With Wonder Boy in Monster Land, Westone Bit Entertainment had another hit on their hands. The idea of an arcade game placing a great emphasis on role-playing elements was something rarely seen before or since. If one wanted an experience similar to the one offered by Wonder Boy in Monster Land, they would need to pay for a powerful gaming computer or the latest home console. It was therefore highly ambitious of Westone to place such an experience in a scene known for fast-paced, simplistic gameplay.
By this point, Westone clearly had a flagship series, so it was only natural of them to continue the momentum by creating a sequel. The third installment in this budding franchise, Wonder Boy III: Monster Lair, debuted in domestic arcades in 1988. Though it wouldn’t reach international arcades, it was ported to many popular home consoles such as the TurboGrafx-CD. Strangely, this would be the only port North American gamers received. One was created for the Sega Mega Drive, allowing Japanese and European enthusiasts to play it, but a Genesis port never surfaced. With its two predecessors different as night and day, what did Westone decide to do for the third installment in their popular franchise?
Analyzing the Experience
Enemies of an unknown origin have invaded the land, seizing control of the Legendary equipment Bocke Lee Temjin, better known as Wonder Boy, used to defeat the fearsome Mecha Dragon. With the world in need of heroes, two young people, the warrior Leo and Princess Purapril, set out on a dangerous journey to repel this sudden invasion.
Monster Lair marks the first instance in the Wonder Boy series that allows for two-player cooperative gameplay. The first player controls Leo while the second assumes the role of Purapril. As soon as you begin the game, you will notice that whereas Wonder Boy and its first sequel allowed players to take their time negotiating obstacles, Monster Lair doesn’t waste any time throwing you into the thick of things. To enforce this sudden change, the game doesn’t even wait for your character to begin moving before scrolling the screen, doing so of its own accord. The screen can be sped up by attempting to walk to the right, but you cannot otherwise backtrack at all in this game.
The other radical departure becomes apparent when you push the attack button for the first time. Just like in Wonder Boy in Monster Land, you character is outfitted with a sword. However, as your character swings the sword, a projectile emerges from the blade. Suddenly, the automatically scrolling gameplay isn’t just a persistent gimmick; it tells you what to expect from this point onwards. Monster Lair marries the familiar platforming gameplay of the original Wonder Boy with another genre rapidly gaining popularity at the time: the shoot ‘em up.
Any shoot ‘em up worth its salt wouldn’t be complete without power-ups to find and Monster Lair has quite a selection available. They are obtained in a similar fashion as the power capsules from Gradius in that you often receive them by defeating an entire squadron of enemies. There are six different power-ups that can be found in this game. The Spiral Shot is a highly destructive weapon that has a limited range due to orbiting your character when in motion. Missiles can blast enemies away from afar, though they aren’t as powerful as the Spiral Shot. The Wide Ring Blaster is the Monster Lair equivalent of the Spread Gun from Contra. Collect it, and your character’s projectiles will suddenly gain a wide range, spanning a majority of the screen. The Fireball allows your character to shoot bullets both in front of them and behind them simultaneously. The Beam pierces enemies, allowing players to easily defeat many of them at once. Finally, the Big Fire Shot is effectively an upgraded version of the Spiral Shot. It is a large projectile that revolves around your character, guaranteeing heavy damage is inflicted on whatever enemy is unfortunate enough to collide with it.
Just like in Wonder Boy, your character is given a stamina gauge. No matter where Leo or Purapril may go, they will be venturing through particularly harsh conditions. The gauge next to your character’s life counter is always ticking down, and only by living off the various lands can it be replenished. Conveniently, these worlds are teeming with fruit and other natural foods, allowing them to survive easily enough. It’s important to know that the meter is a little more than just a stamina gauge this time around. Indeed, it functions more as a traditional life meter now. Enemies will often fire upon your character, but they will not be killed outright by these salvos. You still have to worry about colliding into the enemies themselves, for that will defeat your character outright, but you can rest a little knowing they’re a little more survivable than Wonder Boy was in his original adventure.
You can receive help from a fairy, and they come in three different varieties. Receiving a Green Fairy will make your character invincible for a brief duration. The Pink Fairy transforms food items into cake, which fills up the meter much faster. The last fairy, known as Trix, turns food items into flowers for a short time. It’s wise to enlist Trix’s help carefully, for they can cause many detrimental effects as well.
Reaching the end of a stage allows your character to infiltrate the enemy’s fortress. Here, the game turns into a more traditional example of a shoot ‘em up. Both Leo and Purapril have a dragon companion that will aid them on their quest. They are maneuvered in exactly the same fashion as the Vic Viper or any other spacecraft you may have piloted in any contemporary example of the genre. The most obvious difference between these stages and the ones directly preceding them is that you are given a much larger space to work with. However, as Leo and Purapril are no longer traversing these regions themselves, the stamina gauge does not decrease when they are riding their dragons. You therefore only have to truly worry about the enemy’s long-range attacks if you’re running low on health.
Similar to Contra, the game is utterly devoid of checkpoints. In the event that you lose a life in a platforming stage, your character will be revived in the same place they died. Their dragon companion will swoop in to deposit them back in the stage, and you get to choose where they will be dropped. Meanwhile, being defeated in a shoot ‘em up section simply revives your character within seconds in a manner similar to Salamander.
With Monster Lair, Westone demonstrated their continued willingness to tackle new ground after having done so to a remarkable effect with Wonder Boy in Monster Land. The idea of going from a platformer with trace RPG elements to a shoot ‘em up title cast in the mold of the original Wonder Boy is highly remarkable. Even back in the 1980s, it was standard practice for sequels to popular video games to offer similar experiences – if not practically identical. Within three installments of their Wonder Boy series, Westone took it to places that would usually necessitate multiple spinoffs. In doing so, they exhibited a level of imagination and bravery only a select few developers such as Nintendo possessed.
Unfortunately, as an understandable downside to this experimental, new direction, there are more than a few execution issues. Being heavily based on the original Wonder Boy, the level design is rather bland and forgettable. Admittedly, because is a much wider variety of scenery, it doesn’t feel as though you’re simply playing the same three or four stages repeatedly. However, rapidly changing locales doesn’t prevent the level design from being of an entry-level quality. There is a difficult jump to make every now and again, but otherwise, you mainly focus on fighting enemies.
Relatedly, while I give Westone a lot of credit for attempting to blend two different genres, I have to say the results weren’t always seamless. A shoot ‘em up typically should allow players a wide degree of movement in the space they’re allotted. Pioneering examples such as Taito’s Space Invaders and Namco’s Galaxian restricted the player character’s ship into only moving left or right, but it was acceptable because you didn’t have any obstacles to navigate. With Monster Lair, you have to deal with the fact that, unlike the countless spaceships players controlled in other games, Leo and Purapril are subject to their world’s gravity. In effect, a majority of your bullet volleys are going to originate from the ground. If you want to attack enemies in midair, you have to jump first then press the attack button in midair. This can be highly frustrating whenever an enemy’s height is in between ground level and the peak of your character’s jump. Consequently, Monster Lair often feels as though it was designed with traditional shoot ‘em up sensibilities in mind, but they seldom complement the platforming you must do in order to survive. The sections that involve riding on the dragons optimize the design more effectively, but they are markedly shorter than the platforming portions leading up to them, meaning you only really use them for boss fights.
This isn’t to say what Westone attempted to do with Monster Lair was doomed from the outset. Super Mario Bros. gave the title characters the Fire Flower power-up. By collecting it, they could shoot fireballs at their enemies. Shortly thereafter in 1987, Capcom launched the first installment of their Mega Man series on the NES. This game had players control the title character as he took down the forces of the evil Dr. Wily. To defend himself, Mega Man had an arm cannon that would fire small energy blasts at his enemies.
These two games succeed where Monster Lair fell short for different reasons. Super Mario Bros. was a platforming game first and foremost; the Fire Flower made reaching the goal easier for those who could find it, but the stages were designed in a way that assumed players didn’t have the ability to shoot fireballs at a given time. On top of that, the fireballs bounced along the ground. The key is that they didn’t bounce too high, thus making it unlikely for your intended targets to dodge them while still giving them an excellent range. Meanwhile, Mega Man succeeds for the same reason as Contra; it’s not a shoot ‘em up as much as it is a run-and-gun game. The two genres are highly similar, but the key difference is that in most run-and-gun games the screen, by default, does not scroll of its own accord. They recognize your character’s inability to fly and both the level design and enemy placement are adjusted accordingly. Monster Lair doesn’t do this; it is designed like a shoot ‘em up regardless of which section of the game you’re in for good or for ill.
It also doesn’t help that, just like the original Wonder Boy, the platforming controls are decidedly imprecise. While Super Mario Bros. allowed you to move your characters while they were airborne, this proposition doesn’t always work in Monster Lair. You can adjust your character’s movements while they’re in midair, but their new trajectory is so slow that by the time you realize they’re about to run into an enemy or hazard, it’s often too late to do anything about it. Like Mega Man, you also have to contend with your character’s inability to duck. You’ll often find yourself instinctually tilting the joystick down in the face of a barrage only to realize it does nothing. This also means if an enemy is small enough, there is no way to hit them with your character’s normal attacks.
Although the game does offer a sizable array of power-ups, this isn’t as helpful as it sounds. To begin with, not all of the power-ups are useful in practice. The Wide Ring Blaster compensates for your character’s inability to duck, making it the ideal weapon in most situations. Despite this, I would say the best weapon is the Big Fire Shot. While it doesn’t have a long range, it is practically guaranteed to destroy all of the enemies around your character. The other four weapons aren’t nearly as useful. The Missile’s explosions occasionally envelop enemies, but they’re not as effective as the Wide Ring Blaster. While the ability to shoot Fireballs both in front of and behind your character simultaneously sounds good on paper, rarely will you find yourself accosted by enemies on both sides of the screen at once. Again, it’s far more efficient to get the Big Fire Shot or turn around quickly when using the Wide Ring Blaster. The Beam is a decent upgrade, but its range is only as good as your normal attacks. However, while these three weapons are of a dubious value, all of them are indispensable compared to the Spiral Shot. The exact second you collect this power-up, you’ve made the game significantly more difficult. It is more powerful than the standard bullets, but it doesn’t compensate for its pitiful range. If you’re facing off against an enemy capable of surviving the Spiral Shot, you have nothing to fall back on.
Indeed, if you’re stuck with a power-up you don’t like, it’s not as though you can discard them. The good news is that you don’t need to die in order to get rid of them. The bad news is that the game does it for you automatically. Unlike in Contra, which allowed you to hold onto the weapon you last had equipped until you lost a life or collected a different one, Monster Lair only lets you hold onto a power-up for a very brief duration – not even a whole minute. Although the default shot is certainly not the worst weapon in the game, you better get used to using it because it’s going to be your only defense against bosses. Compounding matters is that there is no visual cue to tell you what weapon you have equipped. Owing to the generally chaotic nature of the game, it is exceedingly difficult to keep in track of how much time has passed since you obtained the last power-up. It is, at best, highly inconvenient for the power-up to simply vanish as you’re fending off the invaders. If your timing is especially unfortunate, it can be downright fatal.
Finally, what I feel the game’s most significant improvement over the original Wonder Boy comes with a glaring weakness. When you consider how many enemies Leo and Purapril have to fight in this game, the ability to take more than one hit without dying is highly appreciated. However, the developers didn’t take cues from contemporary efforts such as Mega Man when implementing this idea. This is because if your character is struck with a non-fatal attack, they don’t receive the standard post-hit invincibility. Instead, they enter an uncontrollable stumbling animation, and if they happen to collide with an enemy during this time, they will instantly lose a life. This makes assessing the rules of the game a little difficult because the first impression is that, like in the original, your character cannot take a hit without dying. It is when they get hit with a projectile you learn that’s not quite the case, but it does speak to the game’s overall lack of consistency. The game would have been better off without collisions instantly killing your character because it isn’t designed in a way that entertains the venture of having such a fragile protagonist unlike Contra or R-Type.
Drawing a Conclusion
It was highly admirable of Westone to take risks with the Wonder Boy series three installments in. Given the popularity of their previous two games, they could easily have given fans more of the same, but they continued to venture into largely uncharted territory in an attempt to keep their audience guessing. Although Wonder Boy in Monster Land was a pleasant surprise for those without the means to play video games at home, the same couldn’t be said of Monster Lair. The problem is that the arcade scene was already teeming with quality platformers and shoot ‘em ups. Although combining the two genres could have resulted in a unique hybrid, the result was more likely to evoke the Uncanny Valley effect. You have a game molded like a platformer, but with haphazardly implemented shoot ‘em up elements that make it distinct from a run-and-gun affair. Its inability to commit to one genre or the other makes for an experience that plays around with the sensibilities you developed playing other games – and not in a good way.
This isn’t to say Monster Lair is a bad game. It does manage to provide a more standout experience than the original, so it’s not a step back from Wonder Boy in Monster Land as much as it is an experiment that didn’t quite work out. Even if it does have more going for it than Wonder Boy, recommending Monster Lair is similarly tricky. It is, at the end of the day, a basic platformer combined with a bland shoot ‘em up. It is passable in both regards, but it also excels in neither field. Because of this, you’re usually better off playing one exemplary game from each genre back-to-back. Arcade fans might appreciate what this game has to offer, but everyone else seeking to get into the series should choose a different installment with which to start.
Final Score: 4/10