Video games have come a long way in the past decade, but Monkey King: Hero Is Back didn’t get the memo.
Monkey King: Hero Is Back has plenty flaws. The gameplay is rudimentary, the sound design is horrid, and the graphics are mediocre at best. And yet, it’s still pretty fun. It has throwback charm. It harkens back to a time when movie tie-in cash grabs were a dime-a-dozen; when gameplay design just meant letting the player mash out attacks on some baddies. Games have gotten better (or at least more clever) over the years, but Monkey King: Hero Is Back didn’t get the message. It definitely isn’t “good” or “clever.” It’s a relic–a simplistic character-action game cashing in on the success of a movie.
When Indiana Jones encountered a priceless antique, he knew what to do with it. “It belongs in a museum,” he’d say. Monkey King: Hero Is Back doesn’t warrant study or have historical value, but it does take me back to the past–before Marvel’s Spider-Man, before Arkham Asylum, and before the term “AAA” even existed. In those days, tie-in games were invariably low-budget uninspired cash grabs. They offered the mild novelty of controlling a few polygons that vaguely reminded you of a recognizable character, and their gameplay was often a glorified mashfest. I was young then, though, and the disappointment I felt at controlling a crappy game was matched pound-for-pound by the unbridled enthusiasm I had for video games in general.
Monkey King: Hero Is Back is a bad movie tie-in cash grab, and its gameplay (while serviceable) is uninspired. Basically, there was really no need or vision for a Monkey King: Hero Is Back video game. Rather, there was only a desire to make a few bucks by capitalizing on the popularity of the source material. The brazen transparency of this makes me feel nostalgic. It reminds me that we are a little spoiled nowadays–Marvel’s Spider-Man, for instance, capitalizes on a known property and has merit and meaning as a video game. Playing Monkey King: Hero Is Back, though, is like opening a time capsule full of stuff from the “good” ol’ days.
So yeah–maybe it doesn’t belong in a museum. However, it will make a good fit for a used games store. For one thing, it’ll definitely be in a bargain bin soon. These shops also set up old consoles and let customers play old classic and not-so-classic games, and I sort of see Monkey King Hero Is Back in this vein. You know the kind of setups I mean–dusty old couches, PS2s, and CRT TVs. The kinds of games you find in these situations are distinct: bright colors, obvious action, and good for all ages. You’ll find Crash Bandicoot there, The Incredible Hulk, Donkey Kong 64, and maybe even a Sonic game. The point isn’t really whether or not the game is good; the point is that the player understands what they’re doing immediately. They’re just taking a load off while shopping, after all.
Monkey King: Hero Is Back fits this bill. There’s a weird redemption story to follow, sure, but the gameplay isn’t difficult–there are no puzzles, no neat and unique mechanics to master. Any kid stopping by will know what to do: survive and advance; win fights and walk forward; mash square and jump around enemy attacks. Basically everything in this game is straight out of the video game playbook of 2008. For a few minutes, this formula can still offer unadulterated fun.
If that sounds like a backhanded compliment–well, it is. I would never recommend paying full price for this game. It’s baby’s first God of War. It has a strong attack and a light attack, but they lack the sort of stylish impact we’ve grown to expect in a post-GoW world. There are Quick Time Events, but they are utterly simplistic and anticlimactic. There’s an ability tree, but it is poorly implemented and nigh-unusable. Movement feels a little sluggish, and the dialogue and story are trite. It looks distinctly like a PS3-era game. Character-action games have come a long way over the years, but Monkey King: Hero Is Back is a step backward.
Nevertheless, this game does offer a bit of shallow fun. As amazingly creative as modern games can be, whacking around enemies with attacks never goes out of style. Monkey King: Hero Is Back may not get everything right, but it does let you kung fu kick some ugly goblins. There’s weight to each hit, too, and you’ll enjoy making enemies look foolish by jumping out of the way of their attacks. Dodging around enemies and attacking their blindside has been a video game staple since forever. Ocarina of Time brought it to the third dimension in 1998, the Souls series of games carried the torch for a long while, and Monkey King: Hero Is Back is another link in the chain.
There are meaningful differences between these games, though. Ocarina of Time gave you puzzles and a bunch of subweapons to utilize. Dark Souls gave you fantastic world-building and a multitude of cool playstyles. Monkey King: Hero Is Back, unfortunately, is extremely linear and unimaginative with its mechanics. Fights are fine, and your attack buttons work great, but there isn’t any depth. And while there is a magic system in the game that gives you access to some neat abilities, its implementation is way too unwieldy. In fact, trying to use these abilities often detracts from the more staid approach of just attacking. Most of the time, you’re better off forgetting that a magic system is even in play.
Great games like Ocarina of Time and Souls also do the little things right. They add that extra touch of polish that is hardly perceptible, but which makes your playing experience that much better. It’s something like “game-feel,” and it’s made of (among other things) memorable sound design, responsive controls, and expressive animations. Unfortunately, Monkey King: Hero Is Back just doesn’t feel quite right. Most of the time, it just made me wonder why I wasn’t playing one of the polished and awesome action games that released in 2019, like DMC5 or Sekiro.
Monkey King: Hero Is Back is rough around the edges. That said, it is fun to pick up and play, and not every “good” game accomplishes so much. When you inevitably find this game in a bargain bin somewhere, purchase with confidence–it’ll provide you with a few hours of old-time video game fun.