Wonder Boy has a convoluted gaming lineage. Initially a platform arcade game featuring a squat caveman-boy in a grass skirt, and developed by Westone (then Escape) for Sega, the sequels quickly splintered off into action role-playing territory. Oddly, there are two chronological entries for Wonder Boy III — Monster Lair (originally an arcade title), and The Dragon’s Trap (originally for the Master System). Compounding the perplexity, the fifth game in the Monster World series is known as Wonder Boy V: Monster World III in Japan, originally released for the Mega Drive. From there, Monster World VI, the sixth entry, was the 16-bit era’s swan song and wasn’t followed up until Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom landed on Nintendo Switch in 2018.
Confused? Let’s continue. Hudson Soft licensed the Wonder Boy IP in 1986, but because Westone had already sold the rights to the name and character to Sega, they renamed their version “Adventure Island”, retaining the same gameplay structure as the original arcade game, while branching out into a new platform series for the NES, Game Boy, and Super Nintendo. Here, the protagonist was remodelled to resemble famous '80s Hudson Soft executive, Takahashi Meijin.
The Wonder Boy Collection, then, handpicks four notable entries in Westone’s original series: Wonder Boy (arcade), Wonder Boy in Monster Land (arcade), Wonder Boy in Monster World (Mega Drive) and the beautiful Monster World IV (Mega Drive). If you’re buying the Collector's Edition physically via Strictly Limited Games, Wonder Boy III: Monster Lair and the superb Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap, are included. Annoyingly, we won’t be looking at those today.
The original arcade Wonder Boy is a fantastic game, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. You steer Tom-Tom through enemy-filled seas, jungles and caves, until he’s reunited with his girlfriend Tanya. Inordinately long for an arcade game, a full clear is going to take an hour only if you have it totally mastered. The game’s genius is in the way fruit appears and its requirement for staying alive, pressuring the player to leap for it while exactingly traversing platform-littered terrain. You can grab skateboards and throwing axes to swat things from afar, and learning to run flat-out while negotiating strings of obstacles is great fun. It’s precision heavy, tough but fair with tight controls, and deserves its historical dues. And, if nothing else, its theme tune will burn right into your brain and never, ever leave you. For those who dwelled in arcades of the '80s, it’s pure nostalgic dynamite.
Wonder Boy in Monster Land, the sequel, changes the format to a side-on action, role-playing take. Wonder Boy now looks like a cherub in a nappy, but that doesn’t stop various business outlets trying to sell him beer and cocktails, often in exchange for awful advice like “I think there’s a store that sells armour”. Toddling through stages with your sword and shield and uncovering secrets, you vanquish enemies for cash and then level-up by purchasing items. It was bold for Westone to switch to a role-playing lean back in the world of 1987’s arcades, but it works. It is a tad dated now — arguably more so than its predecessor — but beneath its visual simplicity is a well-thought-out title.
Wonder Boy in Monster World was the first bespoke entry for the Mega Drive, and it’s a beauty. As well as being visually attractive, with gorgeous dithered painted backdrops, it’s also a plucky, upbeat adventure with transitory role-playing elements. Big bosses, plenty of locations, and a nice sense of journey are only marginally dented by some rather abstruse objectives right at the end, where it all gets slightly sci-fi. On the whole, though, Monster World is a charming game that will offer first-timers three to four hours of sword-swatting, protagonist-bolstering action. While it’s showing its age a little in terms of depth, it remains a deserved highlight of Westone’s series.
Monster World IV, the final entry in the collection, is the jewel in the crown. Extortionately expensive on the Mega Drive’s after-market owing to its Japan-only release, it also appeared fully translated on the Wii Virtual Console. Doing away with the male lead, Westone got creative here, transposing the traditional fantasy world of demons and dragons for an Arabian-inspired fictional universe. Here, Asha, a green-haired girl with a world to save, moves with speed and purpose, hopping, leaping and slashing through beautifully rendered landscapes, glowing with colour, movement and character. The dungeons and accompanying puzzles are compelling thanks to the clever implementation of her pet, a small blue beast known as ‘Pepelogoo’ who helps her overcome obstacles and bridge gaps with ever-evolving attributes. While it follows the basic structure of its action role-playing predecessors, there’s a level of pastel-shaded charisma that goes beyond what came before. Its music, glorious aesthetic, giant bosses, and the exacting design of its stages make it a joy to play.
None of what’s on offer in the Wonder Boy Collection is lacking in quality, although the appeal of the games will vary based on taste. While the original Wonder Boy is a classic all its own, the other three titles are more directly related, and there’s an arc in terms of accessibility and enjoyability. That’s not to detract from any individual game: all are good enough to work through, and those experiencing them for the first time will have a blast.
The onus here is less on the titles themselves, and more on the package’s presentation. The menus are colourful and serviceable, each game displayed on a placard with a paragraph of historical information. From what we can glean, emulation accuracy seems spot on, running smoothly, and at the correct speeds. You can save-state at any point, meaning you can drop in and out freely, and if you’re an absolute cheating git, you can rewind the action using the shoulder buttons to bring yourself back from death in the blink of an eye.
The display options are thorough, allowing a variety of adjustments and image tweaks, with ratio settings for scanlines, sharpness, screen curvature and shadow masks, all with a useful preview option via the 'ZR' button. However, different games react differently to these settings.
With the CRT filter applied, the original arcade Wonder Boy displays sharp even on a 55” screen. The Mega Drive titles, however, seem to apply bilinear smoothing the moment the filter is switched on, and no amount of tweaking is able to get rid of it. Even with scanlines and the mask filter set to zero, it remains slightly blurry until totally deactivated.
What irks, really, isn’t what’s in the package, but what isn’t. The Dragon’s Trap, in particular, is one of the best titles Westone produced, and superior to Wonder Boy II. Restricting it to a purposely finite Strictly Limited Games physical release leaves a bad taste in the mouth. These are games dating back almost 40 years, and chances are you either own them already or have played them to death across various platforms or emulators. It’s totally feasible on current-gen hardware to include every Wonder Boy title, on every platform, with every region variation, rather than limiting the standard production to a nicely curated but somewhat meagre selection of four.
Scoring the Wonder Boy Collection is only partly related to the quality of the games on offer. They’re all excellent for what they are, and were they appraised independently, would do very well. But this is more about the package as a whole. Yes, there’s plenty here to keep you occupied, but at the same time, what could have been is a sticking point. Wonder Boy is a great little series, with games spanning everything from the Master System to the PC Engine, in various guises. It’s not difficult to offer a more extensive library for the broader gaming populace, rather than restrict certain titles to a group profiled for their magpie eyes.