The Wonder Boy franchise is one of many treasured relics from SEGA's past. Dedicated fans have clamoured for a new entry in the platform series ever since the 1994 Mega Drive release of the sixth title, Monster World IV. For now, though, they'll have to make do with the splurge of digital download re-releases.
This time, it's the arcade version of Wonder Boy in Monster Land's turn to come adventuring to Wii's Virtual Console, several years after Wonder Boy in Monster Land on Master System hit VC. It's best described as a 2D action platformer with a few scant RPG elements for good measure. You leap across land, over sea and through caves, stabbing away at enemies as you seek to destroy the Meka Dragon to bring peace and quiet back to the world.
You begin the tale underpowered to the extreme, wandering around in nothing more than a crotch-swathing cloth. You're kindly given a weak sword in the opening minutes, but from there it's your responsibility to frequent any shops along the way to purchase upgraded armour, shoes and shields. Bosses must also be taken down to gather up increasingly powerful blades and keys to new realms.
To help you along, each enemy dispatched drops a random item, from valuable coins to temporary pieces of armour that fit over your main suit for a little boost in protection. Wonder Boy can also buy finite magic abilities that let him shoot fireballs and whirlwinds – or just good old bombs.
Ever critical is the hourglass that spills its sand in the corner of the screen. Each time it needs to be turned over costs you a heart of your health, so you've got to keep an eye out for sand-replenishing power-ups or get to the next area as soon as possible, which will reset your time without penalty. Time perils only add to your worries; the frequent vicious bosses tear away at your health quickly, while even standard enemies can overwhelm in sheer number later on.
Some level of curiosity and investigation is encouraged by clandestine background elements. If you hit certain veiled points while leaping around you're rewarded with extra gold. More significantly, knocking on some walls will allow you entry to secret shops, or diving into select bodies of water will tip you into extraneous routes for added challenge and further opportunity to expand the range of tools and armour at your disposal.
Wonder Boy in Monster Land is a tough game by today's standards, and the lack of save functionality means you'll have to complete it in a single sitting – unless you sneakily use Wii Virtual Console's temporary save state. Luckily you have unlimited continues as long as you remember to keep your credits topped up with the B button.
The beasts that dwell within Monster Land follow heavy patterns, continually jumping and attacking in the same manner. To compensate for these rigidly programmed routines, the cycles each incorporate a blistering attacks that can destroy you quickly despite their predictability, particularly in the case of guardians. The best way to conquer boss foes is to study them and learn the safest frames to dodge and attack in.
The endless blue skies and chunky, pixellated actors epitomise the golden era in which Wonder Boy in Monster Land was first released. The visuals are clear and colourful, even the dank caves brightened by aqua pools and magenta bats, which makes it a joy to look at even a couple of decades later. Despite the dire circumstances the world is in, the cheery music is also typical of the period, though it has a tendency to get repetitive.
There is, however, infrequent slowdown in areas where too much is going on; a few enemies running in and out of the screen accompanied by extra platforms, for example. It can actually affect the game and cause you injury via mistimed jumps – an unfortunate side-effect of remaining completely faithful to the original.
It's also possible to get stuck with no way out in certain areas; you might hop down a gutter to search around for secrets, only to find that there isn't a platform to help you step back up. The only option is to let the hourglass run down over and over, stealing away your hearts one by one. These are irregular technical faults, though; for the vast majority of its length, Wonder Boy in Monster Land plays well.
Wonder Boy in Monster Land is a tight, tough game that, thanks to its upgrade system and masses of secrets, is very replayable to this day. While you wait and hope for a brand new title in the series, this is well worth revisiting.