October 26, 2021

Xbox One X

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Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom review – a vital updating of a classic series

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Back when I was eleven, Wonder Boy 3: The Dragon’s Trap contained a lot of firsts for me. It was the first game I ever played on a console. It was, as far as I can remember, the first game I played in which you pressed up to go through a door. Most importantly, it was the first game that made me feel wonderfully lost in the sheer breadth and richness of the world that it created.

I understand, now, that this was probably the result of genre confusion. Wonder Boy 3 is kind of an RPG and kind of a Metroidvania. You collect coins and learn spells and buy increasingly better gear as the enemies around you get tougher. And you also change between a series of different animal forms, and the abilities that come with these animals open up new parts of the map and provide fresh opportunities to explore places that you’ve already been to. But I didn’t really know about RPGs when I was eleven, and Metroidvanias probably weren’t even called Metroidvanias back then. Instead, what I knew was that this was a game that looked like a platform game and behaved like a platform game most of the time. But in platform games you travelled left to right, and when you fell off the screen you died. In Wonder Boy 3 you could travel left or right. And when you fell off the screen you landed in another screen. Every exit was an entrance somewhere else, Guildenstern. Its world was vast and filled with secrets, and it seemed to unspool in every conceivable direction. See those mountains in the distance? You’ll be able to climb them. Wonder Boy 3 is the game that made this as-yet-unminted cliche live for me.

A few years back, Wonder Boy 3 got a truly wonderful remake. I’m still playing it off and on, overwhelmed by nostalgia and admiration. And now, Wonder Boy 3 suddenly has a spiritual successor. It still seems odd to type that. It’s made by a French team rather than a Japanese team, but Ryuichi Nishizawa, the creator of Wonder Boy was involved, and while the name has changed – we’re now playing as Monster Boy – and while the pixelly sprites and backdrops have been replaced by wonderfully characterful hand-drawn animation, the sense of continuity is absolutely dazzling. All of which could be dangerous. This is the sequel to the game that blew my eleven-year-old mind, the first game that taught me that you press up to go through a door. How can it possibly compare, not just with an ancient classic, but with thirty years of glitching memories?

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