Adventure Island started life as the SEGA-produced arcade title Wonder Boy, which itself was ported to several different home consoles and spawned a popular series of sequels with show-stealing box art. NES-owners missed out on the title, and would have to wait until Hudson Soft teamed up with original developer Escape to release a re-skinned adaptation for Nintendo’s console. The loose change-stealing arcade difficulty remained, but our hero underwent a portly makeover to resemble Hudson’s spokesman Takahashi Meijin – nepotism, huh? Western releases later down the line would change the character’s name to the totally normal ‘Master Higgins’, setting the tone for a bizarre and challenging little platformer.
Most should feel right at home with the tight controls and simple design of this sidescroller; it’s very straightforward, very Mario, and very NES. Running, jumping and collecting powerups is all typical fare, though the central mechanic is one that changes things up quite a bit. Fruit is scattered around every single level, and while they do award points upon collection, they aren’t purely there for decoration. On the contrary, they’re vital.
Master Higgins will be trotting around a grand total of 32 levels — broken up into eight worlds with four ‘’rounds’’ a piece — to rescue poor Princes Leilani from the clutches of the Evil Witch Doctor. It’s hungry work, represented by the surprising addition of a health or 'hunger' gauge that constantly drains. Being struck by an enemy or falling off screen will result in an instant death, but you won’t last long once that gauge reaches zero either. We foolishly dove straight in without checking the game manual, and ended up scratching our heads as Higgins collapsed several times for seemingly no reason. It’s testament to how original the idea is for such an old-school platformer, and while it isn’t anything truly groundbreaking, the additional time pressure lends some effective tension to the experience.
Every level is filled to the brim with enemies and obstacles, often arranged to maximise frustration (such as tripping over a boulder placed right next to a pitfall), and the solid difficulty is right there from the beginning. Players are given three lives with the ability to earn an additional three by scoring points, and that’s it. There are several checkpoints per level, but those seeking a less intensive or indeed repetitive experience will want to make use of the virtual console’s 'suspend' restore point feature. Purists can choose to ignore the ability to create save states entirely and play on just as Hudson intended, but it will certainly help many more see the game through to the final boss without dedicating as much time. It’s a non-intrusive way to open up a pretty challenging title; The GamePad's D-pad also works great for control, whether on or off-screen.
Though you’ll start off without a weapon, eggs are found all over each level and act as item boxes for a variety of powerups. A stone hammer serves as your primary attack and is a suitable projectile for what ends up being a vaguely caveman-esque aesthetic, reminiscent of Bonk — another Hudson hero. When you aren’t scrambling for fruit to stay alive, you can also grab a skateboard which provides a cheerfully anachronistic extra hit with the caveat that you must keep moving, or a fairy/bee-thing named Honey Girl who grants a brief period of invincibility. On the flipside, some eggs contain that most heinous of vegetables — the eggplant — and Master Higgins hates eggplant. When these blue devils pop out you’re going to want to keep moving even faster and gobble twice as many veggies, as they’ll hover around and constantly drain even more health until it decides to go bother someone else. Quirks like this help add to the game’s momentum, as you’re moving through levels at a breakneck pace and chugging powerups because your life DOES depend on it.
A boss character arrives every four stages, although it’s the exact same fight every single time. The Witch Doctor may change his head but isn’t fooling anybody, resorting to the same cycle of shooting fireballs and shifting forwards and backwards for each encounter. The levels themselves can be equally unoriginal in their visual design, cycling through jungle, cave and cloud aesthetics with a lack of memorable tunes to differentiate between them. A handful of nice effects and strange enemies do help carry across a goofier atmosphere than most however, thankfully adding to the core gameplay and excellent layout to make the roughly one and a half hour playtime a worthwhile experience.
Adventure Island is a bit like the weirder, chubbier, fruit-addicted cousin of Super Mario Bros. — but don't let that put you off. Retro veterans will find a genuine challenge here, while others can take solace in the Wii U's ability to suspend progress and create virtual checkpoints along the way. The unique hunger mechanic might seem slightly underdeveloped at first, but adds enough momentum to the platforming to make this a solid recommendation for old-school fans of the genre, in particular.