Despite owning a Mega Drive during my teenage years, with a PowerBase II giving me access to the entire library of Master System games, and despite actually owning The Dragon’s Trap on the Game Gear and buying Wonder Boy in Monster World on the Wii Virtual Console … despite all that I’d never actually played a Wonder Boy game*.
This is somewhat surprising, given the number of games in the series to date. Starting as an arcade series, there have been seven different titles as well as a number of remakes and rereleases. This Switch game, also released on the PS4 and on PC, is a remake of Monster World IV, which is the sixth game in the Wonder Boy series and the third to use the words “Monster World” in the title. Monster World IV was originally only released on the Mega Drive, where it has a reputation of being a good, solid game, but not quite as good as The Dragon’s Trap, which although officially called Wonder Boy III is actually the fourth title in the series (Wonder Boy III: Monster Lair, an entirely different game, is the third game). Does that reputation hold up today – and how does it compare to the remake of The Dragon’s Trap which was released on Switch four years ago?
Wonder Boy, as a series, is a mix of genres, combining action platforming and a light-touch RPG element, where you can upgrade equipment, buy health, and solve some simple puzzles to progress. Were they to be released now, they may be categorised as Metroidvanias, but with an economy. You can be barred from progressing without appropriate equipment or new abilities, and you may need to go back and forth across the world to acquire it.
It is this barring of progress that is most jarring, as the game takes an old-school approach to hand-holding. There are signs and instructions on how to double jump, how to enter buildings, and clear indications of who you can talk to. The travel to the central hub area, with the castle and request for you to defeat the baddies (rather than them using the army who instead just stand around uselessly) is straightforward. And then you’re thrown into the game at the deep end, without a path, without a plan, and without a pet. The last of these is quickly resolved; a blue flying thing accompanies you for most of the game, providing you with additional abilities such as a double jump or a glide, of the ability to gather items that are a fair distance away.
The path is more of an issue, and for most of the game I felt I was aimlessly wandering around, finding the next stage to be completed, and then after reaching it, having to return to the town to buy new abilities. Fire protection, ice shields, a wind medallion … maybe we have been softened by game design of late, but by half-way through the game I was getting bored of the backtracking, and yearned for a walkthrough to ensure I was prepared for a stage before I got to it.
The game is ostensibly a 2D platformer, though there are a few areas where you can go in to or out to other planes of movement. These are not well signposted, and in some cases are one-way only, meaning that you have to search for an entrance within buildings or across rooftops (and these entrances are only marked by an X button option appearing as you pass), but can simply walk back to the main path easily. Perfect videogame logic. In most cases this exploration leads you to additional health or coins, but in a couple of cases you will need to search for something crucial for the story progression – again, often not knowing exactly what it is you’re searching for.
Yet, above I say that the game’s good. It is. The graphical style is well thought-out as an update from the Mega Drive original, and it’s refreshing to see another game set in Persian climes – although some of the tropes, such as a magic carpet, are starting to get a little threadbare. The mechanics of physical gameplay – the feel of jumping, the running speed, the interaction with Pepelogoo – are great, with a real sense of gravity and momentum. The level design in itself is varied and clever. The game isn’t overly long: even with getting lost and needing the backtrack 23,876 times, it will only last eight hours or so, particularly with the ability to save anywhere; however, there are some sections, particularly in the Ice Palace, where there’s a lot of nothing to do.
If you’re going to play Monster World IV, this is definitely the way to do it; even if it does mean you are missing out on some of the best pixel art of the Mega Drive era, the quality of life improvements in this game make it worthwhile. This is a perfectly fine game in itself, and definitely worth playing. Just don’t beat yourself up if you find yourself reaching for a walkthrough.
* While researching some of the background to this game, I realised that this statement isn’t actually true. I played a Wonder Boy game – Monster Land – many years ago on the Amstrad CPC. The movement and controls were awful, and the speccy-port nature of the game made it difficult to see what was happening, so I never persevered with it. This game is better.