Now with 100% less boy
Wonder Boy is a bit of a wonderful mess. The series never seems to stick to one style, developer, or nomenclature. Here we have a remake of Monster World IV, which is a sequel to Wonder Boy in Monster World, or, as it’s known in Japan — and I’m not kidding here — Wonder Boy V: Monster Land III.
Recently, we’ve received a bit of a revival recently: Wonder Boy Returns, an upgrade of the original, developed by CFK; Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap, a remake of Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap (not to be confused with Wonder Boy III: Monster Lair) by Lizardcube; Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom, a completely new entry by Game Atelier; and this title, Wonder Boy: Asha in Monster World, which is perplexing, because boy isn’t even in it.
Confused? Perfect. That’s how I like you.
Wonder Boy: Asha in Monster World (PC, Nintendo Switch, PS4 [reviewed])
Developer: Studio Artdink
Publisher: Inin (Boxed Version with original Monster World IV) | Studio Artdink (Digital)
Released: May 28, 2021 (Switch, PS4) June 29th, 2021 (PC)
Originally released in 1994 exclusively in Japan for the Sega Mega Drive (Genesis), Monster World IV was yet another departure for the series. The previous-ish title, Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap was a sort of explore-’em-up title with multiple monster transformations and power. Monster World IV is not that.
Here we have Asha, who just decides she’s going to be a warrior and goes out to do that. No sooner is she bestowed the title of warrior by the queen, she’s sent out to save four guardians from four dungeons to save the world. Listen, this was the 16-bit era, we didn’t need much more to go on than, “There’s darkness, go get it.”
There are no transformations here, the world isn’t interconnected. Instead, you get an adorable critter called a Pepelogoo that can help you do things like double-jump and block fire. It’s a decent mechanic and has the biggest impact on the plot, which is a good thing, because that’s the only thing special about this game.
I had never played Monster World IV before this release, though it has crossed the ocean in English on the Virtual Console, 360/PS3, and on the Genesis Mini. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, but I’ve played a number of the other Wonder Boy titles, and this one stars a cute girl, so I was on board.
Initially, I was awestruck by how bland it is. Visually, Wonder Boy: Asha in Monster World is a treat; colorful, cute, well-animated. The music is decent. Not something I’d put on my playlist, but an enjoyable addition to the aesthetic. A number of quality-of-life improvements have been made across the board, such as a redesigned city of Rapadagna, the ability to carry multiple elixirs, and a more powerful attack that can be charged up.
Where it hasn’t been touched is in the dungeon design, and that’s where the game hurts the most. The dungeons are uninteresting, long, and repetitive. Each one has its own gimmicks — as is law in video games — but largely they’re just a bunch of corridors where you smack at enemies and pick up the coins that burst out. It’s a strange day when I notice how bland the backgrounds are in a side-scroller, but here I couldn’t help but look at repeating patterns and despair.
What hurts the most is how little Wonder Boy: Asha in Monster World does to mitigate backtracking, sometimes allowing you to plumb further before alerting you to the fact that you need to fill your bucket at the same source for a third time. Some games can get away with this, but when the environments are so boring and the enemies don’t respawn, it can become drudgery.
The game’s bosses are diverse, but unified in the fact that they’re disappointing. Most can be defeated by just whacking at them, others have simple and obvious patterns, and some make it difficult to find where they can be hit. They fluctuate significantly in difficulty. The one that I had the most problems with was just a sub-boss. The final boss deserves special mention because it was a serious, “wait, that can’t be it,” moment. The answer was yes it was, and I’m still reeling from it. It’s like if Dr. Wily just came out in his lab coat, and his weakness was everything.
I get that this is based off a Genesis title, and I also understand that Inin didn’t want to deviate too much from the source material, but look at it this way: Lizardcube had very little background to work off of for Wonder Boy and the Dragon’s Trap and they painted a masterpiece on that blank canvas.
I can’t be too hard on the developers, though. Part of the problem is that Monster World IV just wasn’t that great of a game to begin with. It feels like a step back from other titles, offering a cute little Pepelogoo instead of thoughtful design. The quality of life improvements are appreciated, but I feel like they could have at least touched up the bosses a little more without betraying the game’s identity.
I also have to stress that Wonder Boy: Asha in Monster World isn’t a bad game. Some of the backtracking got annoying, but mostly it’s just monotonous. The mechanics are tight enough, I just can’t help but shrug at the final product. I’m always happy when an old title is given new life, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to end up loving it.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]