Review: Wonder Boy: Asha in Monster World
Wonder Boy – a classic Sega franchise from the Master System/Genesis era that has been going through a sudden renaissance in the past few years. Having originally gone dormant in 1994, the series suddenly saw a return in 2016 with Wonder Boy Returns, a remake of the original game.
However, it wasn’t until 2017 when the series started getting notable attention again. The release of Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap, a nearly 1:1 remake of Wonder Boy III, received incredibly positive reception in the gaming sphere. Much of this was due to its art style and adherence to the original game, with some calling it one of the best “retro revival” games of the time. The following year saw a brand new entry to the franchise as well, with Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom.
Now, in 2021, another developer is returning to this formerly lost series. This time, it’s a remake of the original final game in the series: Monster World IV.
Developed and published digitally by Studio Artdink, with a physical edition published by ININ Games, Wonder Boy: Asha in Monster World was released on May 28th, 2021, for PS4 and Switch. The PS4 version was played for this review.
Rise of a Warrior
Asha in Monster World follows the eponymous Asha, a young woman about to leave her home village to be recognized as a Warrior. After completing a final trial in a nearby tower to prove herself, Asha winds up in the city of Rapadagna. Quickly recognized as a Warrior by the queen of Rapadagna, Asha is given a task: to free elemental spirits that have been captured by forces of evil.
Not only this, but the citizens of Rapadagna have recently become obsessed with “Pepelogoo,” cute little blob-like creatures that can fly with their ears. It isn’t long until Asha obtains one of her own, a unique blue-colored Pepelogoo, that joins her on her adventure.
The story of Asha in Monster World definitely does not appear to be a priority, but I wouldn’t call it super shallow either. It’s a standard “save the world from a great evil” video game tale, but it does offer up a few unique twists and turns that helped get me invested.
Asha visits Rapadagna after every level, and the city and its characters actually grow and progress each visit. Now, we’re not talking Trails in the Sky-level “every NPC has their own story and development” going on, but enough progress that helps bring these rather simple characters to life. Most aren’t named, but their personalities managed to stick with me.
Unfortunately, all of the above is hindered by a simply horrifying lack of editing in the script. Weird spacing, major grammar mistakes, capitalization errors, sentences missing completely…it’s so blatantly rough that I have to wonder if Studio Artdink even has an English language editor.
Upon meeting a major character at the beginning of the game, the Sage, he simply asks the question, “What?” The game offers two responses: “Yes” and “No.” I just had to put down the controller and laugh at the obvious lack of an editing pass-over.
From Behind these Empty Halls
What Asha in Monster World is missing in writing quality, it quickly makes up for in gameplay. The game is a simple action-platformer. It’s solid, it’s straightforward, and it does what it sets out to do well.
Across six or so stages, players control Asha with relatively standard platforming controls and basic swordplay. Press one button and Asha jumps, the other and she swings her sword. Simple. She can perform down-thrusts and up-thrusts whilst in midair and bust out a shield if necessary, but that’s about all there is to Asha’s attack repertoire.
The unique twist the game brings to this classic setup is in Pepelogoo itself. At the press of a button, Asha can summon Pepelogoo to her. Holding the button, she grabs on to the creature. From here, Asha can use Pepelogoo to solve various platforming and environmental puzzles. The creature lets her double-jump as well as glide through the air, and can be thrown at certain objects to perform unique tasks or gather collectables. Nothing particularly mind-blowing, but it adds a bit of depth to the simple platforming.
Much like past Wonder Boy remakes, Asha in Monster World adheres rather strictly to the original game in its design. Hell, the physical release of the game is set to include a code for a downloadable copy of Monster World IV so players can compare and contrast for themselves. But while this brings along the good parts of the original (tight platforming, solid swordplay), it also carries on the warts of it too.
Some puzzles and progress gates are a bit too obscure in hinting at what you are supposed to do. I found myself stuck at the beginning of the game, with an NPC blocking access to the part of Rapadagna where Asha has access to the platforming levels. Said NPC mentioned needing better equipment to pass, but I didn’t have enough money to purchase any and had no access to getting more. Turns out it was a story gate as I hadn’t received Pepelogoo yet, but I felt like I was being deliberately misled, as I spent about 30 minutes running around Rapadagna trying to find ways to make money.
Speaking of running around, that’s another major annoyance carried over from the original – lots of sprinting through empty corridors. Nearly every stage has moments where Asha has to run through long empty hallways, with maybe only one or two enemies in the way. This comes to a head in the puzzle-heavy Ice Pyramid stage, which will require a ton of backtracking through empty corridors if you don’t know exactly what you have to do to progress.
What was surprising to me is that, for being a game so focused on its adherence to the original retro release, Asha in Monster World is surprisingly easy. It’s a bit of a stereotype that all retro games were much more difficult than modern releases, but I have to say I was expecting at least a bit more challenge than what is presented here.
Life increases are abundant, and Pepelogoo will automatically revive Asha to full health upon death if she’s carrying healing items, which are not hard to come by. Sure, there’s a few frustrating moments where I took much more damage than necessary, due to Asha’s invulnerability frames after taking a hit being surprisingly short, but it was never enough that I found myself worried. I only died twice in my entire playthrough, and both times, I was carrying healing items to be completely revived by Pepelogoo, so I never lost any progress.
However, despite all of these complaints, I still found Asha in Monster World hard to put down. Perhaps it’s because I’m a bit of a retro game enthusiast, but these issues were never really more than simple annoyances. I had to step away a couple times during the aforementioned Ice Pyramid and its tedious running through empty halls, but I always found myself coming back a few hours later excited to make more progress.
Cute and Sugary Sweet
Asha in Monster World has a lot to live up to presentation-wise. Both of the previous entries in the Wonder Boy revivals have been heralded for their 2D art design…which this entry steps away from, opting for a 2.5D style.
While some may deride the art direction here as more “generic” for a retro-revival game (2.5D often being second to pixel-style in “overdone retro-style indie game design”), it still carries all of the charm that the Wonder Boy revivals have become known for. Asha herself just exudes charm through her surprisingly varied animations, and Pepelogoo is just a cute little puff of a creature that’s fun to throw at walls.
The level environments, unfortunately, can become repetitive, especially in the late game. The damned Ice Pyramid becomes tedious through all its backtracking, with every sub-segment of the stage looking exactly the same. The stages behind the Sky Gate (near the end of the game) have repetitive and eye-melting rotating backgrounds throughout, making them occasionally rough to play through.
When it comes to music and sound, I’d have to say they’re equally as charming. The main theme played in Rapadagna is an ear-worm, and its core musical phrase is often remixed in the music of various stages, lending a sense of coherence across the adventure, even as Asha finds herself in wildly different environments. There is a bit of Japanese voice acting as well, although most of it is NPCs going “ara ara” or “yarble yarble” when talking to them.
Hasn’t Aged a Day
Much like The Dragon’s Trap, Asha in Monster World is a game that strictly adheres to its roots, for better or worse. Monster World IV is held up among fans as one of the best in the series (some going so far as to call it one of the best games on the Genesis), and after playing through the remake, I can see why.
While it carries on the frustrations of 27-year-old game design, the package overall is just a charmer that is plain fun to play through. It’s a short game, only taking me around 4-5 hours to complete, but it’s a mostly enjoyable experience from front to back (aside from that damned Ice Pyramid). If anything, it has me excited to go back and try out the original Monster World IV now.
Asha in Monster World wears its retro heart on its sleeve, with the modern graphical overhaul only helping to increase its charm. For fans of classic games and platformers, it is definitely worth a shot, though you will need to be ready to overlook a few quirks.
Review copy provided by ININ Games for PS4. Game reviewed on PS5 hardware. Screenshots taken by reviewer.