Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Wonderboy in Monsterland (Bikkuriman World)

Westone/Hudson Soft - 1987 - Japan

I have a strong sentimental attachment to this one, so it’s hard to know if nostalgia is clouding my judgement. Wonderboy in Monsterland (otherwise known as Bikkuriman World) is a game I’ve had for many many years, and it also happened to be my first-ever Japanese import for the Turbo.

The second game in an extremely confusing series, this is the only entry of all the titles ported to the Turbo that didn’t get an official US release. Despite this, an independent party released a translation at some point so the game is playable in full English if you’ve got a flash cart.

This guy bears an uncanny resemblence to the hero of the fifth adventure, Dynastic Hero.

As if this all wasn’t enough, Monsterland also happens to be the very first game ever released for the console and sure did a lot to pave the way for many more arcade-accurate ports down the road. Wonderboy in Monsterland saw an almost pixel-perfect port to the home system, and if it wasn’t for the changing of a few bosses due to licensing issues with SEGA, I’d say it’d rank in the top 3 arcades ports in the vast Duo library. But Monsterland’s blessing is also it’s Achilles' heel.

The quarter-eating arcade gameplay mechanics of the time were left unchanged for this home version, and it’s very very evident after playing for only a short time. You have only one life; when your “heart meter” runs out, you might as well stick the fork in-- you’re done. This makes the game feel a little difficult at first, but after a few runs you’ll get the hang of things.

One of the cooler looking bosses, despite being stupidly easy.

Monsterland expands on the mindless platforming of its predecessor by adding shops & RPG elements to the gameplay. (The original Wonderboy was a vanilla run-and-jump affair, see New Adventure Island for a psuedo-port of that one.) You upgrade your boots, weapons, and armor bought with money you acquire from the skeletons you slay and the snakes you slice. You’ll go from town to island to town, visiting shops and talking with the locals. Listen to what they say-- they’ll give you hints about secret items that will make the final battle quite a bit easier.

Curious how your hair mysteriously turns from brown to blonde as soon as you acquire the Legendary Equipment.

The late ‘80s were a transition time for video games-- 16-bit graphics were new on the scene, but the gameplay remained strictly 8-bit. Monsterland is a perfect specimen from this era. Aesthetics are primitive by an 16-bit standard, but still better than anything an 8-bit system could crank out, with shading much too deep for a paltry 16-color pallete. The music in Monsterland ranges from average to excellent. Two tunes here will be very familiar for anyone who’s played the fourth game in the series (Dragon’s Curse). Most of the stuff is really good, but there is one song in particular that can be a little grating.

I’ve probably played Monsterland about half as many times as I’ve played Space Harrier, which means that I’ve still played it about 2,803,927,347,623 more times than any other game. One thing that still disappoints me though are the changes they made to the boss characters. To understand the reasoning for this you have to understand what happened with this series of games. The games were initially developed by Westone for SEGA. With the rights to this and the first Wonderboy game, SEGA was feeling particularly stingy but only actually owned the boss characters as intellectual property. So Westone went ahead and licensed the game to Hudson Soft anyway, with the stipulation they had to use different characters to avoid copyright infringement. In almost every case the new boss is entirely inferior to it’s arcade counterpart. The one single exception is this guy who breaths flames of awesomeness all over you:

Wonderboy in Monsterland sure brings a lot more to the table than its predecessor, but I’d be a fool to try and convince anyone it was the best the series had to offer. Newcomers would probably do better to start with the fourth game in the series, Dragon’s Curse, which actually is the direct followup to Monsterland and unquestionably the strongest game in the series (Wonderboy 3: Monster Lair is an unrelated standalone affair.... Confused yet?). Nevertheless, Wonderboy in Monsterland is a game I’ll forever have a fond place for in my heart and one that I’ll return to time and time again because as much as I play it, it never gets old.

Fans of Dragon's Curse might be thinking this looks a little familiar....

...yes, definitely looking familiar...

You probably already know how this battle ends.

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