Although Westone’s Wonder Boy series garnered a following, its association with the popular developer Sega arguably ended up being its undoing. This is because 1991 marked the debut of Sega’s mascot: Sonic the Hedgehog. Seen as their answer to Nintendo’s Mario, Sonic the Hedgehog’s debut game proved to be a gigantic hit. As a result, Sega began primarily focusing on their popular character. The game marked a stark paradigm shift in Sega’s output, causing many of their older franchises to fall by the wayside. This included their former mascot, Alex Kidd. Despite not having been developed by Sega themselves, Wonder Boy was afflicted as well. With Sega electing not to export what would end up being the final installment, Monster World IV, to the West, the series quickly fell into obscurity.
Sixteen years later in 2010, an independent developer in Paris, France named Game Atelier was founded. They made their passion for the medium clear from the beginning, wishing to one day create a surprising, joyful, thrilling game everyone can enjoy. One of their first games was Flying Hamster – a colorful horizontal shooter. Their effort was a success, being downloaded over one-million times across the various active platforms at the time. Game Atelier took this opportunity to set their sights higher when it came time to make a sequel. To fund the game, they looked to the crowdfunding site Kickstarter.
Helmed by one Fabien Demeulenaere, Flying Hamster II was to provide a completely different experience from its predecessor, being an action-RPG platforming game with a shapeshifting protagonist. Parallels to the Wonder Boy series – more specifically, the Monster World installments that followed the original arcade game – were not a coincidence. Mr. Demeulenaere and his team were big fans of the series, and Flying Hamster II was to be both a loving tribute and a spiritual successor to those games with a projected release date in mid-2015. Before it could be determined if the creators reached their funding goal, the project was suddenly cancelled. The developer announced a partnership with FDG Entertainment, a company founded in 2001 that specialized in producing and publishing games for Java-compatible hardware. For the next year, no new information would be revealed.
Game Atelier then broke their silence by announcing their newest project: Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom. Although Westone had filed for bankruptcy and liquidated their assets in 2014, Sega only owned the names of the games. This meant that series creator Ryuichi Nishizawa was able to retain everything else. As fate would have it, Flying Hamster II caught the attention of Mr. Nishizawa, who was flattered that his work struck such a chord in Game Atelier. From there, he used his ownership of the series’ rights to transform what would have been a spiritual successor to Wonder Boy into a canonical installment. Collaborating with Mr. Nishizawa, Mr. Demeulenaere and his team finished and subsequently released their game in December of 2018. Twenty-four years had passed since the release of Monster World IV when Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom saw completion. Outside of the comic book industry, not many people can claim to have directed an official installment of one of their favorite series. Was what Mr. Demeulenaere created worthy of marching under the Wonder Boy banner?
With Ryuichi Nishizawa and the rest of Westone having created Wonder Boy in Monster World, the versatile franchise now had a presence on the Sega Genesis. However, while Wonder Boy had arguably been Sega’s premier franchise throughout the third console generation, the company provided its answer to Nintendo’s Mario with their own mascot in the form of Sonic the Hedgehog. His debut in June of 1991 garnered a lot of critical and commercial attention, moving millions of copies. Suddenly, the Genesis could stand toe-to-toe with Nintendo’s then-newest console, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (Super NES). However, the success of Sonic the Hedgehog ended up being a radical paradigm shift for Sega. Because they had a popular franchise on their hands, they focused their attention on making Sonic as versatile of a character as Mario. This ultimately overshadowed their third-generation triumphs. Most jarringly, their previous mascot, Alex Kidd, was left to fall into obscurity when his Genesis debut failed to resonate with fans.
Nonetheless, Mr. Nishizawa and his team were determined to create a follow-up to their fifth Wonder Boy game. Realizing that Monster World was far more popular than the Wonder Boy franchise from which it had spun off from, it seemed highly fitting for Westone to drop the original title for the sixth installment. The result of their efforts was thus simply entitled Monster World IV and released in 1994. Although fans of the Wonder Boy franchise existed in the West, Wonder Boy in Monster World would be the last time they ever saw a new entry.
As the century drew to a close, the internet began rising in popularity. It was only natural for the first adopters to be savvy in the art of programming and, by extension, video games. Through using the internet, they learned of the many games that never left Japan – including installments of popular franchises such as Square’s Final Fantasy. In extreme cases such as Intelligent Systems’s Fire Emblem, entire series were never released in the West. Among the games Western fans learned of was Monster World IV. The use of the internet along with the widespread availability of the titles’ ROM images allowed enthusiasts to band together to translate these Japan-exclusive games – including this one. Thankfully for Western fans who weren’t knowledgeable about emulation, Monster World IV did at last see the light of day in May of 2012 on the Xbox Live Arcade, the Wii’s Virtual Console, and the PlayStation Network. Unlike most cases of a game not previously localized being imported, Sega went a step further and provided an official translation for Monster World IV. Unfortunately, in the eighteen years since its domestic debut, Westone had gone out of business. Monster World IV was the newest installment in the series in both 1994 and 2012. Was Westone able to end their most famous series’ initial run on a high note?
Following the release of Monster Lair, Westone had a trilogy of successful arcade games bearing the Wonder Boy name. What is especially impressive about these games would be the sheer amount of stylistic ground series creator Ryuichi Nishizawa and his team covered in the span of two years. The original Wonder Boy was one of the many platforming games inspired by the success and enormous influence of Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros. For Wonder Boy in Monster Land, Mr. Nishizawa drew inspiration from the budding role-playing scene and created an actionized hybrid that stood out among contemporary arcade titles. Although Wonder Boy III: Monster Lair could be viewed as a return to form, it too was a subject of much experimentation, playing like a cross between a platformer and a shoot ‘em up.
Although Westone experienced much success in arcades, for the continuation of their flagship Wonder Boy franchise, they sought to create yet another new experience on a new platform. The first two games in the series, Wonder Boy and Wonder Boy in Monster Land were highly successful when ported to the Sega Master System, and Westone gained a loyal fan following. As their publisher, Sega, needed all the help they could get to compete with Nintendo’s nigh-unstoppable Famicom console, it was only natural that Westone set their sights to the Master System itself.
The fruit of their labor was released in both North American and Europe in 1989 under the name Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap. This led to a bit of confusion to the few international fans familiar with Monster Lair, for there were now two games called Wonder Boy III. Muddying matters is that The Dragon’s Trap was not released domestically in its original Master System form. The Japanese Sega Master System models featured an FM synth card not found in Western ones. On top of that, Sega ended up discontinuing the Master System in its native country shortly after its successor, the Mega Drive, was released. It wouldn’t be until 1991 that The Dragon’s Trap saw a domestic release on the PC Engine entitled Adventure Island – unrelated to the Famicom reskin of the original Wonder Boy. This version was renamed Dragon’s Curse in North America a year prior. The game wouldn’t see the light of day on a Sega platform in Japan until 1992 when it debuted on the Game Gear – the company’s first handheld system. This version was named Monster World II: The Dragon’s Trap, enforcing its status as an alternate sequel to the second game in the series – known in Japan as Wonder Boy: Monster World.
Irrespective of what one may have called it at the time, Westone’s effort received largely positive reviews. Electronic Gaming Monthly deemed it the Master System’s greatest game of 1989, and other publications noted how addictive it managed to be. Like Wonder Boy in Monster Land before it, The Dragon’s Trap is thought of as one of the hallmarks of the Master System. Was it truly able to deliver an experience worthy of the increasingly venerable Wonder Boy brand?