By this point, anyone familiar with the Sega Ages series should already know what to expect: a flawless port of a single game from Sega’s history, complete with a few tweaks and updates here and there to provide the ultimate version of that game.
Wonder Boy: Monster Land is the latest offering from Sega and developer M2, but while it absolutely continues that trend and once again delivers a masterful rendition, it also serves as evidence that a retro re-release, no matter how definitive, is still limited by the quality of the source material.
Wonder Boy: Monster Land is the second game in the Wonder Boy series and began life in the arcades before getting a home release and a slight name change to Wonder Boy in Monster Land. The presence of the colon here should give you a fairly obvious hint, but just in case the 10p hasn’t dropped, this is based on the coin-op version rather than the later Master System or PC Engine ones.
The aim is straightforward enough: playing as the young lad Tom-Tom, you have to make your way through 11 increasingly difficult stages as you attempt to find and defeat an evil creature called the ‘MEKA dragon’. The dragon took over Wonder Land and infested it with monsters, you see, which is why it’s now called Monster Land (in case you were wondering why anyone would willingly live in a place with a name like that). It’s up to you to kill the MEKA dragon and the various other monsters to help restore Wonder Land to its previous glory (and presumably increase house prices in the area again).
The game’s main gimmick at the time was the way in which it took the action platformer genre and tried to integrate RPG elements into it. Although it’s an arcade game, there are still shops you can enter to buy new armour, shields, boots, magic spells and the like, while defeating enemies will cause them to drop either coins you can use to buy said items or – less commonly – limited-use items like invisibility or winged shoes that let you float.
Where Monster Land requires a little more patience is in the combat. While the collision detection feels perfectly acceptable, the fact that your sword only extends about an inch in front of you means you have to be practically standing right next to an enemy to hit them. The exception to this is when you’re using magic, but it’s so limited that you really should be saving that for the boss battles (and even then you’re probably still going to need the sword for part of those).
Still, the fact that the Sega Ages version gives you infinite coins and lets you continue countless times means you can at least brute force your way to the final stage if you have enough patience. That’ll only get you so far though, (literally): once you reach the last level the ability to continue is disabled, meaning if you want to see the ending you’ll need to actually be good. Or, you know, just use save states, because you can do that here, too.
In all, Monster Land is a half-decent little game, and one that’s still very much playable 32 years after it first launched. It’s certainly not in the same class as other games that have been given the Sega Ages treatment – we’d always take Alex Kidd in Miracle World or Sonic the Hedgehog over this – but it’s harmless enough.
As for the features in this Sega Ages version, you obviously have the usual options to apply smoothing or scanline filters (or both), and resize the screen should you so wish. You can also choose between the Japanese and ‘International’ versions of the game, though given the arcade version was only ever released in Japan back in the day, it’s not immediately clear what’s different other than the fact that the international version has been translated (laughably badly) into English.
More interesting is the ‘Power Up New Game’ option. Turn this on and when you die, the game remembers all the equipment you had collected. Start a new game and when you enter the first building to receive your sword you’ll get all your previous gear, too. This lets you save coins you would usually spend on the first wave of upgrades, and retain them for better items later in the game.
Money Hungry mode, meanwhile, is infinitely less exciting than it sounds. There’s a famous glitch in the game that lets you earn loads of extra cash by waggling left and right as you reveal any of the game’s hidden coins. The standard mode celebrates this by actually including a button that triggers an extreme waggle when you hold it down, making it even easier to do the glitch. Money Hungry mode simply patches out the glitch, meaning you have to earn your cash through honest means.
It seems the only reason for this is the presence of three separate online high score leaderboards: one for the standard mode, one for the standard mode with Power Up New Game turned on, and one for Money Hungry mode. Not to denigrate the Monster Land fanbase, but we don’t imagine the latter is going to be very highly contested.
This all combines for a package that continues to meet the high standards of the Sega Ages series, but is certainly less of a must-have than others have been (Virtua Racing, for example). The new features range from interesting to nigh-on pointless, while the game itself is fun enough but lacks that hook that’ll have you booting it up on a regular basis for a quick game like you may with other Sega Ages games, like Sonic or Out Run.
It’s nice to see another relatively uncommon Sega game getting the Sega Ages treatment, but while it’s still perfectly playable after more than three decades, the arcade version of Monster Land suffers from frustrating combat and a general lack of spark. Its importance in the evolution of the action platformer can’t be denied, but it’s not quite as addictive as other Sega Ages games, and while the emulation is as flawless as ever, the underwhelming extra modes mean there’s less incentive to keep coming back time and time again. Still, sometimes it's nice to play a game that has a bit of history behind it, and this is one such game; it may not be anywhere near as refined as Wonder Boy's more critically-acclaimed adventures, but it's still an entertaining way to spend an hour or two.