Wonder Boy in Monster Land
Release Date: 05/22/12
For those coming in late, in the Monster World IV review I went over the weird history of the Wonder Boy series in about as much depth as a paragraph can possibly allow. For those who missed it (and don’t want to click the link above), however, the Wonder Boy series started from Wonder Boy a game about a cave boy saving his girlfriend, which then transitioned into Adventure Island, while Wonder Boy went in a different direction. Well, Wonder Boy in Monster Land was the first game featuring the newly redesigned Wonder Boy character, as he transformed from a hammer chucking cave boy into a medieval warrior and Master Higgins became the character Wonder Boy was. As part of the Sega Vintage line, Sega has opted to release the arcade version of Wonder Boy in Monster Land on the PSN store, though players who’ve experienced one of the other versions, such as the Sega Master System version, should be right at home with the game. Aside from the improved graphics, it’s largely a similar game to its counterparts, and unlike the SMS game, offers the option to continue (something the SMS version lacked), making it a generally better release all around, and a better choice for release in this fashion. Whether or not it holds up well is another matter, however, as even as an arcade game, it’s still a bit older than some of the other releases in this group. This is not to say that it’s a bad game, but compared to some of the other games in the list, it’s a little… limited.
The plot of Wonder Boy in Monster Land is as bare bones as one would expect. You play as Wonder Boy, resident of Monster Land, as he goes on a quest to defeat the Meka Dragon and save Monster Land from his evil influence. That’s about as far as the plot goes here; while you’ll meet a few residents who give you side quests or introduce some minor concepts, the plot is basically non-existent, and you’ll only get significant information on what’s going on from the manual and the ending. Also, the game features a good amount of Engrish in the translation, as the different shopkeepers and quest givers weren’t translated especially well, so on the odd chance you do get something useful you may not be able to really understand what it means anyway. This release features the same basic features as other games in the Sega Vintage lineup, meaning that aside from playing the main game, you can play through a trial game to get a rank on the leaderboard, view and create replays, look over the manual and listen to the game music in the jukebox. As in the prior two games, the songs from this game add themselves to the jukebox and link all of the tracks together, allowing you to make a large song list if you have multiple games downloaded, which is still really cool and a great idea if you’re a Sega fan, but otherwise, everything you can do in the other games, you can do here.
Wonder Boy in Monster Land holds up well enough, given the time it came out and the fact that it’s an arcade port and not the SMS console port, but it’s not one of the better looking games released in this set, unfortunately. Wonder Boy himself looks fine and shows some nice changes visually when he gets new gear, but he’s not especially exciting as a main character, detail-wise. The various enemies you face are also fairly bland, and while the environments change as you go along, there’s nothing exceptionally memorable to them, as they’re mostly fields, towns, dungeons and caves of varying color and style. The boss monsters are the only things that show any significant novelty, and they’re pretty interesting for the most part, as are the various animalistic shopkeepers you meet, though in both cases they don’t do enough on their own to make a difference. Aurally, the game music is cute and fits the game fine, as it has a somewhat fitting sound to it and works with the theme of the game. The sound effects are also cute and fit the experience fine, though they’re a bit outdated given when the game came out, as one might expect; they’re fine in context, but nothing exciting on their own.
For those who have not played the game, as with Alex Kidd in Miracle World, the mechanics are quite simple: you move the character with the D-pad or stick, one button attacks, and one button jumps. Wonder Boy is given a sword early on in the game, but is otherwise essentially in his boxers when you start things off, though if you play well, he won’t stay that way. As you progress through the game, you can find or purchase upgrades for Wonder Boy’s armor (take less damage from enemies), sword (deal more damage to enemies), shield (deflect attacks) and boots (run faster and jump higher) to buff him up when fighting enemies. Defeating enemies nets you gold to make these purchases, as well as score boosting items (raising your score also raises your life meter so there’s benefit to doing so) and hearts to heal with, and you can also randomly find hidden caches of gold by jumping around into them. You can then spend this gold at stores to buy the aforementioned improved pieces of gear to outfit Wonder Boy for further battles, as well as at other shops that sell spells, alcohol (and information), healing and other random stuff as the situation merits.
Wonder Boy can, as noted, also find various spells that he can use to give him added damage options in battle, including bombs, lightning, fireballs, tornados, and more. You can buy or find them from enemies and such as you go along, and they appear on the display to the left as you play, over where your sword appears. Pressing down on the pad unleashes the current spell in the list, and spells stack, allowing you to burn through them in succession if you’re up against a particularly tough battle, for example. The left screen also displays your health at present, the level you’re on, and the timer that slowly counts down as you play… and, if it runs out, flips over and costs you one heart, meaning that time is of the essence. There are also six blocks on the left for holding various items, including a revival potion to bring you back to life if you die, a helmet for reducing damage for a short time, winged boots to allow you to float, and more. There are also spaces for key items you can carry with you to complete various subquests, which allow you some added benefits when going into the final stage should you complete them all appropriately, which makes exploration a good idea. There are all sorts of hidden locations and items throughout the game, you see, and only by exploring (or following a guide) will you find them all and get the best possible options when taking on the last round.
You can basically get through Wonder Boy in Monster Land in about two to three hours if you plow straight through it, and the game offers infinite continues as well as save states (this is the arcade version, after all), so you won’t find it to be too terribly problematic in theory. However, to stand the best possible chance of doing this you’ll need to spend a decent amount of time searching for hidden bosses, rooms and items, which will take a fairly good amount of time to find if you look for them on your own, which is, in fairness, part of the fun. You can also just follow an online FAQ to find all the good stuff as well, which may be ideal for some players who aren’t especially interested in spending hours looking for hidden goodies, of course. The game also allows you to tweak some of the arcade options, such as starting lives, difficulty, and so on to make the experience more or less challenging as you see fit. There’s also the standard options from the other Sega Vintage games, so you can take on the trial option to add your name to the leaderboard and post your best performances, record replays, and listen to the soundtrack for this and other games in the Sega Vintage lineup, so if you’re interested in replay value, there’s some here, to be sure.
Having said that, however, Wonder Boy in Monster Land has not held up especially well, largely because its experimental concepts were cool at the time, but are frustrating now. It’s great that there are sorts of hidden secrets in the game, but the timer that constantly ticks off health hearts makes it counter productive to search for them, since time spent searching equals lost health, which is a notable conflict of interest to say the least. Further, the secrets are often necessary to completing the game; if you don’t find the hidden areas in the game, you’ll be without the best possible sword, the items needed to navigate the final maze, and probably too poor to buy the best gear, leaving you woefully unprepared to face the MEKA Dragon. The game does offer infinite continues, but it’s not like you continue with full life and a revival potion, so even if you continue, you could very well continue only to end up dead again almost immediately. These are all concepts and elements Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap handled better, so it’s a shame to not get that game instead. This game is also quite linear, which also hurts the interesting RPG elements since you’re always pressing forward, and if you miss something, you’ll either have to do without or start over. Finally, the game is mechanically spotty at times, as the better boots make Wonder Boy harder to control at times, while early combat can be a bear with the short range of the initial swords, and while this can be overcome with practice, you kind of feel like maybe this could have been handled better.
Wonder Boy in Monster Land is a historically significant game for the franchise, and it’s fun enough decades after the fact, but it shows its age in notable ways, and it’s really not the best game Sega could have picked for the Vintage series. The plot is bare bones (though there are some mild gameplay options to make up for this) and the game looks and sounds fine enough, to be sure. The mechanics are simple to understand, but the game has a lot of really great ideas for its time, like equipment upgrades, hidden locations and subquests in a platformer, that are really innovative and cool to see in a game from the eighties. There’s depth to the product in the multiple difficulty customization options, as well as finding the hidden items, earning the Trophies, and playing around with the added content, giving the game a decent amount of long term value beyond the initial playthrough. However, the game combines a “search for stuff”Â mentality with a time limit gimmick that makes things frustrating, missing hidden secrets can leave you massively unprepared for the final battle, infinite continues or not, and the linearity and odd mechanical spottiness issues don’t help the game. Wonder Boy in Monster Land is certainly a fine enough game for its time and it’s historically significant, but it’s not as easily recommended as some of the other releases in the series, sadly.
Story/Game Modes: MEDIOCRE
Sound: ABOVE AVERAGE
Control/Gameplay: ABOVE AVERAGE
Replayability: ABOVE AVERAGE
Balance: ABOVE AVERAGE
FINAL SCORE: DECENT GAME.
Short Attention Span Summary:
Wonder Boy in Monster Land is a cute novelty to have for historical value, for fans or just to have fun with, but it’s not held up especially well and doesn’t present a strong case as a “must have”Â game for your library. The story is bare bones as can be, though there are alternate options here (as in the other Sega Vintage releases) to keep things fresh. The game looks and sounds generally solid enough, and the gameplay is mechanically simple but offers some surprisingly innovative concepts for its day that make the game a lot more involved than it would first seem. There’s a decent amount of depth to the game, between the upgrades, secrets, difficulty options, Trophies and more, and the game offers a decent amount of content to bring you back if you’re interested. However, the game makes it difficult to search for hidden goodies by punishing the player with a time limit, missing the hidden secrets makes the game far more frustrating than it should be and can leave you in pain in the endgame, and the linear nature of the game and odd mechanical issues here and there don’t help the game in the end either. Wonder Boy in Monster Land is a cute nostalgia piece that was innovative for its time but hasn’t held up as well as it could have, and the end result is an amusing platformer with some neat ideas and noticeable flaws that’s fun, but not for everyone.