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Review: Wonder Boy Collection

5 Jun 2022

I got into collecting retro games a few years back. Both to reexperience the NES era that I grew up with, and to try out games from other consoles I never owned when I was younger. I’ve managed to build complete collections of three of my favorite franchises (Tales of, Ys, and Fire Emblem), and even got my hands on a PC Engine (the Japanese version of the TurboGrafx 16) and started collecting games for that.

And yet, I’m still a major fan of modern rerelease collections of these retro games. Partially because it’s occasionally just easier to boot these up on my PS5 rather than messing around with decades-old technology to try and get an aged cartridge to boot correctly. Mainly because buying original software is so damn expensive nowadays.

Falling into both the age and price category is the Wonder Boy franchise – a popular series that kind of died off after the Sega Genesis era before seeing a sudden resurgence over the past few years. I have fond memories as a kid playing Wonder Boy in Monster World, and quite enjoyed the remake of Monster World IV that was released last year. So, when a collection gathering up (most) of the franchise into one place was announced, I was immediately intrigued.

Developed by Westone and ININ Games, and published by Bliss Brain, Wonder Boy Collection was released on June 3rd, 2022, for PS4 and Switch. The PS4 version was played for this review via PS5 backward compatibility.

A Wonderful Gathering

Upon booting the collection up, you have immediate access to four games: Wonder Boy, Wonder Boy in Monster Land, Wonder Boy in Monster World, and Monster World IV. This franchise is an ever-confusing one with the way entries are named (without even getting into the various ports and renamings therein some entries received), but even casual fans will notice a few missing.

Unfortunately, while this is a collection, it isn’t a complete collection. While modern releases and remakes are understandably not here (this is a retro-focused collection after all), this release is also missing Wonder Boy III: Monster Lair and Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap. Yes, there are two Wonder Boy III‘s. I did say the naming of games in this franchise is confusing.

Leaving off Dragon’s Trap from this collection is a stupendously confusing one, considering that the modern remake of it is what arguably reignited interest in the Wonder Boy franchise in the first place. But don’t worry, if you actually want all of the retro Wonder Boy games in one place, you can purchase the Wonder Boy Anniversary Collection, being handled by Strictly Limited Games…unless you wanted it on Switch, because it’s already sold out. Oops.

Anyways, setting aside that whole mess, the four games included here are still a solid selection. Overall presentation is fairly basic for a retro collection release. We get a selection screen with the four games as well as a gallery mode (all while some chill music is playing in the background). The gallery mode is a bit of a letdown, only including around 20 random art images from across the included games.

Each of the games themselves have individual options that can be tweaked, as well as save states. A button-press rewind function is available in every game (and greatly welcomed in a few of these games). More interestingly is a series of gameplay adjustment options available for Wonder Boy and Monster Land, the two arcade ports included in this collection. The number of starting lives, general difficulty, and score levels at which new lives are obtained can be adjusted for these two.

The overall presentation for the Wonder Boy Collection is fairly bare bones, but it gets the job done. I have very little to complain about here, except for the lack of things in the gallery mode.

Wonder Boy

First up in this collection is the arcade release of the origin of the franchise, Wonder Boy. This one is also kind of the odd one out; whilst most familiar with the Wonder Boy franchise think of it as an RPG-influenced action platformer, the original Wonder Boy is much more of a pure arcade platformer. Really, I’m sure most would be more familiar with the reworked NES port of this game – Adventure Island.

This game has you navigating through a series of linear levels with a constantly-depleting life bar. In order to stay alive, you have to be constantly collecting fruit items along the way. This is also one of those retro one-hit kill kind of games…so be ready to die a lot.

Wonder Boy is a pretty solid arcade experience, if a bit repetitive. It was originally made to chug quarters from players, so it is on the higher end of the difficulty spectrum. Speaking of quarters, being a port of the arcade original, you do have to press a button to “insert a credit” to begin the game – something that took me embarrassingly long to figure out when I loaded up the game for the first time and thought it locked up on the title screen.

Of the games included in this collection, this is more of the “novelty” entry – fun to try out to see the series’ history, but I don’t think most players will be spending the majority of their time in this one.

Wonder Boy in Monster Land

With the next entry, Monster Land, the series began adding in the RPG elements it would become known for. This one is also an arcade port presented in stages, but with a bit more exploration.

Starting off in your underwear, you have to make your way through a series of stages, killing enemies to earn cash that can be spent in various shops to upgrade your armor and equipment. Each stage ends in a boss fight, and there are optional mini bosses that can be found along the way to earn even further upgrades to your character.

I found this game surprisingly more difficult than the original Wonder Boy, mostly because it doesn’t feel like the developers quite knew how to incorporate the RPG elements into an arcade-style game like this. While Monster Land seems to encourage exploration and grinding for cash on the surface, in reality, it does anything but. Every stage is on a timer, and if it runs out, the main character begins to quickly lose health. Enemies will only drop money once; if they are respawned and killed again, they will only drop items that give points.

With these restrictions in place, Monster Land becomes a game of learning and executing the perfect route. Playing the game multiple times to figure out the ideal path, what shops to enter, what items to buy, where secret rooms are hidden, so that you can become the most powerful you can in each stage without running out the timer. More ways to chug quarters, being originally an arcade game and all.

But I also found myself spending much more time with this game than the original Wonder Boy. While it’s obvious this game is more of an experiment than a solid game, it’s also super interesting to play through. This is where the series began to find its footing, and working my way through stages figuring out the most efficent way to earn money and gear up my character was surprisingly fun.

Of course, with the trial-and-error heavy design, having access to save states makes this version of the game much easier to play.

Wonder Boy in Monster World

This was the first Wonder Boy I ever played, and I was instantly hit with nostalgia upon booting it up. Monster World is where the franchise really finds its identity with the RPG and platforming mashup.

The player guides the main character, Shion, through various dungeons and towns on a quest to destroy evil. The setup is the most generic one can think of for an RPG, but the core gameplay is much more interesting than the previous two entries in this collection. While no longer level-based, the experience here is still quite linear. However, you’ll be spending just as much time poking around towns and solving puzzles as you will simply killing things with your sword.

There’s also much more variety to the combat here. Shion can be equipped with a basic sword and shield, providing protection from projectiles but requiring up-close combat, or with some kind of polearm, giving more range but losing the ability to deflect projectiles. Magic spells can be found throughout the game as well, adding on more offensive and defensive capabilities. These have a limited number of uses, though, and can only be recharged by staying at inns.

Being made for home console rather than arcade, this is also the first entry in the collection that doesn’t feel like it’s out to kill you at all times. There’s still some odd difficulty spikes and moments, as expected in retro games, but I didn’t have to rely on save states to make progress like I did the arcade games.

If you’re looking for the game style that most people associate with “Wonder Boy,” this is the entry right here.

Monster World IV

And, finally, we end on Monster World IV, the one I have the most intimate familiarity with. And it’s also probably the most solid and playable game in this entire collection.

Monster World IV streamlines the formula a bit, smoothing out the RPG elements and leaning more on the platforming side of the formula. You find yourself in control of Asha, a young woman who has recently been recognized as a Warrior and tasked with freeing elemental spirits captured by evil forces. Still a simple story, and a return to stronger linearity after Monster World.

This entry, though, is the most fun to just play. Asha controls wonderfully, her skill set feels perfectly balanced (even with magic being removed from this game after its introduction in Monster World), and this entry has the most accessible difficulty level of this entire collection.

There’s also more of a focus on puzzle platforming here with the game’s gimmick, the Pepelogoo. A cute round flying blob with cat ears, this creature is used to float across chasms, flip switches, and otherwise unlock various ways around each stage in the game. Admittedly, I was able to blast though this game quite easily after my recent experience with its remake, so none of the puzzles I came across during my time here became a sticking point.

Of every entry in the Wonder Boy Collection, this one is easily the one most worth playing.

Mostly Wondrous

Overall, the selection of games in Wonder Boy Collection run the gamut from “interesting pieces of gaming history” (Wonder Boy) to “truly classic games worth a play” (Monster World IV). While some are more…playable…than others, I wouldn’t call any entry here a truly bad game.

Sure, the presentation of the collection overall is a bit bare and straightforward, although I do appreciate the gameplay options available for the two arcade games. I can’t say I’m a fan, though, of this collection only being partially complete, with the “true” full collection being relegated to a limited special physical release.

Even with the heavy hitter Dragon’s Trap missing from this selection, Wonder Boy Collection is still a great option if you want to experience a more obscure retro franchise for the first time, or go back and revel in nostalgia.

Also, with the prices the original Monster World IV goes for at the time of writing, this is probably the best way to play through that game without blowing up your wallet.

~ Final Score: 8/10 ~

Review copy provided by Bliss Brain for PS4. Screenshots taken by reviewer. Featured image courtesy of Bliss Brain.