“Five dollars? Eh. Why not?” What better way is there to sum up the national epic for over a billion people, a brilliant, comedic satire mixed with a deep and insightful meditation on Buddhism and other traditional beliefs of China? An afternoon of boredom led me to explore a skeezy pawn shop, where I found “The Monkey King: The Legend Begins,” and figured “Why not try to overcome malaise by seeing what they did to this timeless myth?”
To be fair, a six-hundred year old book loved by the planet’s most populous nation is bound to more pointless adaptations than the entire Marvel and DC universes combined, and by the law of averages, some of them are bound to leave a taste in your mouth like coffee filtered through an old pair of Hanes briefs. So really, if I tried to protest every bad or unfaithful adaptation of Journey to the West, I’d be left with zero free time, a bill for cardboard sign making that rivals my mortgage, and an unreasonable hatred of Dragonball. So why not look at the game on its own merits?
Immediately upon booting up the game, I noticed that the d-pad wouldn’t let me select menu options and the select button was way at the bottom of the Wiimote. Don’t laugh. I’ve never actually encountered a Wii game that wanted me to hold the controller sideways.
Gameplay reminds me of old arcade shooters, like Galaga or Gradius—because when I think of an epic meditation on spirituality and enlightenment, I think “Space Invaders.” The legendary Sun Wukong (or if you so choose, the unique and pointless Mei-mei) flies through China on his cloud, spinning the magical staff that, in the book, can grow or shrink to any size the monkey king wants, but which in the game shoots out a glowing orb. Because you can’t have a space shooter without lasers, right? Even if it isn’t set in space. And depicts events that occurred in the 8th century.
Honestly, there’s not too much I can say about this game. It’s a traditional arcade style. It’s fun, I guess, in the way that Dairy Queen is fun—you like it every time, but there’s never anything new about it, you really wouldn’t want to go there all the time, and whenever I go it plays a bad satellite radio station of all the songs from the 1950s that were so bad, the entire decade tried to set them on fire and bury the ashes so new music would grow, but it just festered in the ground until it sprouted something with the maddening powers of Cthulu. Er, well, you get the point. The music in the game is a little grating.
The one unique feature involves the system’s motion controls. If you tilt the controller in the direction you’re flying, you start careening through the level like a deer on collision course for a Volkswagen Beetle. If you tilt the other way, you slow down and become a much easier target for the dozens of enemies trying to dye your clothing with their viscera. An interesting idea, even if it does display a fundamental misunderstanding of gravity, as though the core of the earth were swinging back and forth from Los Angeles to Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, it’s a little too tempting to exploit. Every time you die, your next life comes back, blinking invincibly (as trauma patients often do when leaving the ICU). During this time, you can launch into turbo mode and skip through 25% of the level. Sometimes, if you position yourself at the right spot, you can do this even when not invincible and hit the boss in moments.
The game is short, but still feels padded. You work through five stages, then a boss rush stage that calls itself “hell,” but hands out power ups like Halloween candy. And then you fly through all five stages again, literally backwards, starting with the bosses and then heading back toward the beginning.
Also, I know there’s a lot of violence in the book, and I know I read an abridged translation, but I don’t seem to recall pigs with rocket launchers in Journey to the West.