I spent the best part of 1989 and 1990 being absolutely obsessed with the second Wonder Boy game, Wonder Boy in Monster Land. I’d played it on one of my all-too-rare trips to the seaside, in one of the arcades that were absolutely thriving in coastal towns back then. I can’t say for sure which town it was (Clacton, perhaps? Southend? Either of those two are the likeliest culprits), nor which arcade it was I found it in.

The first game: Wonder Boy

I had played the first and – though it did make an impression on me, being a great, albeit very basic, arcade platformer in its own right – it didn’t blow my mind in the way the second game did (though I must make a massive shout out to the music, which was infectiously bouncy and is one of those tunes that is forever stuck in my head!). So much changed for the sequel and – especially by the standards of arcade games at the time – it felt like it had an incredible depth, given that you could enter shops to buy potions and spells or purchase armour, shields, swords and even boots to improve your abilities. Weary players could even visit the hospital to heal their wounds or visit the pub for some advice from the smoking pig landlord. For its time, it really was a satisfyingly rich experience.

The arcade version

The game sees players cast once more as Wonder Boy, of course, who – instead of having the then-standard video game mission of rescuing a kidnapped girlfriend – sets off to free the land from the tyranny of an evil dragon. Along the way, you’ll encounter hostile wildlife (the crabs and octopi seem to have been a recurring motif in the series) and a number of challenging bosses.

The Master System version’s title screen

There are a great deal of secrets to be found; often loot hidden in otherwise inconspicuous places on screen – jump in the right place and a coin may appear. If you’re lucky, it’ll be a heavier, more valuable bag of cash instead.

Though the basics are the same, there are differences between the arcade version (which I only played once) and the Sega Master System port, which I played to death for months on end. The screen layout is the most obvious; the graphics and sound are more simplistic in general too, somewhat understandably. I do recall on the Master System version that – although the graphics were relatively basic – the colours were absolutely beautiful; it felt like a very warm, summery game and what we’d now refer to as Sega blue skies were here in abundance.

The music is incredibly memorable; perhaps this is just because of how much I obsessively played the game, but it’s indelibly imprinted on my brain – and I was blown away when a similar musical motif was used in the recent love letter to Wonder Boy, Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom.

There’s some really solid platforming to be had too. It’s tough, however – and can be particularly punishing at points. As you get knocked back upon being hit, it can feel quite harsh when you fall from a precarious position on a small platform, only to be knocked into further danger below.

Unfortunately, there’s no ‘Melvin the Grim Reaper’ option.

Bosses have patterns that are generally easy to learn, though that doesn’t make them simple to defeat. You’ll face off against Grim Reaper-style boss creatures and Giant Squids, just as a few examples, before you get to tackle the nasty Dragon at the game’s climax.

The Lizard Man form in Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap

There’s been a resurgence of interest in Wonder Boy in recent years; he always felt as if he could have been the Master System’s mascot if it weren’t for the first contender for that title, Alex Kidd – or a certain blue hedgehog who, though making his name on the Mega Drive, featured in a number of excellent Master System titles too. I think that Wonder Boy, particularly on the strength of his second and third games (Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap is a very fondly remembered game, with game mechanics we now refer to as Metroidvania – and the first example of the main character swapping between animal forms) more than deserves this recognition.

There’s not been the same love shown for Wonder Boy in Monster Land that other early games in the series have received. The first game has had the remake treatment in the form of Wonder Boy Returns (which hasn’t been particularly well received, being a very basic game in a number of ways) and the third game has seen an absolutely beautiful remaster, with Lizardcube’s Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap having a gorgeous, hand-drawn animation style. The gameplay and level design absolutely shines in Wonder Boy III, regardless of the version played, but I’d argue that Wonder Boy in Monster Land also deserves a lovingly updated version too.

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Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom

I mentioned Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom, which does feature a number of similar elements to Wonder Boy in Monster Land – including the enemies and music, for example – but this does also add the animal-switching from Wonder Boy III, so it’s by no means a remake; it’s more of a tribute to the series as a whole. Special mention must also go to the gorgeous visuals of Monster Boy, which employs a similar but not identical 2D animation style to the Wonder Boy III remaster.

Wonder Boy in Monster World (Mega Drive/Genesis)

Though other games followed the original trilogy, I never felt that they were able to capture the same magic. In some cases, that was through overcomplicating the original concept or having an entirely different style (or just plain boring level design in some cases), but regardless of the reason, the series (until Monster Boy, at least) has never managed to reach the heady heights of Monster Land or Wonder Boy III, in my opinion.

Knock knock knocking on Dragon’s door

I spent a number of months playing Wonder Boy in Monster Land from beginning to end; it was the first game I ever saw the ending sequence for. It was quite a challenge – especially given the labyrinth structure of the final level, the design of which was a popular choice for game creators in the late 80s and early 90s in extending the length and challenge of levels. Once the correct route through the level was memorised, however, it was easier to get through it on subsequent playthroughs.

Though the graphics are basic (albeit still appealingly colourful and charming) and the depth in the mechanics of visiting shops and talking to the inhabitants is now about as deep as a puddle, I’ll always have a soft spot for the little blonde hero. Hundreds, if not thousands, of other games have caught my attention in the years since I played through Wonder Boy in Monster Land – but few others have captured my heart in the same way.

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