The history of Wonder Boy could hardly be more convoluted. It began as a platformer in Japanese arcades in 1986, moved to consoles, became an RPG, co-existed with identical but differently-named games from alternative publishers, and spawned sequels in a mystifying numbering sequence. All of which meant that when it was remade in 2016 as Wonder Boy Returns for PS4 and Steam, it’s unclear what anyone would have expected of it.
Whatever expectations were in 2016, it’s time to adjust them. Wonder Boy Returns Remix on Switch goes back to what the series does best: using a confusing name and swerving sharply in a new direction. Surprisingly, much of the content added to Returns in 2016 has been removed for Returns Remix. What’s left is a smart remastering of the 1986 classic with sympathy for modern console gaming conventions and some inventive and intelligent gameplay adjustments.
If you pick up Wonder Boy Returns Remix for five minutes, you might think we’re mad; to the uninitiated, its mechanics are obtuse and infuriating – and accompanied by mercilessly repeated, taunting muzak. However, if you can manage some patience, you will find a well-designed action game that makes absolute sense of its world and its control scheme.
Your caveman character, Tomtom, is already peddling away with ever-running legs before the stage title flies away. It’s cute, but it also reveals a truth about the game: you need to keep moving. There’s no forced scroll – although that was apparently considered for the arcade original – rather, the gameplay and level design just ensure that constant progress is the most successful strategy. This is reinforced by the fact that your jump is nerfed to useless if you’re not pressing left or right. Stand still and you’re not going to dodge very much.
The downside is that only pressing a direction boosts your jump – it has nothing to do with Tomtom’s momentum. It’s quite unintuitive if you’re expecting Mario-like inertia. Just to kick beginners while they’re down, too, Wonder Boy will kill you with a single hit. There’s a practice mode, played as Tomtom’s motor-scootered girlfriend Layla, but she controls totally differently so really only serves as a separate, easy game that would probably suit very young gamers.
All that aside, once you’ve clicked with it, the action flows nicely. Levels are completely horizontal and require no exploration. It’s all typical pit-jumps and moving platforms, populated by enemies with different behaviours. The enemies can be dodged but, for the most part, it’s best to take them out with the stone-age axes Tomtom throws.
The basic pattern of play is to run left-to-right, leaping as cued by items and platforms, throwing axes almost constantly. The cues will have you intuitively finding arcs through the level that result in your axes clearing the path of enemies before you get there. This gives a great sense of flow and is the beating heart of the arcade original: run, jump, throw and the baddies somehow disperse before you like parting seas. The skateboard power-up is perhaps the fullest embodiment of the Wonder Boy spirit: it constantly drives you forwards, it’s fun, and it makes no sense whatsoever for a caveman to be doing it.
Three significant innovations by Korean developer CFK complement the core mechanics. The first is to fit more of the level onscreen than in previous games. This means you have a more reasonable chance of sight-reading the level, rather than having to learn by rote, as was the punishing culture of the '80s arcade. This enables the second innovation, which is that your axes go further, moving the point of contact with enemies just a little further away, giving you a fair chance to react to any misses. The third is a new charge shot. Holding the throw button saves up a jumbo axe, unleashed with a happily retro, scaled-sprite aesthetic. This axe will run through multiple enemies and smash some previously indestructible obstacles. This again emphasises the fun of Wonder Boy: clear the path as you run, jump and throw.
The parts of 2016’s Wonder Boy Returns that have been abandoned are not insignificant. That game brought in many new enemy types and environments. Those are all gone, leaving only HD revisions of the original selection. That goes as far as the bosses. Returns saw a whole set of distinctive boss battles. Returns Remix plumps for the original set which is a totally bizarre series of the exact same boss but with different supersized heads. On defeat, the current head slides offscreen quite unceremoniously and the next one slides in like a default PowerPoint animation. Then the boss exits without regard for walls, floor or ceiling, ready for you to fight him again in four levels’ time.
And here’s where Wonder Boy Returns Remix might have problems: it’s extremely repetitious. Not only the bosses, but entire levels are repeated with only minor adjustments. Once the initial difficulty barrier’s cleared, it’s a smooth slope to the finish and the final boss presents no challenge because you’ve literally beaten him at least seven times before.
To be fair to CFK, this is how the original was supposed to be. The developers must have worked hard on all the new assets for the 2016 release but still made a bold design decision to cut them. Back in the arcade, the challenge was to go as far as possible on a single credit. The gentle difficulty curve and constant familiarity are conducive to that kind of play. In acknowledgement of this, the other character option in addition to Tomtom and Tanya is named “One Coin”. This is arguably the way it’s supposed to be played: a single credit with ten lives, no stage select and no continues.
Players determined to enjoy Wonder Boy Returns Remix will also need to overlook some oddities: the version we reviewed featured no intro but appeared to re-use an ending from an earlier game, which was therefore a total non-sequitur. Previous games also offered a “doll bonus” for collecting tricky-to-reach dolls in each level. Here, the dolls remain, but there is no record of whether you’ve managed to get them. Finally, there is a fruit-eating mechanic that has gone without mention just because it’s so unbalanced that it made almost no difference to the game. If you don’t collect food quickly enough as you play then your energy will run out and you’ll die. This caught us out once eventually, but only because we’d forgotten about it for almost the whole game.
The success of Wonder Boy Returns Remix is that it captures the very best of the original Wonder Boy and packages it in a way that is thoroughly palatable to a modern audience. The downside is that the original game was very much a product of the player-hostile arcade genres of the '80s. Take away the sternness of its challenge and things start to look repetitive: the same handful of stages over and over with little to tell them apart; the same boss appearing eight times, the final time barely any more difficult than the first. Nonetheless, it’s a great modernisation of a classic and a stress-free way to feel the thrill of Wonder Boy and get to the final boss. However, if the time trialling and One Coin mode don’t appeal to you, then it will be a little brief.