Game-related ramblings.

History Lessons: Wonder Boy In Monster Land

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When I wrote about Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, I mentioned that it inspired many other console games to combine platforming action with role-playing elements. I hadn’t expected it to inspire arcade games to do the same, but that’s exactly what happened with Wonder Boy In Monster Land. The original Wonder Boy from 1986 (which I did not play for this series) was a straight arcade platformer, a design which works well as a coin-operated game. There are discrete levels of increasing difficulty played one after another, and players must start over from the beginning if titular protagonist Wonder Boy perishes. Learn the levels after depositing enough coins for several attempts, and maybe players could make it to the end, or at least reach the high score list.

Role-playing games, on the other hand, tend to be longer adventures that last for many play sessions, with characters gradually growing in strength and abilities along the way. That’s not typically a good match for the short form, repetitive nature of arcade games. Yet it seems to have worked in the case of Wonder Boy In Monster Land. Its Sega Master System port is fondly remembered as one of the better games for that console, and its sequel Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap earned such a cult following that it saw a full remake in 2016, followed by an entirely new spiritual successor in 2018. Curious about the enduring appeal of this series, I decided to play the Master System version of Wonder Boy In Monster Land, developed by Sega and released in January 1988, about six months after Westone Bit Entertainment’s original arcade release in July 1987.

Wonder Boy In Monster Land sticks to a linear design made up of twelve discrete stages. That’s one more than the original arcade release, but other than generally having simpler enemies, the other stages are faithful reproductions of the originals. Wonder Boy must hop between platforms and stab enemies with his sword as he pursues his quest to defeat the evil Dragon, in a manner superficially similar to Zelda II. But there’s no high vs. low attacks here, making the movement and combat less involved. Wonder Boy does get collectible special attacks that act a bit like spells, but also like limited use powerups that are common in arcade games. Other mainstays of arcade design are present too, such as a timer that knocks off some of Wonder Boy’s health if he takes too long in an area, and a score counter. The score doubles as something like the experience points often found in role-playing games, however, since Wonder Boy’s maximum health increases at certain score increments. Still, there wouldn’t be much to the game, if not for the fact that Wonder Boy can purchase equipment upgrades as he goes: armor means he’ll take less damage when hit by enemies, shields let him block incoming arrows or other projectiles, and boots increase both his movement speed and jump height. Each of these has four tiers, with increasing price tags. Wonder Boy can find four upgrades to his sword too, but these aren’t available for purchase, they’re earned by defeating special boss enemies.

The way all this works in practice felt odd at first. When I reached the first town area in Stage 2, I checked out all the shops to decide what I wanted to purchase first (in an adorable touch, Wonder Boy politely knocks at every door he enters, whether it leads to a friendly bar, a shop, or a boss fight). After checking out the boots and shields on offer and taking note of the prices, I was unpleasantly surprised to find I could only enter each shop twice. If I hadn’t purchased anything the second time, the shopkeeper remarked that I was just browsing, and then closed their door for good. How would I get the items I needed!? It turns out that none of the upgrades are strictly necessary to reach the end of the game, which is very different to the design of Zelda II. The platforming in Wonder Boy In Monster Land isn’t too demanding, and the extra jump height from better boots just makes alternate paths viable, rather than gating progress completely. Higher quality armor is always nice, but if players are good enough at dodging attacks they don’t strictly need it.

What this means is that Wonder Boy In Monster Land retains its arcade sensibility, challenging players to learn the stages through repeated plays, determining for themselves when to buy upgrades, and which ones to choose. Money is primarily earned by defeating monsters, although they’ll only drop cash once. Wait around for monsters to respawn, and they’ll drop point-granting items instead. But there’s a lot of extra money to be found in secret places in each stage. If Wonder Boy stands on that one ledge and jumps just so, a coin or three might appear out of nowhere. Soon, I’d worked out the kinds of places that might be hiding some gold, and had decent success locating more. Find enough of these and it’s easier to afford upgrades at specific times, and eventually plan a path through the game. Shops always contain the next two items of the appropriate type, so clever players will skip over certain expensive options and go straight for the best upgrades. One might, say, buy the relatively cheap Light Armor at a certain shop in a particular stage, knowing that Wonder Boy will collect enough money before the next armor shop to skip over the Knight Armor and go straight for the Heavy Armor.

Actually that’s an unusual example, because armors are not always straight upgrades. They are perhaps the most important things to buy, since Wonder Boy’s health becomes increasingly precious later in the game, but the Heavy Armor (which lies right in the middle of the available armor upgrades) is actually cheaper than its predecessor, despite being more protective. That’s because the Heavy Armor significantly encumbers Wonder Boy, making him slow to change direction. Navigating tricky jumps, or even getting into attack range of an enemy without barging right into them, becomes a lot harder in the Heavy Armor. So armor upgrade choices are about more than just money. Once something is purchased from a shop, that shop is closed forever, so players must decide when they can afford to get the Heavy Armor, and how long they can live with it before the next upgrade. Or, they must earn a lot of extra money to skip over it.

Navigating these upgrades is interesting on its own, but the game’s stages also hide a lot more nuance than I expected. They’re pretty short, made up of small individual sections, but there’s often a lot to find within. Wonder Boy can get hints by ordering drinks at the bars he finds, exchanging money for information. Most of that information is only needed once, so the bars can be skipped when replaying a level again later, although the drinks do also heal a bit of health. These hints can help Wonder Boy find the location of some hidden shops and other hidden doors, but some secrets must be found by attentively watching for clues or just trying to knock on the wall every so often. A string of semi-secret locations stretches across multiple stages, opening up new optional areas and eventually granting Wonder Boy some extra help against the Dragon if he finds them all. Many of the sword upgrades are found in secret rooms with optional bosses. These are fun to uncover, and early ones are signposted so players are primed to look for similar secrets as they continue with the quest.

Later on, secret doors become essential for progress. The first time I reached a certain stage about halfway through the game, I dutifully worked my way to the right, only to find the area ended abruptly. There was no final exit gate, no door, nothing. I realized that the path forward must actually be through some hidden door in an earlier part of the lava-filled cave, but with no idea where to look, I ended up checking the internet for hints. Sure enough, an earlier platform hid a secret door leading to the boss. These kinds of secrets were common in games at the time, and if I’d owned a Master System in 1988 and tried playing Wonder Boy, I would have conferred with friends who had the game and consulted game magazines for hints like this. These secrets are a means of adding longevity to the game at a time when there were far fewer games available to play. Once I knew where everything was, I could reach the final boss of Wonder Boy In Monster Land in about 45 minutes. But getting to that point took longer, learning a bit more and getting a bit farther with every attempt.

I might have been able to find that secret door on my own eventually, but I can’t say the same for the game’s final stage. It’s honestly ridiculous. The Dragon’s castle is a maze, the kind where taking the wrong path might send Wonder Boy all the way back to the beginning. Dutiful players who have followed all of the secret tasks might be rewarded with an item that helps them find the correct route, but I picked a different prize based on a bartender’s advice. At first, working out the correct path wasn’t too bad, reminding me of doing the same at the end of Super Mario Bros. as a kid. But the Dragon’s castle just keeps going, and it starts pulling nasty tricks like having two sections look nearly identical so players will think they’ve taken a wrong turn and been sent back, when actually they were on the right track. I got to the point where I could easily reach the castle with the best upgrades (at least, for some things… further shield upgrades aren’t very useful, so I prioritized armor and then boots) and the highest possible health, as well as a spare life potion that would refill Wonder Boy’s health once if he took lethal damage. Even so, I would perish in the castle, as the relentless timer kept deducting bits of health, and I took even more damage because I grew impatient when repeating sections full of tough enemies.

I finally resorted to following an online guide, only to be further dismayed when I realized that the correct route through the castle is different for the Master System version versus the original arcade version. Still, at long last I reached the Dragon, and I even got lucky and made it there with nearly full health, and my life potion still in my pocket. And then I promptly died, because the Dragon is tough. This was extra frustrating because the rest of the game was no longer interesting or challenging; I could get through it routinely, all the way to the Dragon himself, but kept dying in this final battle. Eventually I broke down and used RetroArch’s save state function (as with Phantasy Star, the only other Master System game I’ve played in this series so far, I used the RetroArch emulator frontend and the Genesis Plus GX emulator core to play) to let me retry the Dragon without having to replay the whole game each time. Even so, it took me many attempts before I was finally able to win, and honestly the ending was a bit of an anticlimax.

I really liked everything up to the final stage, though. Wonder Boy In Monster Land wrings a lot of variety out of its compact stages, taking Wonder Boy from forests to port towns, through deserts and pyramids and mysterious caves, and even into the clouds and under the sea. Hunting for secrets and getting rewarded with earlier upgrades feels great, and with the exception of the Dragon, the bosses are fun to tackle as well. A few stages have optional side areas that return Wonder Boy to the main area when complete, and I learned that if I sought out the boss before trying the side area, I could fight the boss again when I returned. That meant getting an extra heap of cash (and a lot more points, helping increase Wonder Boy’s maximum health) which really made a difference with upgrades.

Mostly, I was impressed by how well the role-playing elements work with Wonder Boy In Monster Land’s arcade design. The fact that upgrades are optional but highly desirable creates a sort of nonlinearity to this linear game, where players might prioritize different things and tackle stages in different ways as a result. Yet the whole game is concise enough (up to that final castle, at least) to feel manageable and conquerable. I can see why this game earned fans and spawned sequels. In fact, there are two games that claim to be the third Wonder Boy game: Wonder Boy III: Monster Lair came first in 1988, and was the last game in the series released in arcades. But it strips away the role-playing elements and returns to a pure action platformer design, starring new characters. In 1989, however, Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap appeared for the Master System, a direct sequel to Wonder Boy In Monster Land that builds on the role-playing ideas by adopting a more nonlinear design and giving Wonder Boy the ability to change into different forms with different abilities. That’s the one that got remade in 2016, and I plan to play its original release for this series, once my timeline gets to 1989. So, stay tuned for more Wonder Boy… eventually.

If you want to try Wonder Boy In Monster Land, the arcade version was included in the Sega Vintage Collection: Monster World bundle for Xbox consoles, which may be the only way to purchase the game today. Note that the bundle skips over The Dragon’s Trap, however. If you don’t have an Xbox, or you’re interested in the Master System version of Wonder Boy In Monster Land, you’ll need to use emulation, as I did.

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  1. Isaac Kelley

    Cool, I recently pre-ordered the Wonder Boy Anniversary Collection for Switch. I’m even more interested in digging into this series now!

    • Nice, I didn’t realize it was available for Switch too. From what I read online, the arcade version of Wonder Boy In Monster Land is tougher than the Master System port, and I think the arcade version is the one in the collection, so look out for that. It should still be a lot of fun, though!

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