Once upon a time, Sega were struggling to make Mario. It’s true, but the schtick was that they needed their own Mario. They tried with the whole big-eared Monkey-esque Alex Kidd to some limited degree of success, and they tried with some wondrous boy who ran around in fig-leaf pants throwing hatchets at snails and riding skateboards.
Woah, that previous sentence reminded me why I used to bloody LOVE games and don’t really anymore.
Wonder Boy enjoyed some fringe success in the arcade, so obviously a sequel was going to be on it’s way. I’m not going to describe the convoluted history of the development of the series and the legal labyrinth of rights involving Westone and Hudson and Sega and your uncle’s friend at the pub that one time, so I’ll get this obligatory-yet-tiring intro out of the way and get to describing the game already.
This game, a platform-RPG before that kind of thing was cool, was a big part of my childhood. I wanted a wooden sword and kidult diaper and potion so I could chop up snakes and guzzle up the delicious coins within, later on buying ‘proper’ swords of Legend and defeating dragons. And you know, this game would’ve been a great preparation for modern games which are loaded with ‘shops’ and such to buy better equipment. Except swords, which have to be wrangled out of the hands of some of the game’s nastiest bosses; usually behind a hidden door. The game seems to care like that.
But it’s that ethos that keeps me coming back, even now. Want a better sword? Fight for it. The rest of the equipment is pretty cunningly-priced in that you can’t possibly buy ALL the Legendary equipment by the end of the game (personally, a kit consisting of Sword of Legend, Legendary Armour, Ceramic Boots and Rubbish Pink Shield Bought At The Beginning Of The Game sees me through to the denouement) so you’ve really got to know your stuff if you want to stand a chance at beating the thing.
Knowing your stuff though, is taken to extremes. An initial taster is found on the second level (“Someone be beyond the wall”) of a wild goose-chase paper-trail of sidequests culminating in a choice of two items to help you out on the final level. The game is totally possible without, just unfair. But that’s how it rolled back when, you know? It just means that you’re going to be snooping around every last bit of scenery looking around for coins or doors or whatnot – it’s part of the experience of getting Ripped Off By Wonder Boy.
I’m not making it sound enjoyable, or fun, but it really is. The stages, although not as varied as they could be, are all the kind of thing one finds themselves getting lost in – although not literally until the final level’s cruel Labyrinth of No End (although one of the items mentioned is a bell that signifies when the ‘correct’ route is taken), and the soundtrack is a refreshingly-pleasant collection of earworms that will stay for decades, arranging the Feng Shui of your brain into a place it’ll want to return to decades later. And that’s the game.
I had to refresh half-memorised coin locations, re-learn that cruel endless maze of a last level, reinvent boss strategies and overwrite some lapsed muscle-memory to beat this a couple of decades after-the-fact, but I’m so totally glad I have. Wonder Boy in Monster Land is the kinda guy it’s nice to hang around with again, and wonder if their sense of humour was always pushing the line so much.
I’d recommend it, insofar as it’s not going to be an easy run-through, but it’ll be a rewarding ‘congratulations’ screen to earn after that dragon is defeated; after the Labyrinth of No End is committed to memory, after the Great Catfish is satisfied with your running around picking up breadcrumbs, after you’ve drank enough ale to know what the Sphinx’ favourite Master System game is. Because sometimes a game’s gotta be cruel to be kind.