This Sega Vintage Collection is a trio of games from the Wonder Boy series – specifically ones set in Monster Land or Monster World – made available on 360 and PS3. The Wonder Boy series actually has six original games spanning from 1986 to 1994, but this collection only includes: Wonder Boy in Monster Land (1987), Wonder Boy in Monster World (1991), and Monster World IV (1994). Each of these is a snapshot of a much simpler time in the world of video games, but considering the three together allows for an interesting look at a slice of the games industry's progress in motion.
The three games are displayed in a window mode, and reproduced exactly down to the screen asking the player to enter coins for the first game of the three, which was originally released for the arcades in Japan. Pressing the left bumper might not feel quite the same as pushing a coin into a slot, but it's a nice touch. And not needing any real money beyond the relatively cheap initial purchase price is an obvious benefit.
Wonder Boy in Monster Land is one of those games that overlaps two very different formats, bridging the gap between arcade and console (it was released for the Master System a year after appearing in arcades). You're given your mission almost instantly, by a man in a house who issues a hurried imperative along the lines of, 'Welcome to Monster Land. Here's a sword. Go kill the dragon,' so no time is wasted with backstory or figuring out the simple controls. In true arcade fashion, time is precious; every time the egg timer in the corner of the screen turns, you lose a little health. The game is played in 'rounds', too, rather than levels, and there's a focus on points that is lost in the later games of the series.
Despite predictably clunky controls (which would feel more natural with an arcade stick than they do with a 360 or PS3 pad) and very simplistic graphics, Wonder Boy in Monster Land is advanced for an arcade game, trending more towards an action RPG than its platformer predecessors. The protagonist starts the game with nothing but a pair of white pants and the sword he receives from the man who gives him his quest. To improve his chances of defeating the various monsters along his path and eventually overcoming the dragon, Wonder Boy must buy weapons and armour with the gold these monsters drop on defeat. But the shops close after any one item has been sold, and locations cannot be returned to, so the player is limited by how much gold they can collect in one place, and whether they want to save it for the next.
Things change dramatically in Wonder Boy in Monster World, in which the same formula was vastly improved by the increased capabilities of the Mega Drive. There is no time limit (a key feature of arcade games, introduced to suck more money from the player), and levels can be revisited, so the player is free to take the time to explore the variety of locations or build up a supply of gold by returning to kill respawned monsters. Wonder Boy can use this gold to buy different kinds of weapons – either one-handed, like swords, which allow for a shield, or two-handed, like spears, which can be either stabbed at an opponent or spun in front of Wonder Boy like a particularly threatening shield – or apparel including armour and special boots, like the ladder boots that speed Wonder Boy's ascent.
Gold can also be used to buy a night at an inn, which both refills Wonder Boy's heart meter and allows the player to save the game. Wonder Boy in Monster World is that deceptive kind of game that starts off so easy that the player can forget to go back and save as regularly as they ought, meaning that their eventual death sends them back quite some way. A game like this requires a certain amount of patience and willingness to do the same repetitive tasks over again. Luckily, this collection allows the player to save to the 360 or PS3 at any time.
Saving to the 360 or PS3 is made a little fiddly by the conversion of Mega Drive controls to a modern controller, since on a Mega Drive controller the 'select' button is the furthest to the right. On the 360, for instance, pressing A in the game is actually achieved by pressing B on your controller, which is easy enough to get used to until you bring up the menu for saving to the 360 and A becomes A again. Luckily, one of the additional features provided in this collection is the ability to completely modify the controls to suit your preferences. It helps, though not with such things as getting Wonder Boy to perform simple actions like going through doors, which is made trickier than the modern gamer is used to by the primitive physics.
What could have been a very simple game is boosted by interesting touches that represent clear efforts to move the genre forward, and certainly provided plenty of variety when the game was first released. One set of doors, for example, are opened by Wonder Boy playing tunes on an ocarina, which must be memorised by the player. Those who played this on the Mega Drive will likely remember these little jingles even now.
Another nice touch is the range of companions Wonder Boy can travel with for some stretches of his journey. These companions – ranging from a fairy to a dwarf child to a baby dragon – are limited to certain areas of Monster World, but within those areas will help Wonder Boy in their own ways. The fairy will hit a monster on the head to distract it so that Wonder Boy can attack. The dwarf child will find gold and secret passageways. The baby dragon can stun enemies with its fiery breath. When slippery controls make the matter of actually defeating enemies a precarious balance between getting close enough to hit them and accidentally sliding in so close Wonder Boy is wiped out first, these companions can provide welcome help.
A companion makes for one of the defining features of Monster World IV, too, with the even more helpful Pepelogoo, which can boost jumping to a double jump, protect against fire, and be thrown at distant switches. The Pepelogoo is dynamic, growing when it's fed fruit. This, and the fact that the protagonist – Asha – is female, make this Monster World game particularly distinctive, so it's even more of a shame that Monster World IV was never originally available in the UK.
In fact, the non-playable characters make a point of mentioning Asha's gender on a regular basis. 'Are you a traveler?' asks a man, 'A real cutie, aren't you?' 'Oh, a female warrior?' enthuses a girl, 'How cool are you?!' And then there's the slightly ominous, 'Oh! What a pretty warrior you are. Though I travel far and wide selling wares, I've never seen a female warrior like you. Come see me later, I'll have something good for you by then.' It gets a little tedious, but then this was eighteen years ago. Things have improved since then, though there are discrepancies between the attitudes towards female characters in different cultures, and Japan - in general - still has some way to go.
Of course, having a female protagonist at all is a sign of progress, and Monster World IV is an improvement on the previous two in almost every way. The graphics are better, though the psychedelic interludes look a little too experimental. And Asha is more capable than Wonder Boy, with – for example – the ability to jump and stab upwards at the same time. But Monster World IV is slightly more linear than Wonder Boy in Monster World; while Asha is simply sent through four different worlds to save four different spirits, Wonder Boy returns to earlier destinations once he's gained new abilities and tools. For anyone in the UK, the second game of this trilogy is likely to hold more nostalgia value than the third, too.
But is this collection worth buying today? Obviously, these games are twenty years old, and are never going to measure up to the kinds of action RPGs that are coming out today. The controls may be slippery, and the combat a little hit and miss. But with the 360/PS3 providing the ability to quick save, players should be able to get through all three without facing too much frustration. And with the trilogy spanning the gap between arcade and consoles, these are definitely worth a look for historical reasons; and – luckily – they're still fun, too.
Twenty years later, can we learn anything from these games that span the gap between arcade and console?