I had a brush with the dreadful ZX Spectrum version of Wonder Boy towards the end of 1989. It was being given away on Your Sinclair magazine to promote the imminent Super Wonder Boy, although with terrible scrolling and a floaty jump that combined to make it virtually unplayable, I’d have probably relied on adverts to flog it if I was Activision… Actually, it did look alright in screenshots! Anyway, none of that mattered in the end – within weeks I’d moved on to the Atari ST, and while, being a huge Pac-Land fan, I’d often think I’d probably like Wonder Boy over the years, it took the arrival of the Sega Astro City Mini in 2021 for me to actually go back to the arcade game, as well as two frustratingly lazy untranslated Japanese versions of a couple of sequels that I barely touched as a result. Different story for that original Wonder Boy though… To say I’ve made up for lost time since then would be an understatement – absolutely love it, and in the space of a year or so at the time of writing, it’s become an all-time favourite!

And to all intents and purposes, that’s the extent of my history with the four games we’re getting on The Wonder Boy Collection, released for Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4 on 3rd June 2022 by ININ Games, together with Bliss Brain, and including Wonder Boy from 1986, Wonder Boy in Monster Land from 1987, then 1991’s Wonder Boy in Monster World and finally 1994’s Monster World IV. I should mention that there are six-game Limited and Collector’s Edition physical versions, The Wonder Boy Anniversary Collection, from Strictly Limited Games that also include Wonder Boy III: Monster Lair (1988) and Wonder Boy: The Dragon‘s Trap (1989). Which is a good point to also mention that in the history of video games there’s never been a more confusingly convoluted history as Wonder Boy’s, with it’s sequels, variants, off-shoots and parallel dimensions, so apart from looking at where each of these four games vaguely fits into the timeline, we’re not going there! I did, however, go there previously when we had a deeper look at the Wonder Boy arcade game on Sega Astro City Mini, so please go ahead and fill your wellies there if you’re interested! Finally, before we get into the collection, I’d also like to mention that the publisher was kind enough to give me a Switch review code so I could pass on my thoughts here.

The collection itself is as fully-featured as you could hope for, even if the presentation is more functional than wonderful. For example, when you first load up the game, the title screen is giving you access to each of the four games, accompanied by a screenshot of its title screen rather than anything interesting like gameplay, as well a couple of sentences about what, when and where. Below the games is a gallery on 20 images of concept art, Master System and Mega Drive / Genesis box art, instructions and a few other curios, but it’s all very sterile and without any explanation or context. And that’s a real shame because it’s a very slick package, with a gorgeous piece of piano-led orchestration playing behind everything, and it’s so close to being a real museum piece, but instead I’m just left not even knowing whether or not we’re playing arcade games or ports or what. Guess we’ll have to work it out for ourselves as we go!

Within each game selection though, you really couldn’t ask for more in terms of options to tweak controls, gameplay and video, as well as modern conveniences such as adaptive rewind, save states and load points. In fact, you can get so deep into some of this stuff that it’s nothing short of bewildering! At the top level, you can reconfigure all of the controls, which I always find pretty handy when I connect my 8BitDo arcade stick – my preferred way to play the original game in particular, although it’s more than perfectly set up for regular Joy-Con play as default; I’ve just been spoilt by that wonderful Astro City Mini stick! Anyway, you can also delve into what would probably have been arcade DIP switch settings where applicable and alter starting lives, bonus lives, difficulty and special weapons…

Which, as we scroll through the four games on offer here, is also now giving us some clues about which are arcade and which are console games. Definitely need to properly look that up in a minute, although it’s now annoying me that it assumes you know as you jump between games, especially when it’s giving you a description for each as you do and could easily say so there! Anyway, the last set of options are the very comprehensive video settings, where you can go for stretched full screen, 4:3 default, pixel perfect or the bizarre “Perfect 1x” which results in a tiny box in the middle of the collection’s modern screen-filling wallpaper! Unfortunately that’s only available docked because I really wanted to report back that it was even tinier handheld than those bonkers tiny Game Gears that Sega released for its anniversary a couple of years ago! Then you’ve for a choice of soft, “crispy” or razor-sharp scaling, and finally a totally insane shader setting, three CRT mask types, each with no less than seven sub-settings covering sharpness, curvature, scan line intensity, gamma and several things like Trini-curve that I’ve never heard of before… Thank goodness for the return to default setting too!

All very impressive to someone, I presume, but let’s jump into something for everyone, the games, and namely Wonder Boy, developed by Escape (later Westone Bit Entertainment) and unleashed into the arcades by Sega in 1986. It’s a left to right side-scrolling platformer, sitting somewhere between the pioneering addictiveness of Pac-Land and the sophistication of Super Mario Bros. but with a joyful style of its own which, to me, all adds up to pretty much perfect! The idea is that your little caveman, Wonder Boy, has to make his way through seven stages, each made up of four areas, to free his girlfriend Tina from the evil clutches of the Dark King. You can unlock a stone axe, a skateboard and an invincibility fairy to help you on your way, as well as a ton of food to grab to keep your vitality gauge topped up. Each area also contains a doll, which is usually a challenge to grab, but will not only double any bonus points at the end of it, but collect all 28 and you’ll unlock an eighth bonus stage! Survival to there might be a bit of an ask, but even so, those dolls and various other scoring tricks you’ll naturally pick up as you play really make for a compelling high score chase regardless. Above all though, I’ve never felt so at one with a platform game’s controls as I do with these – there’s such a wonderful (and often high-risk) inertia to it all, particularly when you’re on the skateboard, resulting in a constant, instinctive feathering of whatever your playing with. Throw in the iconic jaunty soundtrack and the happiest-looking, brightest and boldest cartoon graphics you could wish for, and this collection could start and end here as far as I’m concerned!

But of course it doesn’t, and actually I’m pretty excited about what’s to come because I really haven’t properly played any of the rest, so let’s begin the discovery phase of our journey with Wonder Boy in Monster Land, all the way from 1987 because I’m still assuming it’s the arcade version! It’s actually set eleven years after the original, where a dragon has turned up in Wonder Land and turned it into Monster Land, so Wonder Boy is back on the case! Things have changed up a bit in whichever intervening period you choose though, and our happy-go-lucky platformer has morphed into an action-platform RPG, and let me tell you, it makes way more sense to me now it’s in English! The eleven levels start out pretty sedate, with all kinds of doors to open and stuff to buy and level-up with coins dropped by defeated enemies, but before long the platforming starts getting a bit more complex, mini-bosses and then bigger ones start appearing. And it keeps getting more challenging and more frantic, but apart from your reach being a bit shorter than you really want in combat, it’s not outrageous, and there’s a ton of secrets to find and things to buy and collect. In my opinion it doesn’t quite have the immediate fun of its predecessor, and honestly I could do without the RPG stuff, but it still knows how to grab you, all the colours in motion are a sight to behold, and the soundtrack is absolutely first class. Definitely worth a few hours even if you do abandon before the end.

We’re jumping forwards to 1991 now, and Wonder Boy in Monster World. Or Wonder Boy V: Monster World III in Japan, no less, and that’s nowhere near the worst of the confusing naming this series has to offer! The date, the lack of gameplay / DIP switch options for this one and the inclusion of Sega Mega Drive box art in the bonus image gallery lead might lead us to the conclusion that we’re now on that console, as this fifth entry (maybe!) in the series first appeared there before a Europe-only Master System port in 1993 and a PC Engine Duo (or TurboDuo) remake called The Dynastic Hero in 1994. Despite not being particularly useful in confirming any of this, the in-game description does helpfully tell us that the game “introduced a new character named Shion, who at this time had to deal with more RPG elements” and that the “game module contained a battery, so that the player was able to save at any time.” Right, with that established, the monsters are back, a princess has been kidnapped, and you’ve got a huge map to make your way through, talking to all sorts of people for items and more direction than this collection gives you, jumping, crouching and killing for booty so you can buy better stuff and then make it even better stuff. It’s more of the same of the last one, and we’re talking loads more, with a mass of colour and life in the environments and non-stop new music (which does, admittedly, veer on overly cute sometimes). Some very cool parallax effects too! I’m sure there’s better examples of action-RPG storytelling, but our new Wonder Boy still feels tight to control, and everything is intuitive and, most importantly, a joy to explore.

And that brings us to the final game in the collection, Monster World IV from 1994, which was only available as a Japanese Mega Drive release until we got a fan translation to English in 2002, which the in-game description does tell us even if it forgets to mention the platform it’s from again! We do learn that it’s the last part of the Wonder Boy series though, even though they dropped the Wonder Boy title because we now have a female main character named Asha. Together with her flying cat-thing Pepelogoo, she’s off to answer the cries for help from the spirits she’s heard in the wind to stop the latest disaster in the series spreading. This one is both more and less of the same now-familiar formula, although to me it’s really not playing anything like a Wonder Boy anymore, feeling more like its own side-scrolling action-JRPG thing, despite a few nods back to past adventures. That doesn’t mean it’s not very, very good though, and the series never looked or sounded better than this! What it lacks in scale, discovery and overall challenge compared (final boss not included!) to the other immediate predecessors here, it’s more than making up for by embracing the power of the late-game Mega Drive with an incredible diversity of environments and characters, all teeming with detail and special effects and the most gorgeous colours. Combat and movement have been beefed up, with new ways to stab as well as enhanced jumping enabled by your weird pet, and the inventory and RPG side of things has been refined and simplified a bit too, in contrast to more complex platforming and puzzle elements. And all of this leaves me conflicted! I’ve long since accepted that the Wonder Boy I love isn’t the Wonder Boy it became, but this just feels less Wonder Boy than simply replacing Wonder Boy as the star of the show. On the other hand, it’s absolutely fantastic, I love it and I didn’t stop playing it until I’d finished it, so who cares!

While things changed for better or worse or a bit of both as the series developed, fun is definitely the common denominator for all four of these games, regardless of how Wonder Boy they are, or your preference for platforming, action-platforming, action-RPG platforming or whatever you care to label anything. The strength of the soundtrack in the series has really jumped out during this condensed play-time too, and only to a slighter lesser extent the strength and character and evolution of the art design too. What this collection has really done is given me an appreciation for how the gameplay evolved too, and it’s definitely piqued my interest for those physical editions to see what the other games are bringing to that particular party! And there’s no denying it’s nice to have things like save states available to keep you interested in those later entries into the series, although I don’t want to hear about anyone suggesting using such things for that sacred first game! While I did find the presentation a bit uninspired in places, there’s no denying the strength of everything else on offer here, and no doubt there’s £24.99 of depth, challenge and enjoyment to be had by anybody!