Re-Tro-View: Wonder Boy - Part One
Updated: Aug 22
What is the secret of your power?
So with the remaster of Wonder Boy 3(?) The Dragons Trap I had a sudden flash of nostalgia and figured it would be a good time to go over my memories of the series and give a re-tro-view on each instalment. I played every entry at length back in the day and I’ve put some time into playing them again to see how they stand out in the modern gaming world.
Wonder Boy (Arcade 1986)
The original and first in the series. There’s a notable lack of dragons and swords here which would become a main staple of the later titles in the series.
This was one of the first games I played in the arcade and I distinctly remember passing a machine which was already displaying the “Press One Player Start Button” rather than the usual “Insert Coin” (somehow I even recall it was on Newhaven seafront!?). Ever the opportunist, 8 year old me jumped straight on it and had my first taste of Sega arcade goodness. Needless to say that my childhood self was blown away by the speed and graphical finesse (check out those pixels).
The setting of the game here is a simple damsel in distress in need of rescue (along with a long list of her personal possessions it seems). The titular Wonder Boy is a young looking caveman wearing naught but a loin cloth.
The game is a simple one, you run right (for the vast majority – other than boss encounters and turning around to get a run up) and jump to avoid pitfalls and enemies. You are not defenceless in your endeavours as you will swiftly grab an infinite supply of axes/tomahawks to hurl at your foes.
You can also randomly grab a skateboard complete with helmet which will afford you an additional hit at the cost of being unable to stop moving (which you rarely do anyway).
When you’re not on your board (displaying both safety consciousness and some late 80’s ‘tude) you’re vulnerable to 1 hit death and resurrected to the nearest checkpoint. The only exception is collision with a rock which will force you to trip forward (more often than not into an enemy) and take a few notches off your vitality meter (more on this below).
Graphically the game is bright, colourful and smooth. Whilst the animation doesn’t’ stand out it keeps us a quick pace so you won’t notice, backdrops are full of repeated detail but change enough as you run so that you don’t feel like you’re stuck in one place.
The music will drill its way into your dreams if you let it. Something which isn’t uncommon for a game in the 80’s is that the soundtrack repeats on a pretty short loop and that is certainly the case here. It’s a chirpy little theme though which surprising doesn’t distract from the game. In fact it’s only every 4th level that actually has a different theme which is much more spooky and ominous (due to the boss being present at the end of this stage.
Something which is a familiar theme in this series is the fact I’m surprised how long each game in the series is. The earlier games were predominately in the arcade and it’s a game I certainly can’t say I’ve seen anyone see through to completion.
In this instalment you’re lead to believe there are 3 worlds (each with 4 stages – which would be 12 “Levels”) demonstrated by the greyed out icons at the top left of the screen (representing the treasures you are awarded for finishing each world). The game actually goes on for 9 (representing 36 Levels)! I was never able to get beyond world 2-4 in the arcade but looking online now (not a luxury which was present at the time) a flawless run-through can take an hour. Now that is not too uncommon but normally it would be a proper multiplayer title which would take that long and would guzzle coinage from various players. Only two player here is Mario style pad passing.
Playing this now I’m instantly reminded of recent infinite runner games and the main premise being to survive as long as possible. I’d personally love to see this instalment updated into this format for mobiles.
Part of the games mechanic what can only be described as a vitality meter which depletes pretty rapidly as you play. This is replenished by gorging on the bountiful fruits and ice creams which litter the landscape. At the time this would limit playtime and instil a sense of urgency as you are waiting for the next platform to get into position. This again would fit nicely in the current infinite runner model.
Whilst enjoying all the nostalgia which came with this title I think it’s fair to say that it is not a game which would hold anyone’s attention much these days. The difficulty is pretty high and unforgiving and the lives and continues basis which was common throughout arcades in the 90’s will soon put most off after their initial go. Once you fail to pass the same checkpoint for the 5th time and then realise the world will wrap and repeat (graphically at least) attention will start to wane.
Fond memories and great for 1986…but time has moved on.
Wonder Boy in Monster Land (1987)
The series is split between a couple of gameplay styles and the second instalment is the beginning of the Monster Land/World saga which is what the series is better known for. Despite the changes the game was still to be found in the arcade so in replacement of the vitality meter an Hourglass constantly needs to be refilled in order to continue play. These have a habit of appearing at the opportune time on the basis that you don’t spend too long timing your next jump. The game still retains some if its platforming roots albeit nowhere near as punishing this time around. Gone are the one hit deaths in replacement of a heart bar akin to the Zelda series (which was surely an inspiration at the time).
Putting the games next to one another you’d be forgiven for not connecting the 2 for being part of the same series. You’d also probably think that Monster Land is actually the first title as graphically speaking things are much simpler here. Sprites are smaller and some lack any real animation at all (there’s snakes that don’t even move).
This time the gameplay is best described as a side-on action RPG with platforming. Instead of the tribal/caveman setting we’re introduced to fantasy, knights and dragons. Your health bar, weapon, armour, boots and shield are upgradable as you play.
The game bizarrely is still set out in stages. This is probably as a result of the arcade nature of the title but my experience comes from the very faithful Master System port. The game feels much more at home on a console. It’s a strangle beast which makes you feel it has the potential to be a huge quest but due to the time constraints a full playthrough will take about an hour. Again, a long trek for a single player arcade piece but a little short for an RPG (though not a platformer at the time). Given its length it was a title which you would play numerous times and memorize the locations of all the secrets, of which there were plenty. These took the form of secret doors, which could be just in the open air and special points which if you passed (or normally jumped) would pop a few coins or a bag of gold.
Gold is spent in shops purchasing the additional weapons etc. mentioned above. Later on in the game more shops are hidden, including the ones which sell the “Legendary” pieces of armour and boots etc. Given the aforementioned hourglass time limit though you’ll want to be a swift shopper.
There are also strange side quests thrown in which you could have played the game and not known anything about. Several of the secret doors give you items which you need to pass but this would only happen if you entered a shop a second time. With no internet to help at the time (or strategy guides for that matter) you’d be pushed to find these and the benefits from them.
Each stage contains a boss battle which is confined to a single screen (with no scrolling) and involves you stabbing him/her (that’s your whole repertoire) to death. The boss’ life is metered by the colour of their gem/talisman/heart which goes from white to blue to green…to red. Upon their demise you’re given a key to gate at the end of the stage and off you go.
All stages are unique in their design (save for the boss arenas) and some even feature optional bosses which will provide you with new swords as a reward.
The finale of the game culminates in a labyrinth which you need to make the right choices in identical corridors until you finally confront the Meka Dragon who serves as the game’s final boss. Whilst this is a fitting ending to the game the story does not end there and continues in a later instalment, just not the actual next instalment!
Whilst not as brutal as the original Wonder Boy I do vividly recall being unable to get past the 2nd boss (not including an optional one) of the game in the arcade. The enemy was a mushroom king type thing which jumped around the screen manically releasing an endless supply of smaller enemies (which you’d already been fighting through the current level). Upon fighting this boss on the master system I waltz passed first time. In fact I don’t recall an occasion where he posed a threat. I do remember also playing the game in the arcade what must have been months later to find that I still couldn’t beat it, despite getting to the final level of the SMS version. Lets put this one down to optimization in the home port!
Playing this now it starts a slow trudge. Solid attacking, jumping mechanics but my god has age made me impatient. I honestly feel I could flex my reflexes to handle this at double the speed, which you’d think they would see as a bonus in the arcade? Things do speed up once you buy better boots but it’s like walking through tar for the first 15 mins (which is enough to put most off these days).
Every entry of the series gives me fond memories and this is no different. Whilst there’s more here there’s still plenty to improve on (and they did). Today however you’ll find the likes of Shovel Knight and Shantae to be much improved examples of this game type.
Wonder Boy 3 – Monster Lair (1988)
So yeah, Wonder Boy 3 The Dragons Trap was actually the 4th game…Before that came Monster Lair and this was the final instalment which found itself in the arcade and as such the last of the games which didn’t feature the Monster Land/World gameplay. Despite this the world as far as I can see is actually still “Monster Land” with all its fantasy trimmings, level 10 is even based on the towns visited in Monster Land and Monster World, however the gameplay again drops the role playing elements and goes full coin op/guzzler.
The story goes that invaders from space (I shit you not) have stolen the legendary weapons and you’ve got to fight to get them back. Now, I mention space above but this doesn’t feature in the game until the final level and boss, and looks pretty out of place at that. Our Heroes Leo and Princess Purapil set out on the quest.
This is also the only game which has a true 2 player mode where both play at the same time. It makes sense when the gameplay has shifted to a forced scrolling side on shooter/platformer. The second player was also *shock* female.
You’re slowly forced to move to the right whilst shooting (magic?) out of your sword or staff. The screen simply pushes you along but given a chance it’ll end up either pushing you off a cliff or crushing you against some scenery, either way spelling instant death. Initially the scrolling is slow and you’ll find yourself pushing the screen forward yourself to speed things along. Later stages however involve tricky jumps and pulling yourself up ledges to avoid getting clipped out. The further you play the faster the scrolling it seems too and the screen becomes as bigger enemy as the creatures themselves later on.
Dead enemies will frequently drop weapon power ups of which there are many different types, Spread shot, Forward and back shot, spinning shuriken shield shot, rockets etc. etc. These only last a shot time but by collecting them you also fill the vitality bar so it’s best to grab most as they crop up especially if there’s two of you and your scrabbling to compete to ensure you don’t starve!
Yes I said starve, one hit deaths and pitfalls make a return as does the vitality meter. This time however there are a few more occasions where enemies will fire what can only be described as beachballs which rather than kill you outright will make you stumble (again normally into another enemy or hole) and drop your vitality a bit. This is much more frequent during the boss encounters but does feature in the main levels too. The beachballs fly around liberally during the boss sections too, however your only source of replenishment here is to collect weapon powerups which present by killing a whole wave of enemies (of which there are plenty). Collision with any enemy spells the insta-death mentioned however.
Plenty of food and fruit litters the world which will need to be collected and in some cases and be shot to the point of exploding into even more food. You can release good and bad fairies (imps maybe?) which will either turn fruit into cakes and ice cream boosting vitality further (type 2 diabetes ain’t no thing in monster world) or the opposite.
At the end of each stage you’re taken to a flying section which plays much more like a proper schmup and you’ll be facing the boss in this mode too, which is normally an oversized version of one of the stage enemies which is essentially a bullet sponge with a weak point which changes colour similar to the heart/talisman etc. from Monster Land. Most also fire a large amount of smaller enemies at you.
True to the series form the game crams in 14 levels (consisting of both scrolling and shooter sections). Every stage is pretty unique in style with only a few graphical repetitions and due to the forced scrolling nature you can pretty much set your watch
to the fact it’ll take around 55 mins to play through start to finish (as it keeps scrolling when you die!). It crams in every cliché stage you could think of; Island, Caves, Castles, Slip-Slidy Ice World, Desert, Sci-Fi. The list goes on. Graphically it’s a tour de force at the time and still holds up well (the arcade version at least) with subtle animation and a wide variety of enemy sprites. There plenty going on all the time too, and I mean ALL THE TIME. It is not a game where you can be distracted without losing a life.
Back in the day I recall being able to get to the level 3 boss, a giant bat, on a single credit and following that it cost pretty much 3 credits a level to progress from there! I did manage to complete the game in the arcade once however this was piggy backing off of a 2 player game before…a true team effort! I also had the Megadrive port at home but whilst functional it was pretty ugly, early conversion work for Sega. The arcade version was always king.
It’s probably due to my repeated play through of the first few levels but they did a great job of luring me back every time by having the demo showing later stages which initially I’d never seen in a play through. Well played Sega…you certainly earned your arcade dollar out of 10 year old me!
So this installment is a mishmash of both games which came before it and in my memories it does stand as one of my favourite arcade games of the time.
The thing which wins it points in hindsight however is the variety which the game contains. Not necessarily gameplay variety (of which there is a bit) but each level is unique and as you know you’re constantly moving forward and seeing more and more different sights, it does still give you that reward for persevering.
It’s damn hard by today’s standards though.
If you do manage to complete it however, you do get a glimpse of one of the most eloquently worded “Engrish” epilogues of all time. This is something which I must share with you below and sounds like a great place to leave things until I put together part 2 of the article.
To be concluded.
UPDATE! - PART 2 IS NOW ONLINE HERE