[GAME REVIEW] Wonder Boy in Monster Land

Introduction

Escape’s debut game, Wonder Boy, became a hit when it was released in arcades in 1986. Because the publisher, Sega, only had rights over the Wonder Boy trademark, the company entered a partnership with Hudson Soft to have it released on the Famicom – or the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) as it was known abroad. Wonder Boy, retooled into Adventure Island, would go on to be a beloved classic in the NES’s library as well. As a result, the game managed to find a broad audience, being one of the few titles legally available on both a Nintendo and a Sega console. With this success, two members of Escape, Ryuchi Nishizawa and Michishito Ishizuka, began work on a follow-up. To mark the momentous occasion of having released Wonder Boy, they changed the company’s name to Westone, believing the name Escape made them sound unreliable. Westone is derived from the first kanji in these two artists’ names – “Nishi” meaning “west” and “Ishi” meaning “stone”.

In the same year in which Wonder Boy saw its release, a skilled programmer named Yuji Horii put the finishing touches on a game known as Dragon Quest. This title was a massive success upon release, introducing countless Japanese enthusiasts to the role-playing game. One person who took note of this game’s popularity and its subsequent impact on Japanese enthusiasts was none other than Mr. Nishizawa. Drawing upon his experience, he sought to create a game that combined arcade and role-playing elements.

The result of this experimentation, Wonder Boy: Monster World, was released in arcades in August of 1987. Although the original arcade version never left Japan, it received a port on the Sega Master System in 1988. This port, which was redubbed Wonder Boy in Monster Land overseas, is frequently considered one of the stronger games in the Master System library. Similar to the case with the original Wonder Boy and Adventure Island, it also saw retooled ports on the PC Engine and the Famicom under the names Bikkuriman and Saiyūki World respectively. Bikkuriman was based off of a 1980s franchise centered on sticker collecting. Saiyūki World, published by Jaleco, was inspired by the classic Chinese tale Journey to the West in which players assumed the role of the monkey king Sun Wukong – or Son Gokū in Japanese – on a quest to save his country. Of these various ports and retools, only the Master System version saw the light of day in the West. Did Mr. Nishizawa successfully use the increasingly popular role-playing genre to give Wonder Boy a worthy sequel?

Analyzing the Experience

The protagonist of this game is named Bocke Lee Temjin, though his friends call him Tom-Tom. As a young boy, his girlfriend, Tina, was kidnapped by the evil King, who took her to his woodland kingdom. Braving the many dangers and the very elements themselves, Tom-Tom emerged victorious and defeated King. Word spread throughout Wonder Land about Tom-Tom’s bravery, and they soon began calling him “Wonder Boy”.

Eleven years have passed since that day, and a new threat in the form of a fire-breathing dragon threatens to destroy the peace. The citizens of Wonder Land are completely defenseless, not being skilled in the art of fighting. The dragon and his minions easily overwhelm the land, turning Wonder Land into Monster Land. Wonder Boy, now a teenager, rushes to the people’s aid.

Wonder Boy was a fairly straightforward side-scrolling title spawned from the wake of Nintendo’s success with Super Mario Bros. The title character was made to negotiate precarious platforms and had an infinite supply of hatchets with which to defend himself. It did have a few twists such as Wonder Boy needing to eat food in order to prevent himself from starving to death, but otherwise, the experience it had to offer was fairly basic.

Absolutely nothing you learned from the original game apples to Wonder Boy in Monster Land. Mere seconds after inserting a coin into the machine, anyone who played Wonder Boy knew its sequel was about to offer a completely different experience. The caveman-like Wonder Boy has been transplanted from a fitting prehistoric jungle backdrop to a medieval land decorated with dungeons and castles.

At first, there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with Monster Land. There are no enemies to fight and no obstacles to speak of. However, Wonder Boy doesn’t have any means of defense; his constantly respawning hatchets are nowhere to be found. On top of that, a newcomer wouldn’t get very far without running into a dead end. Fortunately, the nearby dwelling is occupied by the deposed mayor, who is more than willing to lend Wonder Boy a helping hand. All the player must do is guide Wonder Boy to the mayor’s front door and tilt the joystick up. The hero will knock on the door before being invited in.

“Listen well, brave hero.”

The mayor generously gives Wonder Boy two helpful items: a gladius and a potion. Once you’ve heard the mayor’s plight, a moving platform spawns, allowing you to delve into the game proper.

Rather than throwing hatchets at his enemies, Wonder Boy now engages enemies with a sword. By pressing the attack button, Wonder Boy thrusts the sword forward, damaging any enemy unfortunate enough to get in its way. You need to be somewhat wary because the sword has a limited range and you must wait a brief duration before being allowed to execute any follow-up attacks. This is especially important to keep in mind when dealing with any airborne enemies, for you will likely only be able to launch a single attack before touching the ground.

The potion ties into what is perhaps the single biggest gameplay change Wonder Boy in Monster Land presents. As the newcomer playing this game would have noticed quickly, Wonder Boy has an actual life meter. Similar to The Legend of Zelda, Wonder Boy’s health is measured in hearts. It’s important to know that the hearts are more of an abstraction of a numeric value than an exact indication of Wonder Boy’s durability. While he starts off with five hearts on his life meter, it’s not as though he can only take five hits before dying. Attacks can shave off but a fraction of a heart, though how much damage is inflicted depends on the enemy.

Anyone who played The Legend of Zelda before this game may believe that there is some way to extend Wonder Boy’s life meter. This supposition would be entirely correct, though the exact method of doing so is vastly different. While The Legend of Zelda had players seek out Heart Containers to give Link more health, Wonder Boy takes advantage of its own format. Defeating enemies, collecting gold, and accomplishing various other productive tasks will give the player points. If the player scores 30,000 points, Wonder Boy will be given an extra heart. Should they be skilled enough to amass 100,000 points, they will be given a second extra heart. From there, an extra heart will be rewarded for every 100,000 points scored until he has ten in total.

During the golden age of arcade games, players would compete with each other to see who could score the most points. The points themselves had little value in terms of gameplay; it’s not as though a player needed a certain amount in order to move onto the next stage. Instead, they were merely bragging rights for anyone skilled enough to surpass the high score typically displayed at the top of the screen. It was especially tantalizing in games that allowed the person with the highest score to enter their full name.

Although that drive to score as many points as possible still exists in Wonder Boy in Monster Land, Mr. Nishizawa gave it a discernible impact on the gameplay. Scoring points in this installment is highly analogous to how one would receive experience points upon vanquishing monsters in role-playing games. Once your character reaches a certain threshold, they will become much more survivable in battle. In other words, Mr. Nishizawa took an aspect that had existed in the arcade scene and gave it an entirely new purpose. It became standard practice for players to ignore items awarding points in favor of completing a difficult stage as soon as possible. Even if the game awarded an extra life after scoring a certain number of points, it was typically better to make a beeline for the goal rather than risk losing one in the first place. Here, such items are more important than ever, paying off in the long-term when Wonder Boy’s durability is fortified.

Regardless of how many points you score, as you continue with the game, you may notice enemy attacks begin to inflict overwhelming amounts of damage to Wonder Boy. It’s not as though you’re playing poorly either; even two well-placed attacks are enough to fell him in later stages. Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to make Wonder Boy’s journey easier. As you explore Monster Land, you will happen across several shops selling a wide array of useful equipment.

In addition to a sword, Wonder Boy can have equipped at any given time a set of armor, a shield, and a pair of boots. Armor reduces the amount of damage Wonder Boy takes from an enemy attack. Although one could theoretically complete the game without taking damage, it’s usually better to skip the risk and upgrade Wonder Boy’s armor whenever possible. The shield protects Wonder Boy from projectiles launched his way opposite the direction he faces. He defends whenever he isn’t attacking, so learning to time button presses is key for long-term survival. On top of that, whenever he is struck by an attack, Wonder Boy is pushed back. The stronger his shield, the less he will get pushed. Lastly, shoes affect Wonder Boy’s mobility. Better shoes will allow Wonder Boy to run faster and jump higher. Although not as immediately helpful as a new sword, armor set, or shield, it’s vital to periodically upgrade Wonder Boy’s shoes. This is because certain areas cannot be accessed unless he is mobile enough to reach them. Swords are the only pieces of equipment that cannot be purchased in stores. To find them, you must seek out certain powerful monsters and defeat them in battle. Although you do not need to defeat them in order to clear a stage, doing so will make the rest of the game slightly more manageable.

By default, the best piece of equipment in your possession is equipped automatically. It is also impossible to downgrade because the stores always sell pieces superior to what you currently have. The best equipment you can have is of the Legendary variety. Once you have a piece of Legendary equipment, the stores will begin selling special weapons instead.

The special weapon system is the Wonder Boy take on the concept synonymous with the fantasy genre itself: magic. There are four types of special weapons Wonder Boy can use: whirlwinds, lightning bolts, fireballs, and bombs. They are used by tilting the joystick downward. When Wonder Boy uses the whirlwind, he tosses a small tornado, which travels back and forth, ricocheting off of enemies or objects. This allows it to potentially hit multiple enemies in succession. The lightning bolt causes the screen to flash, striking every onscreen enemy at once. Any enemy weak enough to be defeated in a single blow will be destroyed instantly. Fireballs lock onto the strongest enemy in the vicinity and fly straight towards it. Though fairly inaccurate, the attack does inflict a lot of damage if it connects. Finally, Wonder Boy tosses bombs in an arc. They bounce along the ground, exploding either after they strike an enemy or roll along the ground for a long enough time. Although Wonder Boy can have more than one special weapon at a time you cannot manually select which one he uses. The most recently acquired one must be depleted before you can use any of the others.

Finally, no role-playing game would be complete without some kind of inventory system. Admittedly, with no way to pause the game, inventory management is fairly limited. There are six potential items you can obtain: helmets, gauntlets, winged boots, capes, potions, and keys. You can only have one of each item on hand, and they are typically used automatically. The helmet cuts the damage Wonder Boy takes in half, though it will break after he is hit a certain number of times. Conversely, the gauntlet doubles the strength of Wonder Boy’s sword, but it too breaks after enough of his attacks connect. The winged boots allow Wonder Boy to float through the air. All you need to do is jump and hold down the button to descend slowly. Just like the invisibility potion from Castlevania, the cape causes Wonder Boy to vanish for ten seconds during which time he is invulnerable. Potions activate in the event Wonder Boy’s health is completely drained. If this happens and he has a potion to hand, his life meter will be restored by five hearts.

Anyone attempting to play Wonder Boy in Monster Land in a manner similar to its predecessor may be taken slightly aback when the age-old strategy of going right proves ineffective. This usually continues to be your goal in broad strokes, but simply going right doesn’t cut it anymore. Even if you’re audacious enough to make it to the end of a given stage without updating Wonder Boy’s equipment, you’ll find you can’t simply move on to the next. This is because most stages have locked doors in place, and the keys are guarded by boss enemies. In typical video-game fashion, the keys you obtain can unlock any door, but vanish into the ether upon use.

The sheer amount of ambition Mr. Nishizawa displayed when crafting Wonder Boy in Monster Land speaks for itself. Anyone seeking the kind of experience this game offered had to invest in either a powerful computer or a home console. The idea of having playing a platformer with an overt action-RPG flavor in arcades was borderline unthinkable. Even today, when most historians think of the kinds of games people played in arcades, a methodical, somewhat exploratory title that forces players to manage inventory items and money wisely would be one of the last things to spring to mind. One of the only contemporary arcade titles that offered an experience even remotely similar to Wonder Boy in Monster Land was Namco’s The Tower of Druaga.

It would be natural to assume that, given the large step up Wonder Boy in Monster Land manages to be from its predecessor, it shows signs of growing pains. Unfortunately, that is indeed true. One of the most irritating aspects of this game concerns the hourglass that is prominently shown on the bottom-left corner of the screen. Although Wonder Boy doesn’t need to eat regularly in order to survive, the player does need to finish these stages as quickly as possible. It takes approximately thirty-seven seconds for the sands in the hourglass to run its course. Once it is turned over, Wonder Boy takes a single heart’s worth of damage. Should you find an hourglass or heart, the timer will be reset.

Needing to maintain Wonder Boy’s stamina in the original game was, for the most part, pointless. The stamina gauge didn’t decrease fast enough for it to ever become an issue outside of instances in which you inadvertently released a reaper from a rotten egg. It’s as though for the sequel, the developers wanted to implement a similar mechanic while also making it a legitimate issue. However, I feel the more likely reason for this change is the same reason why arcade games often had time limits to begin with – to prevent players from hogging the machines. This mechanic simply doesn’t complement the game design. If they wanted to implement a time limit, it would be far less intrusive to have a longer-lasting one that kills Wonder Boy outright if it’s elapsed. As it stands, you have to constantly worry about spontaneously taking damage during boss fights or prolonged enemy gauntlets. To make matters worse, hourglasses aren’t nearly as common as fruit were in the original Wonder Boy. With several stages taking well over thirty-seven seconds to complete, you are going to be fighting the timer every step of the way.

If you assumed this feature only existed in the arcade version, you will be in for a rude awakening should you try out the Master System port. Not only does the timer make an appearance, you aren’t even allowed to continue should Wonder Boy die – and he, like in the original version, is only afforded but a single life. Boss fights are significantly easier in the Master System port, but you cannot afford to lose a single time due to your continued inability to save the game. The game isn’t terribly long and the stages are linear in design, but having to complete it in a single sitting – or standing as the case may be – is a bit of a tall order.

It especially doesn’t help that every single playthrough is highly dependent on luck. Every time you receive a coin or money bag, the amount of gold they yield is completely random. Naturally, money bags yield a greater amount of gold, but it’s there is a fair bit of luck involved. Depending on how the random-number generator feels, you could have a complete set of Legendary equipment in round six or lack at least one piece going into the final dungeon. When an arcade game doesn’t give the player extra lives, relying on the luck of the draw is highly aggravating.

I also have to comment that the controls aren’t exactly polished. They’re slightly more responsive than that of the original Wonder Boy, and there are no bottomless pits in this game, thus making platforming missteps a little less consequential. However, they’re still not optimized as well as they could be. Because you can only launch a few attacks in midair, you really have to time them correctly in order for them to connect. This is troublesome whenever you’re fighting a boss and you need to quickly gauge where to strike the enemy in order for it to count. While it seems simple, it’s easier said than done, and the overall design doesn’t allow for experimentation.

What I feel to be the absolute worst aspect of Wonder Boy in Monster Land is its final dungeon – the dragon’s castle. To preface the following criticism, I do not find it untoward that the final dungeon is significantly more challenging than anything leading up to it.

What is untoward, however, is that the final dungeon is a nigh-incomprehensible maze. At the end of a given section, you will be given a choice between two or more routes. One advances Wonder Boy further into the castle while the others send him back to a previous section. Indeed, the sinister facet of this dungeon design is that Wonder Boy could easily be sent back several sections, thus erasing the effort to reach a given point in the first place. The idea of having a maze operate in such a fashion isn’t unsalvageable. Super Mario Bros. featured castles that would repeat endlessly unless a certain route was taken. However, these portions were significantly shorter and not filled to the brim with powerful enemies, making them far easier to navigate. Because the sections of the dragon’s castle in Wonder Boy in Monster Land are only barely distinct from each other, you could have your character run around in circles for several minutes without realizing it. It doesn’t take long before the whole experience devolves into an elaborate, time-consuming guessing game.

There would appear to be a saving grace in the form of an elaborate trading quest that runs throughout the game. One citizen of Monster Land will give Wonder Boy a letter to give to his sister. By following this sidequest to its conclusion, you will be awarded with the Hero’s Emblem. By giving this item to a man near the entrance to the dragon’s castle, you will receive either a bell or a ruby in return. The bell chimes whenever you’re about to take the correct route, making navigating the castle much easier. However, in order to obtain this item, you naturally have to forego the ruby. Although the ruby isn’t immediately useful, it plays a pivotal role in the final battle.

In a tradition that was gaining steam at the time, the dragon actually has two forms. Once you triumph over the first, you learn it is actually a robot – possibly crafted by aliens. If Wonder Boy possesses the ruby, he can defeat the dragon’s first form in one strike. Given that the hourglass will have turned over multiple times during Wonder Boy’s trek through the dragon’s castle, the ability to end the fight quickly is invaluable.

As such, the choice between the bell and the ruby presents an interesting dilemma. You either arrive at the final boss as quickly as possible or after finding your way around, but with the ability to cut the battle short. However, this doesn’t quite work in practice owing to the fact that you’re not told what the items do before you’re made to choose one. Even worse, if you miss a single part of this trading quest, which is very easy to do considering you can’t backtrack and one part requires you to counterintuitively enter a boarded-up door, you’re stuck with no advantage at all. It is immensely frustrating compromising your entire playthrough just because you didn’t think to go against the rules the game clearly laid out.

Drawing a Conclusion

Pros:

  • Introduces RPG elements to series
  • Significantly more ambitious than predecessor
  • Catchy music
  • Greater diversity to boss fights
  • No instant deaths
Cons:

  • Timer is annoying to deal with
  • Controls aren’t always great
  • Questionable hit detection
  • Difficult to complete without guide
  • Convoluted final stage
  • Collecting money is highly dependent on luck
  • Inability to save

As briefly mentioned before, Wonder Boy in Monster Land wasn’t exactly the first of its kind, as The Tower of Druaga predates it by three years. However, I have to say that Ryuchi Nishizawa’s effort triumphs over Masanobu Endō’s. This is primarily because Wonder Boy in Monster Land is not nearly as hostile to its players as The Tower of Druaga. The latter, taking cues from classic adventure games, could be rendered unwinnable if the player missed out on a treasure or picked up a cursed item. Mr. Nishizawa didn’t do this; while the game is unintuitive at times, it can always be won. You may make things significantly more difficult for yourself by missing out on a powerful item, but you can persist and eventually prevail – provided you’re willing to spend the quarters to see things through to the end, that is.

Although there is no question that Wonder Boy in Monster Land marked a significant turning point for Westone’s budding franchise, I ultimately believe it grew a little too quickly in too short of a time. At absolutely no fault to the staff, I feel as though their ambition outpaced their abilities. I have little doubt that the team behind this game would certainly develop quite a bit more talent in the coming years, but they weren’t quite there yet as of 1987. Recommending a playthrough of Wonder Boy in Monster Land is a little bit tricky as a result. If you’re a fan of old-school arcade games, it is worth looking into, and getting a copy is easy enough due to digital distribution. For everyone else, it’s enough to know of this game’s importance and appreciate just how ambitious of a sequel it managed to be.

Final Score: 5/10

12 thoughts on “[GAME REVIEW] Wonder Boy in Monster Land

  1. Reminds me I need to give Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom a go. I really enjoyed the HR remake of Wonder Boy. Good series! Bon! But yeah, I will have to skip on this one. As we all know in internet land, 5/10 means it’s unplayably bad. Anything below 7/10 is just not worth it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Definitely check Cursed Kingdom out; that it has barely gotten any attention from the press is a true shame. It’s a very interesting series, that’s for sure. It’s crazy how much it changes with each installment.

      I don’t think Monster Land is unplayable, but it would be a difficult sell to anyone who didn’t grow up with arcade games (though not as bad as The Tower of Druaga in that regard).

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! The Dragon’s Trap is one of the stronger games in the series, but it really is interesting playing these games and watching the evolution unfold. Three of them are sold on the PS3 PSN store as a bundle, which includes this game, Wonder Boy in Monster World, and Monster World IV.

      Like

  2. This sounds a lot like the transition between Castlevania 2 and 3, which ended up loosening a lot of the formerly tight game design from the original. It sounds like Wonder Boy does manage it a lot more successfully, even if it doesn’t exactly shoot the moon with it.

    Do they still call him Wonder Boy once he’s a man grown? Poor guy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Now that you mention it, how the Wonder Boy series evolved is kind of the exact opposite of how Castlevania did. After experimenting with the second Castlevania, the third was a return to form, which is generally considered the best of the NES trilogy. Meanwhile, for the third installment of Wonder Boy, Monster Lair returned to a more arcade-y style of gameplay… and was worse off for it (though a little better than the original). After The Dragon’s Trap, the series fully embraced the Metroidvania direction and didn’t look back. By the fourth such game, it dropped the Wonder Boy name entirely. Interestingly, Castlevania 2’s style of gameplay would end up prevailing for that series, but that was only after Nintendo proved it could work with Super Metroid.

      Despite a few hiccups, I would indeed say Monster Land is a better game than the original (and Castlevania 2 for that matter). It’s rough around the edges, but Westone definitely spotted the bigger wave to ride early on.

      If the Marvel Cinematic Universe Wiki is to be believed, Tony Stark was called (called himself?) Wonder Boy at one point. Still, you have a point. Also, I have to admit I’m mostly going by what the Western instruction manual says because whether or not the protagonist of the first two games is the same person is unclear. The protagonist of this game is definitely the same person as that of The Dragon’s Trap, however.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: May 2019 in Summary: Five Years of Blogging! | Extra Life

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