I usually avoid watching teevee like the plague, but when flipping on the box to review a game a while back, I caught the opening to a kid's cartoon called Monkey Magic. Something about the art style seemed really familiar, and I sat through the whole half hour, which ended up being quite enjoyable, if a little corny-but in a positive way. The character designer for the show, Susumu Masushita, isn't a household name here in the States, but Japanese gamers see his work all the time on the cover of Famitsu, the most respected gaming magazine there. He's also done loads of game art, and you can see his work in the Motor Toon Grand Prix games for the Playstation, and a really cool Saturn import that should have come out here (what else is new!), Willy Wombat, among others. Now, Sunsoft and B-Factory have bought over a new Playstation game based on the Monkey Magic series, and while it doesn't really break any new ground, it's still a great deal of fun!
You play the game as Kongo, an intelligent, mystical monkey who falls out of the sky (in a big meteor!) and onto Flower Fruit Island, a primitive land inhabited by other monkeys. Kongo is the Stone Monkey, destined to be some sort of magical hero from the heavens, and the evil ruler of the underworld, Dearth Voyd (how original!) has forseen your coming, and plans to stop at nothing to turn you to the dark side...Can you smell what the plot is cooking? He sends one of his minions, the cute and chatty Batty, to get chummy with Kongo, and help turn him over to evil, after he obtains divine power from a legendary high priest, which would assure Dearth Voyd absolute power over all the worlds! If you're thinking that the developers are ripping off Star Wars, you're way off the mark- the story behind Monkey Magic is a retelling of the Monkey King stories that go back centuries in China, updated for today's really short attention spans.
The game itself is a 2D platformer, with some 3D elements (movement from foreground to background sections in the levels), and it reminded me of a blend of the old NES platform games Conquest of the Crystal Palace and Dragon Power (Dragon Ball Z), and the 16-bit cartoon anmal fighter, Brutal, Paws of Fury. Even the gameplay is retro, with extra lives all over the place (you'll need them, trust me!), and the return of the 1-up loop in the first level! The objectives in each level vary, so you always have something new and challenging to do, but the first couple of areas are made for acquiring and learning to use magic, weapons and fighting techniques. Kongo can jump and climb like the super-skilled monkey he is, and has some cool fighting moves as well. Graphically, the huge levels are done pretty well, with loads of details and secrets to find, as well as hazards galore, such as pits, radioactive slime, fire, and floating platforms. Again, it's nothing new, but it brings back memories...not all good ones, though!
The game is pretty solid, as far as level and character design, but coming to grips with some of the jumping takes a bit of practice! You have to be extremely precise in some areas, while in others, it's just a matter of double tapping, and hoping you hit the ledge- not a good thing. Fortunately, checkpoints abound in each level, but repeating a series of tricky jumps over some very slippery surfaces and moving platforms was enough to make me shut the game off for a bit, and go play Witchaven for an hour to de-stress! As I said above, those extra lives you get will come in quite handy later on. Even though you have a life bar (easily replenished by the abundance of fruit icons in each level), there are dozens of one-hit deaths, or objects that look harmless but are most definitely not, which make the game needlessly frustrating at times. Of course, once you get the timing right, you can zip through most of the levels with some ease. I like the idea of being able to use the game camera to look above, around, and below to check for danger and hidden stuff.
You can also use various types of magic in the game, on enemies and yourself, once you find it, and it adds lots of strategy later on, when you have to switch between and use assorted spells before they wear off! You also get a little magic cloud to zip around on, which is really nice (and no, they didn't steal this from Dragon Ball!). In fact, there's so much to do in the game that it probably would have been much better (reprogrammed) as an entry-level action/ RPG- the execution would have no doubt been a lot more impressive than the sorry Monkey Hero game that came out earlier this year- also based on the same story. The game doesn't use the analog stick or vibration feature, and the controls aren't remappable, which add to the NES-like feeling of the game. It's funny playing a game that doesn't make your wrists rumble these days!
The music and voice acting in the game seem to be from the series, and fit like a glove- it's a bit more polished than the usual Saturday morning fare I remember, but I'd like to play the import to compare the two. I wish there was an option to turn off the annoyingly repetitive Batty, who pops up all the time you pass certain areas in the game, to warn you of hazards or give out hints. In fact, all the characters who have info pop up in the same spots during the game, to drive home the fact that your platforming skills need work, and stuff like that. I guess that the designers thought that if the kids who were playing MM kept having to restart from the same checkpoint, why not let them keep knowing what they have to do, so that they can get real good at it real fast, thus skipping all the repetition. It adds too much time to what should be short, fun levels, and some kids will get annoyed, I'd imagine, like when Mommy keeps telling you those Brussels sprouts are good for you! But the challenge of completing the game more than makes up for these annoyances.
In short, Monkey Magic is a throwback to the good old days of high quality platforming fun, and anyone looking for something simple to play, yet hard to finish will be happier than usual with this game. No crazy, hard to navigate 3D worlds, no guns blazing, zombie heads popping, bouncing breasts, or any of that stuff that sends congressmen into a frenzy. just a happy little platformer that takes some skill and dexterity to complete, and can be enjoyed by the whole family.
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