It’s been a beautiful time for Sega revivals as of late, with games like Streets of Rage 4 and Panzer Dragoon: Remake bringing back old classics. One of the most prolific has been Westone’s Wonder Boy/Monster World series, which has seen no less than three entries – first, a remake of the Master System game The Dragon’s Trap from 2017; a brand-new entry called Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom in 2019; and now in 2021, a remake of the Mega Drive game Monster World IV. A big difference to note is that the first two games were produced by French companies (Lizardcube and Game Atelier, respectively), while this new remake, titled Wonder Boy: Asha in Monster World, comes from original developer Ryuichi Nishizawa and the team at Artdink. While the other games also opted for pure 2D graphics, this one uses cel-shaded polygonal visuals for 2.5D gameplay.
Monster World IV was originally released on the Mega Drive back in 1994, being the direct follow-up to the game known in English as Wonder Boy in Monster World. Despite being one of the most gorgeous looking games on the system, Sega passed on an English localization, and for a long time, it was really only known to import game fans. However, in 2013 it received an official English translation as part of the Sega Vintage Collection for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Wii, and was also included on the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive Mini console in 2019.
Asha in Monster World remains largely faithful to its 16-bit forebear, taking place in an Arabian-style fantasy land. A young girl named Asha is called by a mysterious voice to save the land from an ominous evil, beginning an adventure that takes her to the capital city of Rapadagna. Along the way, she befriends a flying animal called a Pepelogoo, who aids in many of the game’s puzzle and platforming challenges. He’s a friendly little guy that will gladly take quite a bit of abuse, and not only is he invincible, he’s also utterly adorable. Asha can grab onto the Pepelogoo to float or double jump, and he can be thrown to collect out-of-reach items, used as protection from fire, or frozen in blocks of ice.
The Wonder Boy/Monster World series has long been a favourite of Sega fans worldwide, melding 2D action-platformer and light RPG elements, and brimming with charming characters. Some of the entries (like the aforementioned Dragon’s Trap) included exploratory elements that put it in the "Metroidvania” subgenre, long before that the term was ever invented. Monster World IV, however, dialled this aspect back, focusing primarily on action and platforming. There’s no central overworld map to explore, but rather just a single city that funnels you into a handful of dungeons. The structure is mostly linear, though there’s still money to find and equipment to buy. There are also plenty of blue Life Drops to collect, which will permanently expand your life meter when you’ve collected ten of them.
The biggest change from the original game is the completely revamped 3D visuals. The cutesy character designs from longtime Westone artist Maki Ohzora are faithfully reproduced as polygonal models. Lots of unique animations that gave the Mega Drive game such a strong personality are also recreated, like when Asha skids across ice or is bounced around by springs or the enemies when they take damage, complete with comically pained expressions. Special attention is paid to the excited butt wiggle by Asha whenever she opens a treasure chest – there are even a few subtle variations!
The basic themes of the environments are the same, but many of them have been overhauled. This is most notable in Rapadagna and its palace, which is enormous in size. To take advantage of the three-dimensional element, there are occasionally junction points where you can walk into the scenery to different layers. For the most part, it all looks pretty good, though there are some aspects of repetitive design as a result of the dungeons replicating the tile-based layouts found in retro 2D games. The Switch version goes for 60 FPS and hits it most of the time, though there are some noticeable instances where the framerate drops in more elaborate areas. The basic movement has been tweaked too, resulting in a slightly smoother experience.
The new musical arrangements are quite solid, too. The Mega Drive version had a main theme whose motif was featured through most of the levels. It was catchy albeit repetitive, though the new arrangements here featured a wider variety of instruments that give them new life. The original OST is unlockable by inputting a code on the title screen (Up, Down, Up, Down, Left, Left, Right, Right).
There are a handful of modifications and quality-of-life improvements, too. Previously, when you beat an area, you couldn’t revisit it. That means that any Life Drops you missed were gone permanently unless you restarted the game or reloaded a save. Now, you can revisit most of the areas so you can retrieve anything you missed, and there’s even a helpful breakdown of how many you’ve found in a given area. There were originally 150 Life Drops to find, but this has been expanded to 200 in the remake, along with some extra subquests in the city to find them. Also new is an Easy mode, which includes extra life replenishments, as well as an ability to automatically vacuum up the change dropped by enemies. You can also save anywhere now – the Sage that used to perform that function is still hanging about, talking about how things are so much more convenient these days than in the past.
But outside of these and other tweaks like sparsely voiced cutscenes, it’s still very faithful to the original Monster World IV, for all of the good and bad that that entails. Even when it was originally released, it felt stripped back compared to its predecessors, with simplified equipment and no magic to use. The only tune-up here is the Magical Hit move, which charges up when you attack enemies and then can be activated whenever you want for extra damage. Some of the dungeons are also way too long, wearing out their welcome long before you reach the end, particularly in the Ice Pyramid. The remake is nice enough to give you a map in this area, but it’s still filled with long, empty corridors. The designers definitely could’ve trimmed some of this, but at the same time, the adventure isn’t very long — it can probably be beaten in between four and six hours on the first playthrough — so cutting back these segments would just make the game even shorter without something else to take its place. The platforming challenges, puzzles, and boss battles will also feel pretty simple compared to the more recent Monster Boy. Plus, while the localization isn’t bad, there are also some very noticeable typos, even very early on in the game.
This is the major aspect where the game could’ve been redesigned, or at least revamped more thoroughly, but alternatively, messing with the formula might’ve created something substantially different (or worse), so perhaps it’s for the best that it wasn’t tinkered with all that much. Besides, Monster World IV didn’t get much of a spotlight in its previous English incarnations, but as a full retail title, it’s been given the chance to shine to a new generation of gamers. Plus, despite its occasionally retro design, it still holds up very favourably compared to Wayforward’s recent Shantae games, with which the Monster World series shares a spiritual link.
There’s still a philosophical question posed by other retro remakes like Square Enix’s 2020 remake of Trials of Mana; Asha in Monster World is replacing some of the most gorgeous pixel art of its time with mid-budget 3D, and while it’s certainly pretty nice looking, it’s missing that level of technical achievement that made the Mega Drive title so memorable. (The retail versions of Asha in Monster World include the original game, but this was not included in the review copies sent by the publisher.) From a pure playability perspective, however, this remake is a definite, if minor, improvement, and is a perfectly pleasant way to experience a forgotten classic of the 16-bit era.
Overall, there are parts of Asha in Monster World that are a little rusty, and the end product could've used more than just the tweaking we ended up getting. While fans of the Mega Drive game may enjoy revisiting it, they may also be disappointed that there's not a whole lot that's new. Still, the elements that made it such a classic in the first place — the endearing protagonist, the delightful game world — are still present, and all of that still holds up brilliantly even after nearly thirty years.