Wonder Boy Anniversary Collection (NS) - ReviewEvan Norris , posted on 06 February 2023 / 1,605 Views
"Wonderboy, what is the secret of your power?" It's difficult to play through any Wonder Boy title — let alone an entire collection — and not think of the lyrics to "Wonderboy", the 2001 ballad by rock duo Tenacious D. And while Jack Black and Kyle Gass weren't able to divulge the secret, perhaps developers Bliss Brain and Ratalaika Games can help explain the enduring popularity of the Wonder Boy franchise, by way of the Wonder Boy Anniversary Collection, which pulls together six games in the long-running series represented across 21 iterations, and tacks on bonus content & quality-of-life upgrades.
Included in the Wonder Boy Anniversary Collection are six games, which, due to a convoluted naming and numbering history, demand a brief primer. The first game in the anthology is the original arcade side-scrolling platformer Wonder Boy (1986). Also included is that game's arcade sequel, Wonder Boy in Monster Land (1987), which embraced action-RPG gameplay. Up next is Wonder Boy III: Monster Lair (1988), an auto-scrolling arcade title that's part platformer, part horizontal shoot-'em-up. Fourth on the list is the Metroidvania Wonder Boy III: The Dragon's Trap (1989), the first game in the franchise designed from the ground up on console and by far the best entry in the collection. That's followed by another console entry, Wonder Boy in Monster World (1991), a Genesis/Mega Drive action-RPG. Last but not least is the action-platformer Monster World IV (1994), the final Wonder Boy title published by Sega and produced by original developer Westone.
With that out of the way, let's talk about the quality of the games. Wonder Boy, the premier game, is probably the happiest surprise of the collection. Although it's the oldest and arguably "simplest" of the series, it's unexpectedly addictive. There's a breezy accessibility to the game that makes it perfect as a pick-up-and-play score-chaser. Its sequel, Wonder Boy in Monster Land, fares worse, unfortunately. While the game features an interesting medieval world filled with adventure and secrets, it's ultimately undone by its punishing difficulty.
The final arcade title, Wonder Boy III: Monster Lair, is a bit of an oddity in the franchise, but not in a bad way. Each of its 14 auto-scrolling levels are split into two parts: the first is a traditional side-scrolling platformer where the heroes run and jump from left to right; the second is a horizontal shooter in which the heroes move in eight directions atop dragon mounts. While the game overstays its welcome — due to repetitive action and overall length — it remains a decent experience. Plus, it's the only entry in Wonder Boy Anniversary Collection to feature two-player co-op gameplay.
The other game to bear the Wonder Boy III moniker, Wonder Boy III: The Dragon's Trap, is the crown jewel of the collection. Picking up where Wonder Boy in Monster Land left off, it follows a cursed hero who attempts to regain his human form. Thanks to its gorgeous 8-bit graphics, catchy music, and engaging Metroidvania gameplay focused around animal transformations, it remains the peak of the early Wonder Boy series and, arguably, the best Sega Master System (SMS) game ever made.
While the remaining games, Wonder Boy in Monster World and Monster World IV, don't hit the same highs of The Dragon's Trap, they're entertaining in their own ways. Wonder Boy in Monster World is a solid action-adventure game with tight controls, crisp graphics, and interesting level and enemy designs, while Monster World IV is a charming action-platformer with a big personality that's let down somewhat by overlong, repetitive dungeons.
If the Wonder Boy Anniversary Collection included only these six games, which cover the entire Wonder Boy canon between 1986 and 1994, it would represent an attractive proposition. Yet the collection doesn't stop there. Each game comes with one or more regional and/or system variations, totalling 21 different versions. Not every version is worthwhile of course — the SG-1000 port of Wonder Boy is an unsightly, choppy mess — but many do make a difference. The SMS port of Wonder Boy has new levels, revised controls, and a streamlined HUD, for example. The home version of Wonder Boy in Monster Land simplifies boss attack patterns and nerfs enemy attacks, making for a more tolerable experience — at least until the last dungeon. Finally, the Japanese iteration of Wonder Boy in Monster World has a small, but significant change: a far easier final boss. Defeating the boss in the English version, even with save states and rewind, is something only the most skilled and masochistic players will accomplish.
Speaking of save states and rewind, they come standard on every version of every game in the collection. All the typical Ratalaika Games bells and whistles are here, in fact. These include control mapping, display and filter options, and a remarkably deep CRT shader framework. In addition, just as it did in the Turrican Anthology, Ratalaika added stage maps in the options menu that survey each level in the game, allowing players to spot secrets and alternative paths if they hit a wall in the campaign. There are also game-exclusive bonus items, like enhanced controls in Wonder Boy or an enhanced palette in the SMS port of Wonder Boy in Monster World, which changes the color scheme to more closely match the 16-bit original.
Finally, the collection features a lovely gallery filled with illustrations, flyers, development material, box and cartridge art, and several full game manuals. A "How to Play" feature in the options menu would have been appreciated — especially for some of the more complex titles — but the original manuals mostly fill that void. Unfortunately, since Monster World IV didn't get a proper English launch, the only manual available is in Japanese.
The one big thing missing from the bonus section is a music player, which would represent a fun way to revisit some of the best tunes from the series. The soundtrack from The Dragon's Trap demands to be listened to again and again.
In terms of performance and presentation, the Wonder Boy Anniversary Collection mostly hits the marks. All the games seem perfectly emulated, except for one minor exception in both versions of Monster Lair where, at the moment, it's impossible to fly diagonally using the left stick in the shoot-'em-up stages (the d-pad works flawlessly, thankfully). There's also slowdown toward the end of Wonder Boy on SMS and during simultaneous two-player action in Monster Lair on SMS, but I suspect that was present in the originals. Other than that, there are a few typos that make the operation seem a tad disorganized: "everal" instead of "Several", "Aacade" instead of "Arcade", "Taiking" instead of "Talking", etc.
While it's fairly easy to measure the collection's performance, it's trickier to evaluate its value proposition. It really depends on what you already own. If you're starting your adventure in the Wonder Boy franchise from scratch, this is arguably the single best option for you in spite of its hefty $50 price tag, since it includes all the original games, plenty of console ports, and lots of nifty bonus options. If, however, you've already splurged on last year's Wonder Boy Collection — which includes four of the six games offered here — and also own the glorious 2017 remake of The Dragon's Trap, then you can probably skip this newest anthology.
Speaking of that 2022 Wonder Boy Collection, it signals a trend by which publisher ININ releases an entry-level collection first, followed roughly a year later by a complete set. It happened with Turrican Flashback in 2021 and Turrican Anthology Volume I and II in 2022, and it repeated itself with Wonder Boy Collection in 2022 and Wonder Boy Anniversary Collection in 2023. For the completionists out there: moving forward, consider waiting for all digital versions to be announced before making your final purchase.
So, what is the secret of the power of Wonder Boy? Judging from the six games on offer in this collection, it's a combination of accessible arcade action, bright graphics, and delightful fantasy worlds. Sure, not every game in the original series is outstanding — The Dragon's Trap is the only game I'd call great — but they're all worth trying for narrative, gameplay, or audiovisual purposes. And, because of the Wonder Boy Anniversary Collection, they've never been more accessible or configurable. Indeed, thanks to the inclusion of six games, 21 total game variants, quality-of-life upgrades, and bonus features, this feels like the definitive compilation of Wonder Boy titles, unlikely to be dethroned anytime soon.
This review is based on a digital copy of Wonder Boy Anniversary Collection for the NS, provided by the publisher.
I've never played a Wonder Boy game so this collection interests me. I'd like to at least try the Dragon's Trap remake.
Oh you should ! I really loved the remake's artsyle. So charming and hitting the right type of color and animations .
+The fact you can switch to the original's graphic in a split second is just icing on the cake
I love games with a vibrant artstyle! It's on my backlog/wishlist. I just need to get around to playing it lol
I love this anniversary collection and would definitely recommend it over the previous collection, although you make a strong point for those who already own that paired with the Dragon's Trap remake; especially when this collection is $50.
Fortunately, I skipped the first one and this collection having so many different versions gives me my preferred SMS port of Wonder Boy in Monster Land and includes Monster Lair as well. I do wish the TurboGrafx-16/CD games could have been included - if only to have the awesome Dragon's Curse, but what's here is great as I enjoy many versions of all six games and the QoL additions make them even better and more accessible.
If you're a fan and you see it on sale, pick it up for sure.
I am totally with you on preferring the SMS port of Wonder Boy in Monster Land. I just wish it had continues or a password feature.
Enjoyed this series for years and I'm still in shock in the past 6-7 years of all series to get a revival Wonderboy would be last on the list of expected ones.
I still have Dragon's Trap with my Master System and have tried some others on emulators, so I'm certainly considering getting this - at least later on sale. (I avoid spending much on games.)