Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros. proved to be a tour de force when it was released on the Famicom in 1985. After the Famicom was allowed to make its international debut as the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), Nintendo had the honor of single-handedly revitalizing the North American gaming industry, which had been in shambles due to a devastating crash two years prior. Super Mario Bros. fared especially well commercially due to having been frequently bundled with the console itself. In a year, the NES became synonymous with gaming itself and Mario became one of the most recognized characters in the medium after Pac-Man. This presented a problem for any would-be developers. How could they possibly stand up to a company that so thoroughly dominated the market?
In 1986 as Super Mario Bros. took the world by storm, a company named Escape was founded in Sumida, Tokyo. They had teamed up with another up-and-coming developer, Sega, who just entered the console market upon launching their Master System console in 1985. Escape allowed Sega to publish what was to be their inaugural game: Wonder Boy. It was among the first electronic games to bear Sega’s name. As a result, the title character became one of the company’s mascots along Sega’s own Alex Kidd when Wonder Boy proved popular in arcades. The game was then ported to several prominent home consoles, including the Sega Master System.
Despite Sega directly competing against Nintendo at the time, Escape had entered a deal with Hudson Soft to port the game to the NES and the TurboGrafx-16 – domestically known as the PC Engine. When Wonder Boy was ported to the NES and certain other consoles, Hudson replaced the title character with an exaggerated caricature of Takashi Meijin – one of their spokespeople. The likeness even shared the same name in Japan, though he was renamed Master Higgins in the West. Versions of the game that cast Mr. Meijin’s 8-bit doppelgänger were renamed Adventure Island. Though not nearly as well-known as Super Mario Bros., Adventure Island became one of the hallmarks of the NES among Western gamers when it was released internationally in 1988. Whether it was called Wonder Boy or Adventure Island, did Escape manage to leave a good first impression in an increasingly competitive industry?
Analyzing the Experience
Being a product of the 1980s arcade scene, the premise of Wonder Boy is simple. The title character is a young boy who strongly resembles a caveman due to his grass skirt. His girlfriend, Tina, has been kidnapped by an evil being called King. Realizing that time is of the essence, Wonder Boy springs into action, determined to brave the harsh environment in order to rescue Tina.
Wonder Boy was one of the innumerable platforming games released in the wake of the overwhelming success of Super Mario Bros. This game popularized the idea of levels that scroll with the player character. Like Super Mario Bros., backtracking is forbidden because the screen only scrolls right. As you play the game, you’ll soon realize that Wonder Boy is remarkably vulnerable to the various creatures inhabiting the wilds. Even if the first enemy in the game is a harmless-looking snail, attempting to follow Mario’s example by jumping on its head will only result in Wonder Boy’s untimely demise. As is the case with many games from its era, a death is signified by having him fall off the screen in a comical fashion.
A cursory examination of the cabinet reveals there to be two different action buttons; one maintains Wonder Boy’s speed and causes him to attack while the other makes him perform a jump. From the onset, Wonder Boy has no means of defending himself. To find one you need only break open one of the many eggs strewn across the land. The first one should contain a hatchet. This is what you need in order to take down any foes you may encounter. Every single enemy you’ll face is vulnerable to these hatchets, though you must take caution, as Wonder Boy cannot take a single hit without dying.
It is unknown from what kind of animals the eggs originate because their contents vary wildly. In this regard, they could be construed as the Wonder Boy equivalent of the famous question mark blocks from Super Mario Bros. This is highly appropriate; anything taking cues from Nintendo’s landmark game would be boring without an array of power-ups. The most common things you can find in an egg are angels and skateboards. The angel is the Wonder Boy equivalent of the Super Star from Super Mario Bros. Their power will protect Wonder Boy from harm, allowing him to defeat enemies by running into them. The game effectively signposts when the angel’s protection is about to wear off, so you shouldn’t be caught off-guard as it does. Logically, the skateboard allows Wonder Boy to traverse a given stage much faster. He always moves forward as long as he is riding it, but you are afforded some control over its speed.
Players well-versed in the medium may question why, if Wonder Boy is felled with but a single blow, there is something resembling a life meter at the top of the screen. With no words placed next to the meter, it’s only natural to assume it measures Wonder Boy’s vitality. However, this meter doesn’t measure Wonder Boy’s life, but rather his stamina. In a typical game from the 1980s, environments existed as a mere backdrop for individual stages. They could have a minor impact on the level design, but they primarily served aesthetical purposes. This isn’t the case with Wonder Boy; Escape acknowledges that traveling through these harsh environments would take its toll on the average adventurer. As such, Wonder Boy needs to maintain his health if he is to have any chance of reaching King, let alone defeating him.
On its own, the stamina meter decreases. If it is completely depleted, the player will lose a life with words “NO VITALITY!!” appearing onscreen to tell you exactly what you did wrong. Logically, the only thing capable of replenishing the stamina meter is food. Wonder Boy is fortunate that the environment in which he finds himself is quite fertile, allowing him to live off the land easily enough. Fruits such as bananas and strawberries are common in this land, and collecting enough of them will satiate Wonder Boy’s hunger. Although one could consider it a glorified time limit, I do like the concept because it it’s an interesting, alternate way to justify what is normally a standard game mechanic. This specific idea does have a precedents in the dungeon crawler arcade classic Gauntlet and the pioneering computer role-playing game Ultima, but it was still rare in 1986 for developers to inject any kind of realism in their work.
Although a majority of the eggs contain useful items, you would do well to avoid the ones adorned with red spots. These eggs are rotten, and cracking them open will unleash an evil spirit that will haunt Wonder Boy for a brief period of time, rapidly draining his stamina. Because most food only restores a single unit of stamina at a time, this will more than likely result in a lost life if you’re too far away from the stage’s exit. Each egg requires two strikes to break and while this seems unnecessary for a majority of the experience, you’ll be thankful for that when you stumble upon a spotted egg.
As you’re traversing a stage, you may find an item that belongs to Tina. Collecting it will whisk Wonder Boy to a bonus stage in the skies above his world. Here, you can collect hearts for bonus points. Items identical to the one that transported Wonder Boy to the bonus area in the first place are present as well, though collecting any of them will return him to earth. Therefore, it’s best to collect as many hearts as you can before recovering Tina’s belonging. When you return to the stage, you will be transported ahead of where you entered the bonus area.
Despite Wonder Boy’s inability to jump on enemies to defeat them, it’s clear that this game took many cues Super Mario Bros. Even small details such as every round consisting of four stages, which is then capped off with a boss, and bonus stages that take place in the sky betray its influences. As the game defined exactly how a 2D platformer should be made, it makes sense that Nintendo would inspire countless creators. With a clear style guide in place, Escape had an opportunity to put their own spin on the genre. Their implementation of the stamina gauge provides a justification for time limits in arcade games while also giving players a reason for wanting to obtain what would normally be negligible bonus items in most contemporary efforts.
However, having debuted less than a year after the domestic release of Super Mario Bros., Wonder Boy can’t help but be a product of its time. The style guide for 2D platformers had been written, but by April of 1986, the rules and idioms were not fully cemented. As such, one of the biggest problems with Escape’s inaugural effort is that the controls are not particularly good. It was arguably ahead of the curve in that its ice-themed stages reduce the main character’s friction, but even in tropical areas, the controls are very slippery. Unlike in Super Mario Bros., you can’t precisely correct Wonder Boy’s jumps in midair; once you have made the decision, you must commit to it. This is especially bad when an enemy or mobile obstacle comes barreling right at him and you realize – too late – that there’s no possible way to dodge them.
This by itself isn’t a deal-breaker, but what makes it untenable is that Wonder Boy cannot take a hit without dying. This means if multiple enemies are heading right for him, you better make sure your timing with the attack button is perfect or he will stand no chance against them. While this would seem to go without saying, it isn’t always a luxury you have. In the event you lose a life, you must reclaim the hatchet every time. Although many of the checkpoints are placed right before an egg so you have the opportunity to do so, you still have to contend with the fact that he is entirely defenseless up until then. I question why the developers felt it necessary to make players collect the hatchet a second time whenever they lose a life. It’s not as though the hatchet can be upgraded, nor is it like the Fire Flower from Super Mario Bros., which also allows Mario to take a single hit before being reduced to his standard form. The game is clearly designed in a way that assumes you have the hatchet the entire time, making it incredibly frustrating when you don’t.
Not helping matters is that the hatchet itself isn’t reliable. This is because the hatchets travel in an arc when thrown. Given the small size of many enemies, you will frequently see the hatchets fly right over their heads. Because Wonder Boy does not have the ability to duck, the lowest altitude from which he can throw a hatchet is right above the ground. This means you have to stand a perfect distance from most enemies in order to hit them. Trying to calculate the arc in midair is borderline impossible – especially when you’re making a tricky jump.
I also have to comment that the skateboard is a subpar power-up. Discounting the angel’s protection, it is the only thing capable of shielding Wonder Boy from damage. However, should you get it in a stage that involves precarious platforming, you will eventually find yourself wanting to get rid of it as soon as possible. You always move forward as long as you’re riding it. Even if you can slow it down to a fairly reasonable degree, it will cause you to fall into bottomless pits frequently. It is rarely, if ever, worth the risk just so Wonder Boy can endure a single attack from an enemy.
Although I give the Escape team credit for the novel stamina gauge idea, I have to remark that it’s mostly pointless. Stumbling on a rock is one of the very few actions that damages Wonder Boy’s stamina whereas every enemy attack kills him outright. Furthermore, food is plentiful, and the gauge does not naturally decrease fast enough for it to ever become an issue. Unless you accidently crack open a rotten egg and unleash the evil spirit dwelling within, chances are great that you will complete a given stage long before it has a chance to deplete itself.
What I believe to be the Achilles’ heel of Wonder Boy, however, is that it ultimately doesn’t work as a platforming game. Considering the very name of the genre, it is of utmost importance that players understand how platforms function. If they fall when jumped on, they must bear a distinct design. If they are mobile, players must be able to tell where they go. Nintendo knew full well how to explain the rules of their game without feeling the need to spell it out for their audience. Platforms with holes in them would fall when stepped on, and mobile ones followed what appeared to be a rail system.
Wonder Boy doesn’t grasp this concept. Platforms that fall are only barely distinct from the completely stationary ones. The only visual cue is that falling platforms have a slightly different coloration. This is very tricky to keep in mind when you’re making snap judgements such as jumping from platform to platform. To make matters worse, if a platform is moving horizontally, you will often need to jump right at the edge of its pattern just before it reaches that point. With the pattern not clearly defined, this is more difficult than it sounds. This problem is at its absolute worst whenever you’re navigating platforms moving on a vertical axis. In these situations, you need to remember they move like the one-way elevators from Super Mario Bros. If you assume they move in a similar fashion to the ones that travel on a horizontal axis, you will get to see Wonder Boy ride these platforms all the way into a bottomless pit. Visual cues are vital to an action-oriented experience. Without them, it can be hard to learn from your mistakes or hope to make any kind of progress short of brute-forcing a stage through sheer repetition.
Drawing a Conclusion
Although it’s a little difficult to appreciate these days, Wonder Boy was actually a decent effort for its time. When a work of any kind proves such a gigantic success, it inevitably draws imitators. It makes sense from a business standpoint; you ride the biggest wave possible to success. Naturally, in many of these cases, you get creators who only grasp that the ideas behind the generation-defining experience work without really grasping why they work. Although not nearly as polished as Super Mario Bros., I don’t get this impression from Wonder Boy. I genuinely think that Escape wanted to explore new ground in an increasingly popular genre. For the most part they succeeded, even adding a few personal touches that made for curious novelties at the time. To those who possessed the consoles of Nintendo’s rivals, it was the closest thing they had to the Super Mario Bros. experience. For those fortunate enough to have possessed an NES, the retooled version of Wonder Boy, Adventure Island, ensured the console had another classic platforming game in its library.
Despite all of the good things I can say about it, Wonder Boy didn’t have much to offer in the grand scheme of things. Although there are many aspects I can point to in order to make my case, its biggest problem is that it doesn’t really excel in any particular field. The controls aren’t the worst I’ve seen, but they’re not particularly good either. The power-ups are pretty interesting, but they tend to stand out for the wrong reasons. The level design is serviceable, but none of the stages stand out. All of these facets combined make for an experience that is consistently bland and repetitive. As it stands, most of the challenge is derived from the title character’s frailty rather than depending on your ability to guide him past the various obstacles he faces. Because of this, I can only realistically envision 2D platforming fans enjoying Wonder Boy. Even then, given how much the genre would improve in the coming years, this hypothetical person needs to overlook a lot of flaws to appreciate it for what it is. Anyone who doesn’t particularly care for this era in gaming or 2D platformers in general is better off looking elsewhere.
Final Score: 4/10