier has knocked it out of the park and delivered potentially the best Wonder Boy game ever, spiritual or not.
Monster Boy is a tremendous accomplishment. It’s a gorgeous looking game with a fantastic soundtrack and does its spiritual predecessors proud by nailing the Wonder Boy mechanics while still offering something that will appeal to modern audiences. As long as you can appreciate that it’s still very much an old-school game at heart and you’re going to get some 8-bit era platforming trickiness as a result, you’re going to thoroughly enjoy playing through this adventure for the 12-15 hours it’ll take you to beat it. It may not be Wonder Boy by name, but it’s definitely wonderful by nature.