Retro gaming can be a taxing hobby. Often the ‘rose-tinted spectacles’ effect comes into play and completely shatters any perception you had of your childhood favourites being any good at all. Other times, it transpires that our much-loved classics are pretty niche – games few others have heard of. So, when it comes to sharing fond memories with somebody else, they just don’t get it.
That’s where I am with Wonder Boy Collection, brought to us by ININ and Ratalaika Games. Two of the four games present are my childhood faves, with the other two being late discoveries. But I love them all. Not to render the rest of this review body text redundant or anything, because there’s a little more to this collection than “I love it, ten hatchet-throwing semi-naked skateboarding kids out of ten.” Because do you know what’s also taxing? Making a definitive compilation of a series as varied, scattered, and occasionally obtuse as this.
The standard version of Wonder Boy Collection has a modest four games: the arcade versions of the first two iterations of the series – Wonder Boy and Wonder Boy in Monster Land – plus two Mega Drive games Wonder Boy in Monster World, and Monster World IV. The latter is the fifth game in the series – I won’t go into the whole confusing debacle, but somebody probably has an hour-long YouTube video on the ordeal. I did say ‘obtuse’ and that can be taken entirely at my word; but I mention it only to point out the omission of the excellent third entry – Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap. It’s a franchise highlight, yet it isn’t here.
The existence of the excellent hand-drawn LizardCube remake doesn’t appear to be the reason for its absence, as it’s included on the frankly exhaustive (and much more expensive) 21-game strong collector’s version. That’s a lot of Wonder Boys. I know I said I love the series, but mankind should be completely spared the SG-1000 version of the original from here until the Heat Death of the Universe. It’s for the greater good.
Back to the standard Wonder Boy Collection. The four games here are good: very representative of the series for any curious newcomers, although possibly not definitive for long-time fans.
The first two games are arcade titles from the ‘80s, and they feel unmistakably so. Wonder Boy is a left-to-right platformer starring a leaf-diaper-wearing, hatchet-throwing, kid with a difficulty curve that starts at ‘tough love’ and ends somewhere nigh-genocidal of a player’s patience. But it’s mostly fun while its challenge is in the realm of sensible for the first half of the game. It’s basic stuff with no real depth besides rote-learning level layouts – an absolute must if you want the Trophy for finding every hidden doll on the first seven world access to the eighth. As the first entry in the series, it’s fine.
Where I personally started was the SEGA Master System version of the second game, Wonder Boy in Monster Land, which was an absolute banger. Taking its cue from action/RPG games and things like the Legend of Zelda series, the hatchet and bush-pants are thrown aside in favour of swords, shields, and hunting down an evil dragon. Ah, that’s more like it.
Outside hilarious badly translated bootlegs, the west never saw this second entry in arcades, which means for many the giant leap in difficulty from the SMS version to the arcade is something deserving of its own Neil Armstrong quote. Except there’s no small step involved, as it’s ruthless – even despite a quirk in the game logic that makes basic hidden coins worth roughly 30x what they should be if the player ‘wiggles’ the joystick left and right fast enough. Amusingly, this collection gives the game a ‘wiggle jump’ button do to exactly that, and it’s necessary to be able to get all the good armour. Without, it’s a herculean quest.
Thankfully for both games, there are infinite credits, save states and a rewind function so that with a little patience and a lot of trauma-and-error, they can be bested by anybody.
The later Mega Drive games might just be where this collection shines the most. Wonder Boy in Monster World is ostensibly a re-telling of the former game, complete with more than a few familiar areas of fan-service and homage, but with less-linear progression akin to a Metroidvania title. And with a reasonable difficulty that only really gets evil at the endgame. Honestly, this is where most of my fun with this package began, as the spectacles become less rose-tinted at this point and the series begins to resemble more-contemporary titles like Flynn: Son of Crimson or even Shantae. It’s a good ride when it gets going.
And finally, Monster World IV (which was recently given a 2.5D remaster as Asha in Monster World) is the beautiful shining gem of the bunch. Although it drops the Metroidvania progression for something between that and Wonder Boy in Monster Land’s linearity, the colourful and charming artwork and the sheer character the game’s world exudes make it a treat indeed.
Given the departure from the prior titles’ worlds into something more middle east inspired, comparisons to Shantae are far from unfounded – enough that I’d say fans of that series could be happy checking out this compilation for Monster World IV alone. It’s fun, the right kind of challenging, and pretty, and you’ll all want your very own pet Pepelegoo – a friendly monster found in the game.
But the thing is, these aren’t my favourites, nor are they definitive. Not to me. Popular logic defaults to ‘arcade is best’ with many series that made their way to home consoles, but Wonder Boy was and is an exception to the rule. Those Sega Master System versions of the original two were excellent, with varying degrees of difference from their arcade counterparts, but both have a far more reasonable difficulty curve that may of made their inclusion a gentler intro to a great series than what is here.
What is contained here has some minor changes to control schemes and things that may throw off hardcore arcade fans’ muscle memory. This is similar to how Turrican Flashbackrendered some speed running techniques impossible. This could be nit-picking on my part – I do love the series after all. I just feel that although the Mega Drive titles here are excellent and still enjoyable in a modern context, the arcade titles are very much a product of their time and mileage may vary incredibly from player to player.
Wonder Boy Collection is out now on PS4 and Switch. A physical collector’s edition is available with additional games.