That’s Super Wonder Boy to you!
Why is Wonder Boy a California psychopath on this cover?
RELEASE DATE: 01/31/88 – (JP)
1988 – (US, EU)
Wonder Boy in Monster Land is the closest thing the Master System has to a Zelda II. There’s no overworld map to explore, but there is tricky platforming, close sword-based combat, and cheap deaths aplenty, by gar. The game is built Tonka tough, just like Nintendo’s controversial NES sequel. And as Zelda II toyed with the supposed conventions set by the first Legend of Zelda, so too does Wonder Boy in Monster Land stray from its predecessor’s arcade antics. The game upgrades the Wonder Boy protagonist from Tarzan-esque jungle man to valiant sir knight, and by doing so, gives him a proper gentlemanly adventure as opposed to a 5K marathon through the jungle.
“Prithee get out of my way, sir crab.”
In the first level, Wonder Boy is given a sword and a refill potion, but otherwise, remains relatively naked (for a knight, anyway). As you progress through the levels killing enemies, you’ll amass sums of gold that you use to purchase armor. The stronger the shield, the greater chance of a projectile bouncing off of it. The tougher the armor, the less damage you’ll take from an enemy. The bouncier the shoes, the higher you’ll be able to jump from platform to platform. And, of course, the sharper the sword, the less hits enemies will take before they’re Wonder Toast (patent pending). Unfortunately, the amount of gold you collect from enemies is random each time you play, while the cost of the items always remains the same. Enemies only drop gold once upon their death; when they regenerate and you kill them again, they drop points-based items. This is frustrating, particularly in the beginning of the game, when you need precise sums of money to buy entry-level equipment. Some gamers might see this as extra challenge, but for me, Monster Land was challenging enough without having to worry about how much gold enemies would drop. To wit: I restarted the game four times before I was able to purchase both the Leather Boots and the Light Shield in the second level.
“Well, I was looking for the emblem, but I suddenly feel unclean…”
Pray that you collect the proper amount of gold in order to buy the basic tools, and that you collect as quickly and precisely as possible. Like Alex Kidd before him, Wonder Boy is a slippery rascal and his control takes some getting used to. The quicker you adjust to the banana peels on his feet, the less platforming-related deaths you’ll suffer later. The game also has a time limit represented by an hourglass filled with sand. Once the sand has trickled completely downward, you’ll lose a heart and the hourglass will refill anew. Quite the rigid system, particularly as it doesn’t take long for the sands of time to shift down. There are ways to refill the hourglass without losing a heart, however, and they include: getting to the next screen, completing the level, buying an item. In the early stages of the game, you probably won’t realize that the hourglass is there, but as the sections of each level get longer and the enemies trickier, time grows shorter and shorter.
Such a kind, joyful boss.
Money and time (or lack thereof) are continuous struggles for people, regardless of their Wonder status. Where Monster Land stands apart is its combat. Your willingness to learn, and even perhaps, appreciate the close quarters swordplay will determine whether you enjoy the game. If you’ve played Zelda II, hearken back to that game’s combat in your mind: Wonder Boy‘s is exactly the same. If you haven’t played Zelda II, imagine a game where you’re asked to get right up in enemies faces before you kill them, due to the super short reach of your sword. That’s Wonder Boy in Monster Land. Now, the shortness of your sword doesn’t make the game unbearable. With the exception of the Rat and some of the bosses, Sega and Westone generously give the majority of the enemies a slow-paced gait. After playing through the majority of the game, I couldn’t imagine the combat being any different, but until you learn at what quarter of an inch you need to strike to register a hit, the combat could be an overwhelming source of frustration for some.
Forget the booger pillars. Those bats are the worst.
There’s a lot of charm to be found in Monster Land itself. There are caves, ice caverns with lava, deserts, castles, towns, all rendered with a soft colorful palette that’s reminiscent of Alex Kidd’s stint in Miracle World (if I didn’t know better, I’d say the game began as a sequel to Miracle World). Monster Land feels both quaint and vast. Even after playing through the game, I’m still unsure as to how Sega and Westone successfully pulled off such a paradox, but kudos to them: Monster Land is a singular creation. Every level has tons of doors to enter, some of them shops, some of them houses where pig people drop the latest gossip, some of them gateways to bosses. You’ll want to enter every one, because the secrets here are well worth seeking out. Some of the later stages even have bosses that can only be defeated by finding hidden doorways with no discernible clues whatsoever. How would you know where to look? I used an FAQ ’cause I wanted to see as much of the game as possible. For a young tyke in 1988, I presume a lot of wasted hours.
The Legend of Wonder Boy: The Recorder of Time
Wonder Boy in Monster Land looks like it could be some cheap dollar-store coloring book for kids, but that’s just a facade. Even seasoned gamers will have difficulty with this title. If you want to beat the game, you’ll have to defeat all twelve stages at once. There’s no save option, and Wonder Boy has one life and no continues (with the exception of the refill potion which fills up all your hearts once when you die – another not-so-subtle Zelda reference). That means you’ll chip away at these stages slowly, painfully; I can’t imagine getting to stage ten or eleven before dying and having to do it all over again unless you’re this man. But, as with the best retro games, the challenge encourages you to press on and get better. Luck has little to do with it: your skill will win the day here. Wonder Boy in Monster Land could use a touch more personality (Monster Land’s excellent design notwithstanding), but as a pure classical gaming experience, it doesn’t get much better.