Few video game characters have as confusingly twisted a history as Wonder Boy, whose games either came without numbers (see the second game in the series: Wonder Boy in Monster Land) or were numbered, but shared numbers with other, completely different entries in the series (examples: Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap and Wonder Boy III: Monster Lair). Due to confusing rights issues, the series even spun off onto different consoles under a completely different name, with a completely different protagonist in the Aventure Island series. There’s even been a spiritual sequel in the form of Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom, which updates the Wonder Boy series for a new generation – using familiar visuals, audio and character designs – but of course, without being able to use the actual name of the main character. It’s quite the effort to untangle.
Despite this, the Wonder Boy games have generally been excellent examples of arcade gaming – from the fast, simple jump-and-run caveman antics of the first game – and pseudo-RPG platform hack-and-slash (see pretty much any other game in the series). Some of my earliest and fondest memories of arcade gaming are due to the first two games, Wonder Boy and Wonder Boy in Monster Land; together, they were responsible for my desire to get a Sega Master System in the late 80s, which ended up being my first video games console – I haven’t missed a single console generation since then.
There’s a great deal of enjoyment to be had from the new Wonder Boy Collection on Switch (and it’s also released on PS4), whether you’re new to the series or incredibly familiar with it, as I am.
The arcade immediacy of the first game is still incredibly appealing; the bright, colourful visuals and maddeningly earwormy music are absolutely iconic and despite a high challenge – which is typical of arcade games of the era, of course – it’s an incredibly addictive game (again: much like many arcade games of the mid-80s!).
Wonder Boy in Monster Land trades some of that immediacy for a deeper experience – complete with shops that allow you to buy equipment upgrades, get useless advice or purchase spells – that somehow feels less appealing than the previous game from a visual point of view, but excels as a longer term, more varied experience. At a very specific point in my childhood, Wonder Boy in Monster Land was the pinnacle of video game design in my opinion – and, fun fact, was the very first game I ever completed – but it’s been far surpassed by hundreds of other games, even later games in the Wonder Boy series.
Speaking of which, the third game in the collection is Wonder Boy in Monster World, which feels like the second game dialled up to eleven – unlike Wonder Boy in Monster Land, the pixel art visuals in this game have aged a lot more gracefully and it plays beautifully too.
Finally, there’s Monster World IV – which loses the ‘Wonder Boy in…’ part of the title, because it doesn’t even feature the usual series protagonist! Again, an evolution of the side-scrolling, light-RPG formula, Monster World IV is a visually stunning example of mid-90s pixel art with some beautiful presentation and excellent gameplay, starring a female playable character named Asha.
With all four of these games being excellent in their own right, surely that makes the Wonder Boy Collection an instant and unequivocal recommend from me, right? Not quite. The problem with the Wonder Boy Collection is that, despite featuring four excellent examples of the Wonder Boy games, it feels a little thin on the ground for its price. Don’t get me wrong – the games here will likely last you quite a while if you’re trying to work your way through all four of them; content-wise they can’t be faulted – but there are so many more games, even versions of each game, that could and should have been included.
The price – despite the collection featuring very good, incredibly useful features such as save states and rewinds, along with a gorgeous, though limited, art gallery – seems very steep for a very small collection of games that are now 28 and 34 years old. What sticks in the craw most is that a much more complete collection of the Wonder Boy games is on the way, but it’s available only as a limited, physical edition that costs twice as much as this collection even in its most basic form.
Fans of the series are likely to have played these games to death, either on their original formats or in the many re-releases they’ve had over the years on a variety of different formats. Sure, they haven’t been collected together in one place before as far as I know (and may not have had the basic quality-of-life improvements such as the aforementioned saves states and rewind features), but still – £24.99 is a lot to ask for these four games.
That said, if you’re a fan and you can’t get enough of the Wonder Boy games – which admittedly fill me with the warmest glow of nostalgia – then it’s a great way to revisit these old games in their original forms, with progression made a bit less punishing than it was back in the day. Those fans, however, would admittedly be much better served by the limited edition collection due later this year, though may have already missed out on pre-ordering it, sadly – potentially leaving this Wonder Boy Collection as the only option. They’re great games and it’s good to see them again, but it’s just a shame it feels like there’s massive gaps in the selection on offer.
Many thanks to PR Hound for providing me with a code for Wonder Boy Collection for review purposes. Wonder Boy Collection is released on the 3rd of June 2022 for PS4 and Switch.
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