The Sega Megadrive didn’t have a massive amount of RPGs available to its users. In fact once you’d completed the Phantasy Star and Shining Force series you’d be hard pressed to find another genuinely brilliant franchise. This is where the Monster World series steps in, bringing with it a rarer take on the concept of an RPG, the RPG/Platformer fusion.
Monster World and Wonder Boy in general has a random and detailed history that’s seen its games reskinned, republished and renamed in different regions which makes it hard to exactly follow the chronology of the games. It’s easy to say however that a straight line of games collated into the Sega Ages Collection can be put together into a 6 game series that starts with Wonder Boy and ends with Monster World IV. Some games are more closely tied than others, but ultimately what you’ll take away from the series is a form of prototype metroidvannia where games are a little more linear but centre on unlocking powers to forward gameplay. If the Megadrive did anything well it was platformers, and so this instalment is a perfect fit.
Graphically the game uses a vibrant and colourful selection of 2D sprites and locations that pushes the 16-bit console’s colour pallet as far as it can go. Characters are squat and resemble a ‘chibi’ style of character, whilst monsters feature a certain cute charm. The top quarter of the screen contains all of the relevant data for the player, including a life bar and display for your magic spells. It’s a little chunky, taking away from the full immersion into the game world, but the lower half of the screen and its greater segment is made up of the game world itself and looks amazing.
Sound and music are a little weak, the game tries hard but never manages to get as much out of the limited capacity that the Megadrive was capable of when placed against the titles mentioned above, but it does play to its strengths. Looping tunes are long enough that they don’t grate on the nerves and sounds used for jumping and slashing are extremely satisfying. Clever use of sound as part of the games design includes a few puzzles where you need to mirror tunes, which was quite daring for the time.
Story is quite light at the outset of the game. Shion, also known as Wonder Boy lives in a land called Monster World that has recently begun to flood with a violent army of monsters under the control of an unknown mastermind. The people cry out for a hero and he answers that call, starting from his home and journeying to the castle, capital city and all of the way to the final boss. In the UK a weekly publication called Sonic the Comic ran two stories spread across eight issues that concentrated on elements of his adventure in more detail and I strongly recommend you check them out if you ever get the chance.
Gameplay is relatively simple. There is a child-like charm to the Monster World series in general and it’s played up by the use of visually interesting and diverse locations that need child-like logic to proceed. Sometimes as an adult player you can over-think puzzles, but the solution normally only requires the use of direct logic. Need to enter a pyramid? Find a Dwarf to smash the wall! Want to open a locked door? Use the handy musical pads to play the tune to open it. Running and jumping are present as stables of the platform genre, but you can also slash with a number of weapons of different reach and crawl along the ground. Magic can be found in chests and equipped to lay some serious damage down onto enemies, and shops sell better gear such as boots to increase jump height and stronger shields or armour. You don’t level up in Monster World, although your inventory does expand as you explore and purchase better items to improve yourself. You also occasionally form parties of two with an AI companion along for the journey. These are great because they add additional puzzle solving potential and help in combat in a number of ways. A fairy recruited early can conjure up health items, stun enemies and spot things you can’t for example. Dungeon design is quite tight and although the platforming elements never tax you to an extreme the game does begin to throw more at you as you progress and ends with a tricky boss battle over multiple forms.
Overall, Wonder Boy in Monster World is a great little game, especially when played using a controller. If you can’t find it on its original system it’s been ported to PSN, Playstation 3, Wii Virtual Console and several other incarnations (as well as being reskinned into the Dynastic Hero). It may not be the most deep RPG you’ll ever play, but the design of the overall journey is produced in such a way that the player becomes keenly invested in Shion’s travels.