Westone’s Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap, despite its lack of a domestic release, quickly became one of the premier titles of the Sega Master System library. With an inadvertent shapeshifter as a protagonist and a level design that forewent the traditional, linear structure of its predecessor, The Dragon’s Trap was among the first Metroidvanias to grace the medium after Nintendo’s own pioneering work. However, even with a game as impressive as The Dragon’s Trap, the Sega Master System trailed behind Nintendo’s juggernaut Famicom console. Fortunately for Sega, they were about to take a significant step forward.
October of 1988 marked the release of the Sega Mega Drive. Redubbed the Sega Genesis when it debuted in North America during the following year, the console was a significant step forward in terms of presentation and sound quality. As Sega Mega Drive fans upgraded consoles, many of them began waiting for new installments of familiar franchises. For fans of the Wonder Boy series, they would eventually get their wish. Almost exactly three years after the domestic launch of Sega’s 16-bit console, Wonder Boy V: Monster World III made its debut. This decidedly bizarre title demonstrated that it was the fifth game in the Wonder Boy franchise and the third installment in the Monster Land subseries following Wonder Boy in Monster Land and The Dragon’s Trap. This game was localized and subsequently released in North America and Europe in 1992 under the name Wonder Boy in Monster World.
A heavily altered port was also released for the Sega Master System in Europe where the console enjoyed more success than in the United States. Retaining their partnership with Hudson Soft, a version of this game was released on the Turbo Duo. In a manner similar to The Dragon’s Trap, Wonder Boy in Monster World was retooled into a standalone game called The Dynastic Hero. The main characters were modeled after insects with the bosses resembling their natural predators. Regardless, the base game was largely unchanged. Does Wonder Boy in Monster World manage to retain the impressive amount of momentum generated by its predecessor?
Analyzing the Experience
The once-peaceful region of Monster World has been invaded by an army of demons. Not wishing to let these atrocities continue any longer, a young man named Shion picks up a sword and makes a stand against the invaders.
Wonder Boy in Monster World continues in the footsteps of its predecessor. It is a Metroidvania platforming game with a slight emphasis on role-playing elements. Pressing left and right on the directional pad causes Shion to walk. Pressing up on the directional pad when Shion is in front of an NPC allows him to talk with them. This is also how he enters doors, though you press down to exit them. Pressing the “B” button causes Shion to launch an attack. Just like his predecessor, Shion’s initial means of defense is a sword. When using it, Shion tends to swing downward in a manner similar to Bocke’s Lion-Man form. The “C” button causes him to jump. You don’t exactly gain experience points from defeating enemies. Instead, you usually gain money, which is then used to purchase equipment capable of improving Shion’s battle performance.
Shion’s health is measured in hearts – of which he starts with three. Heart Containers, which are hidden in chests scattered throughout the game, increase his maximum health by a single unit. He can have as many as fourteen hearts’ worth of health. Just like with Bocke, it’s best to think of the meter as an abstraction of a numeric value rather than an actual indication of how many hits he can take. Indeed, enemy attacks can shave off but a slight fraction of a heart.
The “START” button brings up the equipment menu. Shion can also have equipped a shield, set of armor, pair of boots, and two items. Whenever Shion is not swinging the sword, he is defending with the shield. It is capable of stopping a majority of the projectiles launched opposite the direction he faces dead in their tracks. Better shields also significantly decrease how far Shion is knocked back from blocked attacks. Armor sets decrease the amount of damage Shion takes from enemy attacks. While swords enhance Shion’s offensive capabilities and shields and armor sets make him more durable in combat, the boots he finds will affect his mobility. Boots affect three different aspects: Shion’s walking speed, his ability to climb ladders, and the height of his jumps. Boots tend to provide situational bonuses. For example, the Ceramic Boots affords Shion more traction when navigating icy surfaces while the Oasis Boots protect him from the hot sands of the Maugham Desert.
Unlike Bocke, Shion is also capable of equipping a spear instead of a sword. Spears have a longer range and tend to inflict more damage than swords. You can also press up on the control pad, which will cause Shion to spin the spear rapidly, damaging any enemy that makes contact. In exchange, Shion cannot equip a shield and a spear at the same time. As long as you have good reflexes, you can use the spin attack to deflect frontal attacks, but it’s generally less reliable than using a shield. Whether you prefer the spear over the sword or vice versa depends on your willingness to forgo defense for offense.
A cursory glance of the equipment menu reveals the magic system has been completely overhauled. In Wonder Boy in Monster Land and The Dragon’s Trap, magic spells were obtained and used like ordinary items. You would randomly get them upon vanquishing certain enemies. You could equip a sword that would cause magic spells to spawn more frequently, but it was wise to use them sparingly; for you had no way of knowing if you could ever receive more. Then again, if you ended up dying before you could make use of them, they would all be forfeit because the passwords you obtained didn’t save how many you had.
For Wonder Boy in Monster World, Westone implemented a magic system somewhat reminiscent of the original Final Fantasy. The amount of times you can use each spell depends on the number of charges it has. To equip magic in this game, you must select the appropriate menu and assign it to one of two slots. After unpausing, you then hold down the “A” button along with the direction on the control pad corresponding to which slot you assigned it to. There are two primary ways to recharge Shion’s magic power. As usual, an enemy can randomly drop a recharge upon defeat. However, because this is a fairly rare occurrence, the more reliable way of regaining magic power is to rest at an inn. Keeping the basic RPG tradition alive, resting at the inn allows Shion to recover his health as well.
The inns also form the basis of what is perhaps the single greatest improvement Wonder Boy in Monster World brings to the series. While the first three installments in the Wonder Boy franchise expected players to complete the entire experience in a single sitting or standing, The Dragon’s Trap introduced a password system. Although they were remarkably short for such an elaborate game, the idea of saving one’s progress with passwords was beginning to show its age by 1989 owing to the fact that Nintendo had released The Legend of Zelda three years prior. By the end of the third console generation, saving progress with a backup battery was starting to become the standard. With Wonder Boy in Monster World, Westone acknowledged the evolution of the medium, allowing players to save whenever Shion rests in an inn. This does mean you have to pay a small sum of money in order to perform this action, but it’s insubstantial.
As he travels Monster World, Shion will often find himself with a traveling companion similar to the fairies who occasionally helped the title character of the original Wonder Boy. Fittingly, the first village in the game is home to a community of fairies. Shortly after arriving, the queen fairy requests one of her subjects to accompany Shion to the first dungeon. This fairy establishes the first dungeon’s status as a tutorial for the rest of the experience, for she has a habit of dropping hearts for Shion whenever his life meter is running low. On top of that, the boss itself is fairly easy, having a predictable attack pattern and requiring tactics no more advanced than “hitting it with the sword enough times”. Other travelling companions include a dwarf who can break open certain walls, a miniature Grim Reaper, and a young dragon. They only appear in specific dungeons, but they are highly useful, often making an otherwise difficult expedition much more manageable.
Despite Shion’s inability to shapeshift, he does gain many of the abilities Bocke’s monster forms afforded him. Just like in previous Monster World installments, there are no bottomless pits. This is especially enforced when, on the way to the fairies’ village, you have to traverse an ocean. If you make a mistake and fall in the water, Shion, in a blatant defiance of standard third-generation platforming tropes, will simply stay afloat. However, he can’t actually dive in the water without a little help. Later in the game, he will obtain Poseidon’s Trident. With this weapon equipped, Shion can swim underwater in a manner similar to Bocke’s Piranha-Man form.
Nearing the end of the game, Shion is made to travel through a volcano. However, there’s one problem – the door is far too small for Shion to enter. Fortunately, he’s in luck. Hidden in Monster World are a set of Pygmy equipment. Once he has obtained them all, he can access a transformation chamber that shrinks him in size. Although, like Mouse-Man, Shion’s small form has pitiful range, it allows him to enter areas he couldn’t access otherwise – including small passageways in earlier dungeons. Coupled with Poseidon’s Trident, you will find yourself giving Monster World a thorough scrub whenever you get a new ability.
What I feel to be the greatest aspect of Wonder Boy in Monster World is that its level design is far more comprehensible. As good as The Dragon’s Trap managed to be, it was highly strange to open a door in the sky only to end up in a desert. It made the world come across as a several disparate video game stages stapled together haphazardly. There are still plenty of oddities in this installment such as doors that appear out of nowhere and little regard for how the regions are placed next to each other, but I feel it to be the first game in the series to have successfully crafted a singular, cohesive world.
Although there are plenty of great ideas present in Wonder Boy in Monster World, it does have a number of issues. To begin with, despite its modest presentation upgrade, the gameplay is quite slow. Even as Shion upgrades his boots to enhance his walking speed, he still moves at a leisurely pace. This problem is especially noticeable given the sheer amount of backtracking you must do. To this game’s credit, it does grant the player a number of ways to make exploration less tedious. In an underwater dungeon, you can find a return spell, which, true to its name, whisks Shion back to the last inn he visited. On top of that, once you reach certain points in the game, shortcuts linking distant villages to the castle town of Purapril will appear. However, these aspects do little to alleviate the tedium associated with navigating long dungeons or the fact that if Shion’s life is depleted, the game is over – or at least in the Western version. In the Japanese version, Shion would be revived at an inn and be charged for a night’s stay. Although players would exploit this to backtrack before receiving the return spell, the Western version’s attempt to address this problem took things a little too far. You get booted back to the title screen and everything you accomplished in the interim is for naught.
This problem is especially glaring because, while the addition of inns as checkpoints was a nice touch, they are very sparsely placed. The dungeons in this game are markedly more elaborate than those of The Dragon’s Trap. The first few aren’t so bad, but after the halfway point, they can be very time-consuming. Because none of the dungeons have inns built into them, you must typically trek through them and defeat the boss in a single run. If you lose at any point, it doesn’t matter how much progress you made; you have to go through the dungeon a second time. Certain dungeons do provide shortcuts in the form of tasks that only need to be completed once, but otherwise, you’re out of luck. It’s especially frustrating being unable to immediately rematch any of the bosses considering you need to study their patterns in order to stand a chance against them.
One of the subtler flaws of this game is concerns the pause menu. It would seem a bit strange to critique an idea as simple as pausing, but this game forced my hand. In Wonder Boy in Monster World, pausing the game normally allows you to change equipment. However, if you do it under certain circumstances, a black box that reads “PAUSED” will appear onscreen, preventing you from accessing your inventory. The cause behind being unable to access your inventory concerns whether or not Shion is in motion when you push the “START” button. If he is moving or airborne, you can’t go through the inventory screen. This by itself isn’t a problem, but what makes it especially annoying is that the game is very picky in this regard. The most obvious example occurs whenever Shion finds himself on a conveyer belt. Should this happen, you’ll find the inventory menu doesn’t consistently open when you press “START”.
Why does this matter? It’s because you have to equip potions in this game in order to use them. The elixirs that revive Shion upon death remain in this game, but they don’t heal all of the damage he has sustained. Meanwhile, if you didn’t think to assign the far more potent Hi-Potion to the “A” button before entering a dangerous situation involving a conveyor belt, you better hope the pause menu is feeling generous or else you will lose. It doesn’t help that an example of such a scenario happens to be the very difficult final boss.
Finally, one egregious commonality Wonder Boy in Monster World and Wonder Boy in Monster Land share is that both games have obnoxious final dungeons. To be completely fair, the final dungeon of this game, the Dark Castle, despite forcing players to navigate a maze, isn’t nearly as convoluted as the Mecha Dragon’s lair. Instead, the biggest problem with the Sky Palace can be narrowed down to one single room.
In this room, you have to jump between two alternating platforms. If you stay too long on a platform, it will sink too low, preventing you from reaching the next. Although it seems like a callback to a similar sequence in Wonder Boy in Monster Land, it is made several times worse by the fact that the platforms don’t always move up. In fact, once the platforms get high enough, the opposite one will move to the right. From there, you have to ride it down and jump on a second set of platforms and begin the process anew. It is impossible to predict where these platforms will end up. Because the door deposits Shion in midair and you have only a second or two to make a decision, you are practically guaranteed to fail on your first attempt. If – or perhaps better put, when – you do fail, you must defeat a large dragon to get a second chance. Although the dragon isn’t terribly strong with the Legendary equipment to hand, it will wear Shion out through attrition if you fail too often. Coupled with the pressing lack of checkpoints, you better hope you defeat the boss on your first try. If you don’t, which is understandable given said boss has multiple forms, you must complete this unreasonably long platforming section as many times you necessary before you ultimately prevail. Going through this dungeon multiple times just to earn a rematch doesn’t provide any real challenge. All it does is waste the player’s time with obstacles that ceased being a legitimate threat around the tenth attempt or so.
Drawing a Conclusion
At the end of the day, Wonder Boy in Monster World comes as the video-game equivalent of a “Greatest Hits” album. Those versed in the series will recognize familiar elements from past installments, and the ideas Westone used to craft their work are sound. However, the problem is that its best ideas were directly lifted from previous installments. As such, although it ends up being an effort more polished than Wonder Boy in Monster Land, it still doesn’t bear the same level of creativity The Dragon’s Trap boasted. To some extent, it feels as though the developers resorted to these callbacks as a substitute for innovation, which is jarring in light of how experimental the past four installments were.
Obviously, this doesn’t make Wonder Boy in Monster World a bad game. I would say it’s still an above-average experience that, if nothing else, has aged better than Wonder Boy in Monster Land. However, that doesn’t make recommending it any easier. While The Dragon’s Trap carries a level of ambition that can be appreciated to this day, its successor is a little too content with being a token sequel. Because of this, I could recommend Wonder Boy in Monster World to fans who want to see what Metroidvanias were like before Nintendo fully codified the tropes and idioms of the genre with Super Metroid three years later. Otherwise, there isn’t anything this game does that wasn’t done just as well – and oftentimes better – two years prior with The Dragon’s Trap. Given what a technical marvel the Sega Genesis was upon its late-1980s launch, it’s disappointing that Westone couldn’t leave a more meaningful impact with their platform debut.
Final Score: 6/10