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Wonder Boy in Monster World (Genesis) Review
~By tankMage (September 2019)
Score: B (8.5/10)
-Good action and combat
-Some really good music
-Variety of weapons, spells, and items
-Locations feel unique and interconnected
-Shion grows stronger mostly from exploring and progressing through the adventure
-Relatively little grinding for a game of its time
-Some of the music is irritating
-Only one save slot
-Ice physics are excessively slippery
-Difficulty can spike ridiculously near the end of the game
-Final boss is very poorly designed
Monsters have Invaded Monster World…Wait…What?!
On it’s surface Wonder Boy in Monster World resembles action RPGs like Faxanadu or certain incarnations of Adventure Island, but this game marches to the beat of its own drummer, swiftly turning into a rather challenging platformer in the final act. Even a full day after completing this title, I’m not sure if the sudden spike in difficulty was a stroke of genius on the part of the developers or an amateurish mistake. Either way, Wonder Boy in Monster World is a good choice if you’re looking for a platformer with some light RPG mechanics and a strong focus on exploration. It even has a story… sort of… and some cool music.
What’s Wonder Boy in Monster World about you may ask? Hold on a sec…*looks up plot*… Ah yes, well apparently Monster World was once peaceful until said peace was shattered by bad guys and our hero Shion must put things right. That’s it. Most video games have simple plots and I often have to read manuals or look online to get the story, but Wonder Boy is the first game I’ve played where I forgot the premise about halfway through. The player is given a very short message regarding the dire state of monster world at the start and the rest of the dialogue is mostly focused on telling the player where to go next.
At first I was tempted to really hold the plot’s lack of narrative against it in a big way, but I suppose saving monster world is motivation enough. The game also does a fair job at demonstrating just how much chaos the invaders have caused as many towns are in a state of disarray. The story also avoids getting bogged down with unnecessary exposition or melodrama, which is always welcome. Even so, it would have been nice to see what motivated the villain or at least be reminded that there’s a villain to begin with. To sum it up, don’t play this game for the story.
Visually, Wonder Boy is really unique and I found its graphics to be one of its biggest selling points. Monster world has this sort of cartoonish look to it and just about everything is almost absurdly cutesy. If you know anything about the Sega Genesis (at least as far as it was marketed in the US), you know it was touted as being the cool, edgy console. Even the gritty colour palette and famous twang of its sound processor seemed designed to provide a more mature or at least arcade-esque experience than that offered by Nintendo products. With that in mind, it’s impressive that West One was able to squeeze so many bright colors and cuddly creatures into Wonder Boy. Of course, those cute looking creatures are only cute until they maul your face off in an ironic twist of fate.
The entire game world is nicely stylized and detailed in a manner that’s in step with the cartoon theme. Players will also find a wide variety of unique places to explore. I can’t over emphasize how much I appreciate the diverse environments as someone who has played dozens of games filled with repetitive areas. That said, none of the settings in this game are terribly original and players will explore the usual forests, ruins, icy plains, and spooky castles that have become tried and true fantasy tropes.
As I said before, the monsters are all original in so much that they were given rather cute designs. There’s dopey looking mushrooms that wander around the screen, cartoon crabs, and even ghosts that look a bit like Casper the Friendly Ghost to name a few. The bosses are also fairly impressive, often taking up large portions of the screen, though their animations are often very basic. Some of the bosses are highly original as well and will have players asking themselves “What the hell was that?”. Shion (the hero) and humanoid NPCs were also well done, in fact, there are different sprites for the various items Shion can equip, so there’s a visual element to our hero’s growth.
Music and Sound
Wonder Boy has some really excellent music. It also has a shitty song that I found annoying that plays in a few locations, although I think the composer made it unpleasant on purpose in order to set the vibe for certain areas. At any rate, the sound track is really good overall and they actually took time to mix the different tracks so they play from the left or right speaker, which is quite rare. The sound effects are also fine and it will be some time before I get the sound of projectiles plinking off of Shion’s shield out of my head.
The controls are some of the tightest I’ve ever seen in a game, which is great because Wonder Boy requires some precise timing and positioning. However, they could have chosen a better button layout. The attack and jump commands are mapped to B and C respectively. Items and spells are mapped to the A Button. While this wasn’t much of an issue, I often felt I was playing a bit too far on one side of the controller for comfort and would have preferred it if the button for spells had been mapped to C instead of A. Using magic and items was also touch and go, because the player has to hold A before hitting a directional button to activate the desired item/spell. This may not sound important, but it’s easy to forget the proper combination in the heat of battle and I often got tagged by enemies just after failing to cast a spell.
Equipping items and gear was generally easy in Wonder Boy in Monster World and players aren’t required to swap equipment very often. That said, the inventory screen is often unavailable when Shion is jumping or taking damage, which got frustrating at times when I was trying to change spells or equip a potion. It’s also impossible to cast spells or use items when spells like power are active and I took a death or two near the end of the game as a result. I’m not sure why West One chose to restrict the inventory screen so much, though it could have been to prevent exploits or certain bugs from occurring.
Finally, some of the physics were really out of whack. Swimming is quite a chore as Shion constantly sinks. In all fairness, it’s reasonable to expect a guy wearing a hundred pounds of steel to sink like a rock, but he is able to swim with the aid of a magical artifact; by that logic he should be able to float like a fish. The ice physics were way over the top and Shion tends to slide all over the place in icy areas, making the ice stage far more bothersome than necessary. Finally, there’s a conveyor belt near the end of the game that was more of the most aggravating things I’ve ever encountered (I won’t go into details to avoid spoiling anything) thanks to its random and nearly irresistible shifts in direction. This game would have been much more fun had the devs toned the crazy physics down a bit.
Platformers of all sorts were very common during the 16-Bit era and this one is a fair example of a platformer that did a good job of integrating mechanics from the RPG and Adventure genres into its core gameplay. While there’s no experience or level up system, much of Shion’s power is based on equipment that he will often have to purchase with gold taken from monsters, which gives this game a very light RPG feel. At the same time, exploration and simple puzzle solving are also key to Shion’s growth (and progress through the game) as he will often find extra life and spells hidden away in dungeons. Of course Wonder Boy is still very much a platformer and players will find themselves jumping around, battling monsters in real time quite a bit.
Over the course of the adventure, players will acquire various swords, spears, armor, shields, and even magic that can clear the screen of monsters. There are also boots that alter Shion’s run speed, jump height, and/or grant him special powers. West One did a good job of making the weapons and spells feel different from each other. Swords strike enemies in an arc and allow for the use of a shield, while spears have a long frontal reach, but require two hands to wield. Spells also have their own effects, ranging from direct damage to protective shields. While most of the stuff in this game remains useful up until the last boss, spears eventually become worthless and I found myself wishing for an upgrade to my favorite weapon type in the final chapters of the adventure.
Wonder Boy has a wide offering of places to explore, but they tend to be small. Most dungeons will take maybe 15-30 minutes for the average player to explore, though the last few become more complex. The puzzles in these dungeons are mostly simple and fun to solve, with a few rather frustrating exceptions. One such puzzle is found in the second dungeon. While the puzzle itself is fairly simple, the fact that Shion will be sent back through a gauntlet of traps if he makes a mistake and the complete lack of hints had me ready to throw the controller after a few minutes. Overall, the level designs are good enough to keep players engaged and even the more irritating areas feel rewarding to explore.
As I mentioned before, this game has an adventure/RPG theme and West One did a good job of implementing it. Most of the items players get are awarded for exploring areas or defeating bosses. It is necessary to farm gold from enemies at times for new gear, but this only takes a few minutes and is not a constant chore. However, the player is often required to backtrack in order to find hidden goodies. Personally, I don’t mind returning to old areas to get some extra life or a new spell, but some players may not appreciate it. Additionally, the devs may have been a little too good at hiding secret doors and I found myself pushing the Up Button at just about every dead end in hopes that I would find an otherwise invisible entrance to a secret room.
My main complaint about this game is the sudden and unforgiving jump in difficulty that occurs in the final two dungeons. The first of which comes from a brutal platforming area that will send you back to fight a mini-boss over and over again if you mess up. The second spike comes in the form of the final boss, who takes a tremendous amount of practice and a little luck to defeat. I have no problem with Wonder Boy being difficult, the issue is more that there’s no precedent for the sudden difficulty spikes within the game. If anything, this game is very easy for 90% of the adventure. I would have much rather have had to deal with a high difficulty level from the start, than a sudden spike near the end that came out of left field.
Wonder Boy in Monster World certainly has a few poor design choices, but it’s also a game that I’m happy to have played. I was ready to snap my controller in half at a few points, but finally completing the more difficult segments made all the frustration worthwhile. The music and graphics also made the adventure all the more memorable. This game certainly deserves a place on the list of good Genesis titles… just don’t expect an easy or smooth ride.
Wonder Boy in Monster World is worth a try, just be ready for some unexpected surprises.