Show Me the Monkey!

By Meghan Ellis on at

Do you have a favourite fictional primate? Maybe you’re a fan of Overwatch’s resident heavy Winston or, if more musically inclined, the members of Gorillaz? Going back a little further Dragon Ball’s Son Goku might be an option, or the infamous BBC TV show Monkey Magic. These examples might seem random, but they're all of a piece — each of these famous apes is an interpretation of the legendary Monkey King.

Arguably the most influential folk hero of Chinese literature, the Monkey King Sun Wukong is protagonist of 16th-century adventure novel Journey to the West, which features an unlikely group of demons, miscreants and a lone holy monk on a journey to — surprise! — the West. With the ultimate goal being to secure sacred Buddhist texts, it’s part comedic romp and part spiritual quest that’s considered one of the greatest works in Chinese literary history.

That's the monkey king in yellow: definitely a road trip (source)

At the heart of it all is the figure of Sun Wukong. The Monkey King is popular because, like all the best heroes, he’s supremely relatable. Yes, on the one hand, he's a mythical sage who can wield magic, disturb the heavens and cause untold mischief on earth... but he also just wants to be recognised, and his motives are both very human and very accessible. There’s malice in Sun Wukong but, at the same time, he is fundamentally a heroic figure with just enough spice to set him apart from the archetypal good guy.

As his origin story, Journey to the West itself is more than a fantastical travelogue: it’s the story of a group of rebellious misfits. For centuries, we’ve been captivated by their move towards enlightenment through the power of friendship and cooperation, righting many of the world’s wrongs and restoring ancient treasures along the way.

And if that doesn’t strike you as the plot of just about every JRPG from the 80s and early 90s, then it’s time to replay Square Enix’s back catalogue.

King of the Arcade

Journey to the West and its hero have inspired game creators for decades, but there’s been a clear shift in how developers take the story and characters and make them their own. In the early days, we saw plenty of arcade titles like Capcom’s 1984 SonSon or the rather more obscure 1988 hit China Gate: scrolling platformers that lifted the rich world and colourful protagonists and reduced their quest to its most simple essence. Sun Wukong’s complex motivations — such as his dual nature, explored in the same vein as the likes of fellow mythical antiheroes Loki or Prometheus — are reduced in favour of his physicality.

Reductive, perhaps, but it fit the definition of a game protagonist of the era. In the late 1980s pop culture of superheroes, kids-next-door and hyperactive action sequences, Sun Wukong’s powers and abilities fit the medium more effectively than his insightful thoughts on the nature of fairness. There’s only so much story an arcade game can manage, after all — no-one expected Jumpman’s thoughts on labour laws.

Where did that leave the Monkey King? At this stage in gaming history, the evocative tale of morals and means was translated into simple high score trials stuffed with palette-swapped enemies. These games often looked good for the time, and some were fun, but they brought nothing memorable to the table.

Capcom’s SonSon, where Buddha is reincarnated as a floating statue who drops fruit

Enter the increasingly popular home console. It wasn’t long before the style-over-substance adaptations popularised by arcades gave way to a series of Famicom releases, each attempting to adapt author Wu Cheng'En’s quest into a playable adventure in its own right. All of which, of course, spectacularly failed to deliver. We have the Monkey King to thank for the legendary Ganso Saiyūki: Super Monkey Daibōken, a title widely regarded as the king of kusoge.

It’s a lofty if dubious accolade. Kusoge are Japanese games defined by their difficulty, incomprehensibility and overall so-bad-it-might-be-good nature, and there’s a dedicated fanbase who revel in just how bad this particular example is. Super Monkey Daibōken took the fun of a dangerous coming-of-age adventure and combined it with a particularly brutal take on Oregon Trail-style mechanics, with the very real possibility of starving before even finding your way to the first battle screen. Forget exploring Sun Wukong as a character: players could barely explore the map.

By rights, Super Monkey Daibōken’s take on the Monkey King should be lost to gaming obscurity. But though the game may be terrible, it lingers on in memory due to its status as a recurring feature on GameCenter CX.

Imagine your promotion at work relied on finishing a terrible game, and then you have GameCenter CX

If you aren’t familiar with the show, GameCenter CX is best known for star Shinya Arino’s relatable struggles with beating challenging video games, and has found popularity abroad with the countless memes revolving around the futility of playing terrible titles. Super Monkey Daibōken was so bad that it ended up a recurring joke for seasons: not a particularly noble tribute to Sun Wukong and posse.

New Century Monkey

This wasn’t an isolated incident. Most early gaming iterations of Sun Wukong gained little critical acclaim, and soon the experimental titles of the 80s and 90s were replaced with games which simply referenced Journey to the West for flavour. Instead of risking success with an IP and a character that had proven difficult to adapt, developers shifted focus to original stories unburdened by the same expectations.

Sun Wukong, however, remained popular. Capcom continued to build on the legacy of SonSon by having the character’s granddaughter added to the roster in Marvel vs. Capcom 2, and the Pokémon franchise took inspiration from the world’s most furious monkey with the Chimchar > Monferno > Infernape starter route in 2006’s Diamond and Pearl titles. But while these characters looked like the Monkey King, they shared little real resemblance to the trickster.

For a while it seemed like Journey to the West might fade out of popular memory in the West. Games like Ether Saga Odyssey and Warriors Orochi heavily referenced the tale and its characters, but weren’t very popular outside of East Asia (where Sun Wukong remains a huge cultural figure). The Monkey King’s archetype had shifted again from simple protagonist to mythical world-builder. Sun Wukong and his companions became figures rustled up to lend credence to the pseudo-historical setting of the above titles, fan-favourite characters who were great to add to the mix but not good enough to stand in the spotlight.

Warriors Orochi’s Sun Wukong: apparently, he’s 15 years old

So what do you do with a tale that’s both incredibly popular and incredibly difficult to explore through game narrative? Or with a character who was continually compelling, but tough to master in his original form? Enter Enslaved: Odyssey to the West. Developed by Ninja Theory, Enslaved takes Journey to the West and views it through a futuristic lens, a post-apocalyptic interpretation of danger and deceit that draws on the best characteristics of the original work without feeling beholden to it. 1991 cyberpunk classic anime Cyber City Oedo 808 had already shown us that the story could be adapted to the dystopian future as well as a historical epic. Ninja Theory took that reimagining and brought the figure of Wukong into the modern era.

A crucial part of bringing the story of the Monkey King back to the consciousness of the games community is that Enslaved marries the fighting figure of Sun Wukong to its mechanics. We see Monkey fight with his signature staff, complete with its proportion-defying properties as depicted in the novel. Smacking a robot to bits isn’t a far cry from defeating demons, and Monkey is a gifted brawler in the same vein as Sun Wukong. He’s fast, scaling ledges and dangerous precipices with the ease of his animal namesake. He even has a hoverboard to rival the Holy Cloud.

That’s where the similarities end, because Enslaved's achievement is to give us a fresh interpretation of the trickster as much as it does his world. Monkey has the famous temper of Sun Wukong, but he’s not depicted as the arrogant defier of heaven and earth. He has a fresh, engaging relationship with Trip, who’s based on the monk Tripitaka, original owner of the “do what I say” headband (which really existed in the tale). He’s a far calmer character than the Monkey King, who is popular for his pranks as much as for his magical powers. Though it sadly got somewhat lumped in with the Assassin’s Creeds and Uncharteds of the day, Enslaved differs in its focus on the morals and motivations of its cast, and transforms a quest for enlightenment into a journey for freedom.

And it works: Monkey might be more action hero than heavenly nuisance, but he’s the most fresh and nuanced interpretation of Sun Wukong games have managed yet. Once again, the Monkey King was back in mischief.

A Figure Beyond Games

Of course, the mythical figure of the Monkey King exists far beyond games, and he’s probably more well known outside of the medium than within it. Like all popular works of literature, Journey to the West has been adapted countless times: for the movies, the stage, games, anime and numerous chart-topping TV shows. It’s impossible to talk about Sun Wukong without reference to his most famous adaptation of all: Son Goku, protagonist of Akira Toriyama’s beloved mega franchise Dragon Ball.

Back when Dragon Ball was about a kid named Goku and his pesky monkey tail

While the story has moved beyond its initial inspiration to house its own fantastic narrative, Son Goku’s staff, cloud and adorable monkey tail are all deliberate references to The Monkey King. Journey to the West, for all that the world-shattering action of Dragon Ball Super seems far from its roots, is everywhere in the original series. Unconvinced? The Dragon Balls themselves are an action-friendly reimagining of the holy scrolls at the centre of the novel’s classic journey, made for an era which popularised the arcade action of the likes of SonSon.

The Monkey King is an inescapably popular figure in pop culture. In fact, you could say Journey to the West has achieved immense success as a story everywhere except video games. There’s never been a Monkey King game that’s reached the heights of, for example, Jet Li’s The Forbidden Kingdom or the 2006 Japanese TV show Saiyuki, which broke viewing records with an astonishing one in three watchers across the country tuning in as it aired. Somehow, games companies just haven’t got the formula quite right... yet.

Today’s Monkey

These days the Monkey King can be found in games not as the figure of Sun Wukong himself, but as alternative outfits, unlockable heroes or gods, and as part of Chinese-themed events. He’s known in DotA 2 as a melee fighter with the ability to cause mischief, and as a demon that can be summoned in the latest Shin Megami Tensei. There's even a character called Wukong in Warframe. But he’s not the protagonist and these games aren’t his story. Despite an immovable position in film and TV as one of the highest-grossing characters, developers haven’t tackled a game based on Journey to the West in its entirety since Enslaved: Odyssey to the West.

Winston quite suits the Monkey King look.

Perhaps it’s the poor financial reception to that title that gives the industry pause, or an unwillingness to rehash an old story when games increasingly create their own narratives. For now, we’re back in cameo territory with events like Overwatch’s Year of the Rooster, which elevates the appeal of the Monkey King as the ultimate feisty fighter uncomplicated by his heavy history.

As Sun Wukong moves from being a character in his own right to an archetypal figure of mythology, it’s perhaps inevitable that his more nuanced character traits are lost in favour of the recognisable physical ones. It’s easier to portray a staff-wielding fighter with the appearance of a monkey, and build a game around that character, than it is to explore the anti-heroic tendencies of a minor deity. It might even be more fun. Enslaved shows us that the Monkey King can be altered to suit the modern idea of a protagonist but, even when he's not the focus, elements of this legendary character spread, in a somewhat ramshackle way, to otherwise-unrelated universes.

Perhaps that's the nature of Sun Wukong, and one of the mysteries behind the character's enduring popularity. You can find him anywhere, but especially in the most unexpected places.

Featured Image: League of Legends