I’ve always been mildy interested in Wonder Boy, and its confusing mess of sequels, remakes and Adventure Islands, but have barely ever touched it; and this is in no small part down to what I did touch! Back when Your Sinclair was handing out as many free cassettes as it could stick on the front of its magazine covers, December 1989 rolled into town with a “Double Decker Issue!!” featuring four complete full price games across two of their Smash Tapes. This was the exact moment of my own crossover from Spectrum to Atari ST, and was probably the last copy of this I ever bought, but if I remember right, I’d always fancied one of the other games on there, a top-down boat racer called Riding the Rapids, so we had one more waltz that also included a Dizzy-style big sprite adventure called Thing, a crusty old text adventure called Heroes of Karn and, of course, Wonder Boy.
Wonder Boy was being given away to promote the imminent release of Super Wonder Boy, but I reckon they’d have been better off relying on adverts because, playing it again now, I was quickly reminded that my new Atari ST wasn’t the only reason I wouldn’t have played much of it! It looks nice, in a monochrome Spectrum arcade conversion kind of a way, and the 128K version sounds good too, but then you start moving… Maybe Pac-Land’s much-derided flip-screen Spectrum version wasn’t such a disaster after all! The scrolling in Wonder Boy is terrible, to the point of making it unplayable, and coupled with a floaty jump that you’ll struggle to predict no matter how many times you do it, and the lack of inertia that allows for seamless travel in the arcade version, it just had any fun sucked right out of it! As an aside, I also played the Commodore 64 version, which righted a lot of those wrongs, but it still feels stodgy, and it’s all a bit blocky and sterotypical C64-looking too. I’ll stick with Riding the Rapids, thanks, which didn’t disappoint!
When I got my Sega Astro City Mini table-top arcade cabinet in the summer of 2021, I had an ulterior motive when I decided to review all 37 games on there, and it wasn’t setting a world record for the number of games covered in a single review! With these mini consoles, as well-curated as they generally are, it’s very easy to play a few old favourites, try out a couple of high profile titles you might have missed, then for all your good intentions to play everything, sooner or later it gets cast aside to gather dust. For this one (mainly because it wasn’t cheap!) I wanted to at least play every game on there enough to talk about them reasonably coherently, so I spent a couple of weeks playing nothing else of an evening and giving everything a proper go. Yes, I did still spend more time on old favourites like Thunder Force AC, Space Harrier and Cotton than on some other games (especially those that lazily hadn’t been translated from Japanese), but I also absolutely fell for a few new discoveries, with Wonder Boy probably coming out close to the top of that list, although so far it’s cutesy arcade platformer Flicky that’s doing the business for me the most!
I’m determined not to get too sidetracked with history and legacy here (yet…) because it will take me all day to still not understand it, but in the very beginning, Wonder Boy was a side-scrolling platform adventure game developed by Escape then unleashed into the arcades by Sega back in 1986. The story is that you, a loin-cloth (or possibly adult nappy) wearing caveman by the name of Wonder Boy, are starting off on a long and hazardous journey in pursuit of your less exotically-named girlfriend Tina, who’s been kidnapped by King, who lives in a faraway place inhabited by monstrous creatures and many surprises. On your way through forests, seas, grasslands and caverns, you need to collect food to keep your energy topped-up, collect power-ups to fight the monsters and “prove to one and all that true love always triumphs.”
As a connoisseur of Pac-Land, the very first thing that struck me here, the very first time I fired it up 35 years after its very beginning, was that this reminds me of Pac-Land! Not just in side-scrolling platform gameplay style, but in the walk and run and jump controls, as well as the whole big and bold cartoon aesthetic across not too dissimilar environments. Pac-Land was a pioneer though, and it soon becomes apparent that those extra couple of years provided a real nuance to Wonder Boy’s controls, and many hours of playing it later, it’s this that makes it stand out.
As well as left and right on the stick, you’ve got two control buttons – one for jump and one for both speed and attack. Over time, holding down that speed button, at the expense of being able to attack, is going to become your default position, and you’ll be using a second finger for jump. But when you jump you can still manouvre Wonder Boy backwards and forwards, and this makes for the perfect combination of varying speeds and almost pixel-perfect precision. Once you’ve got the lie of the land, you’ll be using this to dance between enemies or check momentum across platforms to reach those really juicy fruits and bonuses without sacrificing your speed, and it is genuinely as exhilerating as any platformer I’ve ever played!
This is especially true when you come across the skateboard power-up, which allows you to move even faster, with the only downside being you can’t stop – just slow right down – but you’ll soon be leaping around the full extent of the screen and back again once you get to grips with it; the other benefit is that it’s effectively an extra life, coming between you and an enemy or an obstacle if you run into them, but then it’s gone until you find another. Power-ups are found throughout the levels in the form of eggs that you can either break with a weapon or just run into, but the latter will cause it to fly off in the direction you’re facing before it splits open, meaning you could lose it to the left side of the screen or it could end up down a cliff or in the sea.
As well as the skateboard, power-ups include a stone axe, which is good for a certain distance until it falls to the ground; a fairy will make you invincible for a bit; a flower provides a score multiplier; and milk will refill your vitality all the way up again. Watch out for the speckled rotten egg though, because that’s got what I think is called a God of Death in it, and that’s going to ruin your vitality, although if you get to the end of the stage with one active you’ll get a decent bonus.
In spite of the above, and much like using the attack button against enemies, carefully opening a power-up is something you’ll try to avoid doing, because the whole time you’ve got a vitality clock ticking down. Collecting different fruit will top it up again to varying degrees, but you’ve got to be on your fruit game because it doesn’t hang around, and if you want decent scores at the end of the level, you want as much of it left as possible, so ideally you just want to fly through the level, jumping over as much as as you can while grabbing fruit and crashing through power-ups. What you also want to look out for is the doll in each stage, which doubles your final score tally there and I think unlocks an additional secret area if you collect all 28 of them. Slightly irrelevant to someone rubbish like me who’ll never even get to the last level, let alone find the dolls that I forgot to mention are sometimes hidden too! There’s seven areas, each containing four levels, or rounds, and when you complete one of those you’ll have a relatively straightforward boss fight with King before moving on.
Wonder Boy is a real joy to look at. As said, it’s not a million miles from Pac-Land, but those brief extra years in the oven have added new levels of detail to the backgrounds, with complex forest and brickwork and cave formations going by just about smoothly, but definitely at pace. That said, when you’ve got a plain sky background, it is a bit too plain, and clouds have actually taken a backwards step! There is a huge amount of character in even the tiniest of sprites – you’ll be able to spot your high value pineapples over bananas in an instant, and those tiny dessert pick-ups a couple of levels in look good enough to eat! There’s variety in the monsters – mostly based on snakes, fish, snails, bats and other such nasties, plus a couple that the fun police probably wouldn’t be too keen on today, though they’re all in a cute style to make it all alright! Same for the bosses, which start as one thing then move to the another form when you defeat them, ready for your next encounter. Animation is pretty simple, but there’s nice attention to detail, for example in the movement of the skateboard or the cobras’ wiggly tongues. My only complaint is that you’ll have seen just about everything after about ten minutes, and while the gameplay keeps you on your toes way beyond my capabilities, the repetitive visuals are a detriment to wanting to progress.
The same could be thrown at the super-bouncy soundtrack that never really strays far from its main melody, but it’s a good one and you won’t be forgetting it in any hurry after a decent play session! Like the graphics, sound effects are cute and add a nice cacophony over the simplicity of the theme tune, but there’s not a lot there. And again, not that dissimilar to Pac-Land in design, although I’m going to give Pac-Land the nod here for a bit more sonic complexity even though it was a relative old-timer by the time Wonder Boy arrived.
Despite me possibly picking fault where it doesn’t really exist, I hope I’ve conveyed that I think Wonder Boy is wonderful, and there really is nothing like a great run at full pelt when you’ve got those most out of those simple but deceptively deep controls! As we’ve already established though, we can pick fault at some of its ports, so let’s quickly conclude by having a look at some of the others… As well as the aforementioned Spectrum and C64 versions, there was an Amstrad version that avoided the Spectrum’s scrolling problems by slowing everything down to a snail’s pace (including the jaunty theme tune, which is now closer to a drone), but the result is the same – not much fun! I reckon the fledgling console player got a better deal though, if we’re not counting Sega’s Japan-only SG-1000 console version, released just after the arcade one in 1986, but cut-down to the point of being unrecognisable! The Sega Master System fared better around the same time as the home computer versions, when Tina became Tanya and Wonder Boy became Tom-Tom, but apart from that and some minor concessions to hardware, this is a superb arcade conversion and I reckon it’s up there with Road Rash as one of the Master System’s high points – the music might even sound better than the arcade version on here! Also worth noting that it had two extra new areas that helped solve that variety problem a bit!
As good as that is though, we’re now going to have to delve into Wonder Boy’s confusing underbelly… The Master System was called the Mark III in Japan, and because they’d already had a Wonder Boy release on the SG-1000, Sega decided to call it Super Wonder Boy on there to avoid confusion, no doubt, but elsewhere it was plain old Wonder Boy. That is until 1991 (or 1990 in Japan) when the same version was released for the Game Gear, except in the US it was called Revenge of Drancon. Again, apart from a few concessions to even more limited hardware, this is near-enough the Master System game, so near enough the arcade game, though there is a bit of fuzziness to the graphics and it does sometimes slow down a bit, but if you’ve got a Game Gear you want to own this!
What about those other consoles, I hear you ask? Okay, briefly then, the Wonder Boy developer, Escape (although they’d later become Westone) owned the copyright to the game (and its sequels), but Sega owned the trademarks to Wonder Boy (also its other moniker, Monster World, in Japan), so for any non-Sega platforms, the ports had to be called something else. Rights for porting to NES and MSX then fell to Hudson Soft, who came up with Adventure Island, where Wonder Boy would become Master Higgins! It would then get two of its own sequels on the NES, then a Japan-only (Famicom) one, and they’d end up being re-released on the Game Boy and Game Boy Advance in various forms.
Back with Wonder Boy, that’s about it for the original until we get to Wii Virtual Console, mobile ports and remakes for PlayStation 4, but now the fun really begins! There was a 1987 arcade sequel called Wonder Boy in Monster Land, which went action RPG, which is where the series would mostly end up. Then in 1998 there was another arcade sequel, Wonder Boy III: Monster Lair, which was a return to the original’s platforming roots, but a year later there was another Wonder Boy III, this time sub-titled The Dragon’s Trap, which was a direct squel to Monster Land. Meanwhile, Hudson Soft were at it again, but this time on the PC-Engine / TurboGrafx and more modified versions of the sequels, with Bikkuriman World, Dragon’s Curse and The Dynastic Hero – they’re all really good, by the way! While this was going on, NMK and Jaleco were having a go of their own on the Famicom in Japan, with Saiyuki World, which in turn got its own sequel! The Mega Drive would then get its own versions, and its own Monster World IV, in 1994, then by my reckoning we can jump to PS4, Xbox One and Switch for Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom in 2018, as well as the various remakes and remixes of the original. And I’m not touching the “Monica” versions of all of these that Brazil got with a barge pole, because I’ve really lost the will to live and I’m sure I said ages ago that I was determined to avoid all of this crap!
Instead, let’s try and forget about our pure, happy platforming place becoming an RPG; getting bizarrely numbered sequels; having the same games released under different names by different publishers in different places that all then went off in their own directions; not to mention Tina turning into Tanya! That’s better… Wonder Boy remains a brilliantly playable, hopelessly addictive side-scrolling platformer that still shines in its arcade form, especially those untouchable, breathless motion mechanics that the Sega City Mini arcade stick was simply built to manipulate, whether you’re racking up scores or going for the end-game. It might have taken a while, but that Pac-Land game that I keep banging on about might have a bit of competition at last!