Sometimes a special game can feel intrinsically tied to the narrative of our personal lives. Daniel Driver recalls how his quest in Wonder Boy in Monster World became a real-world race against time.
Whether in gaming, or in that chaotic plane some may wearily refer to as ‘reality’, there are few thrills that exceed beholding something from a far-away land – experiencing something exotic and foreign that would have required a considerable journey for it to stand before you.
In this case, the Japanese Mega Drive was different enough to evoke some awe from my nine-year-old self. This was the second time I’d seen one in the flesh, but I was still drawn by its different button colours and giant ‘16-bit’ emblem. Most importantly on this occasion, a cartridge titled Wonder Boy in Monster World stood tall from the slot on its beautiful summit.
I was at a friend’s grandmother’s house and the Mega Drive in question was his uncle’s. We managed a short blast on Wonder Boy while we were there and we were instantly hooked. Our Sega-blue-haired hero, decked out in star-emblazoned legendary armour, was making mincemeat of everything in his path. The cutesy graphics and fun accessible gameplay made this a game we both yearned to play more of.
You have a discriminating eye
On leaving, my friend’s uncle gave us the news we wanted to hear: he’d lend the game to his nephew. But there was a catch; it wasn’t region lockout, which we thought we were fairly au fait with at this point – the cart was actually the PAL version of the game. No, the catch was that we were forbidden from saving a new game.
Wonder Boy in Monster World had only one save slot. Just one file for storing your progress in this vast, epic game. The reason why our blue-haired hero was so immensely powerful was because my buddy’s uncle had raised his legendary sword, stormed the Nightmare Castle, raided it for its top tier items and fought through its labyrinthine innards in a bid to save Monster World once and for all.
Sega Mega Drive
Developer and publisher
Unfortunately he came up short against the dreaded Demon King and his in-game avatar was left with his quest unfulfilled. Deep down, I think he may have hoped that his nephew – with the help of his plucky, goofy sidekick – might have better luck.
Will you continue on your journey in the morning?
The thing was, when we finally bungled our way into the Nightmare Castle we found out how tough the end game really was; twisting, turning mazes that were not unlike the Lost Woods in The Legend of Zelda, where your progress depended on you proceeding along a specific path, while huge, ruthless mobs smothered you and stole your hearts. Finally, there was the multi-headed Demon King himself – a giant foe decked out in impregnable armour who could detach his fire-spewing heads, allowing them to flutter above and rain death upon you.
It was all too much for two boys who’d come into the game this late, akin to taking Usain Bolt’s place in the 100m championships after he’d ran the heats. We were untested, unqualified and had cut out pretty much the whole journey, save the end.
And in gaming, it’s the journey that is important, not the end. Sonic the Hedgehog 2 isn’t one of the greatest games ever created because of its lovely 30-second cut-scene just before the credits; Big Rigs isn’t awful just because it tells you ‘You’re Winner!’ at the finish line. It’s the meat and potatoes before you get to the coffee and biscuits that matters, and with Wonder Boy we’d jumped in halfway through dessert.
It was obvious what we had to do: we had to start from the beginning. Here, the true tale began to unfold; our hero’s name was Shion, and Monster World was a peaceful realm until it was invaded by, er, monsters.
That second part always struck me as odd. Surely naming a region ‘Monster World’ was just asking for trouble? Did the monsters live there before and were displaced? Were they the victims here, returning to take their ancestral home? If not, then why was it called Monster World? If someone called a county Bubonicplagueshire, would anyone be surprised if the Black Death suddenly resurfaced in that region?
Your journey has just begun; please take care
Baffling naming conventions aside, the full scale of our task was laid out before us. Shion was equipped at the start with one of the limpest, shortest swords in gaming – I wouldn’t feel that inadequate in terms of my shaft again until I failed to penetrate anyone in Morrowind. His health was reduced to just three heart containers and he moved with all the grace of a Big Daddy performing a silent retelling of the Bioshock story on ice.
But Shion’s pathetic abilities only served to give us added incentive and the true appeal of Wonder Boy in Monster World began to unfurl. The game was part Zelda with its health measured in hearts, its scope and story, it was part Metroid as the abilities you would gain allowed you to progress to previously inaccessible areas, and it was part traditional RPG with its magic, mana points and various equipment options. Gameplay wise, it was a 2D action RPG platformer that was far more fluid, responsive and satisfying than its nearest analogue, Zelda 2. It all added up to a cutesy, delightful cocktail.
However, we still couldn’t save. We could save the fairy town and defeat the Mushroom hoard there, but we couldn’t save. We could break into Purapril Castle and defeat the Black Knight, but we couldn’t save. We would journey into the Lost Woods in hope of saving the Dwarves therein, but it was in vain as we couldn’t save!
This was made more frustrating for me as I could only play the game at my friend’s house and my visits amounted to just a few hours at a time. Soon after, more manageable games took our game time, while the outside beckoned during the summer. Wonder Boy in Monster World was relegated to the back benches as a wonderful experience but an impossible task.
However, during the last weeks of the holidays I suggested playing the game again. My friend wasn’t so enthused, so he did the most heinous thing someone who has borrowed a game could do: he lent it on once more, to me!
I heard that you’re on a journey
Naturally, I was over the moon! Now I could try to tackle the game myself. Surely I’d be able to clear the game in one afternoon? By this point we’d gotten pretty good at it, but the problem with not being able to save was that you couldn’t continue if you died, so we could clear through the first areas of the game in one sitting. So I thought I’d put those ninja skills to use and try to blast through the game.
So, as usual, I saved the fairies, infiltrated the castle, spoke to the princess and made my way to Lilypad – the Dwarf village – through the jungle whose masked natives and tar pits would always hit my health hard. Reaching Lilypad was a relief in itself. Dragging my battered avatar to safety I made the Inn my priority, to rest and restore those precious, precious hearts. As always, rest, don’t save, and continue the journey. Again; rest, don’t save, and continue the journey.
“Welcome to our Inn. Here you can get a good night’s sleep. Will you be staying the night?” Yes.
“Would you like to save your game?” Yes.
Wait! Yes?! I meant no! Oh crap.
I was horrified. I’d broken the golden rule, I’d overwritten the save file of the game my friend had lent to me, that his uncle had lent to him. What could I do? I couldn’t give it back in this state, still on the third area of the game with my sword upgraded only once up from the equivalent of a twig. The pressure was on now, I had to get back to where the game was saved when I got it.
There may be something there for you
In another way, I had an advantage that I previously didn’t have. I could now use the save feature fully which made the game a lot easier. But I didn’t have much time; the school holidays were almost up and my friend was already asking when I could give the game back.
Fuelled by cups of tea and Maryland cookies I dedicated my time to the game, which proved to be more vast and challenging than I’d initially hope. After a few attempts I finally defeated the jungle boss who dominated game’s cover art, saving Lilypad. My adventures would take me to underwater temples, searing deserts, snowy wastelands and dragon-filled kingdoms. Yes, it was a little cliché, but each area was so lovingly created that I couldn’t help but allow my enjoyment of the game turn into a full-blown love affair.
The game was beautiful. The graphics were perfectly realised and suited the game well. More importantly, there was a palpable sense of achievement from progress, particularly as Shion wielded more and more powerful weapons and armour.
A lovely touch was the companions you would recruit to help with the region-specific dungeons. Each one was very different, assisting the hero with their diverse range of abilities. These included Hotta, a young dwarf who smashed doors and uncovered geysers of gold coins; Priscilla, the fairy who found heart refills and bashed foes on the head with her wand with hilarious ineptitude; and an unnamed dragon hatchling, a cute-as-a-button reptile sidekick who spat scorching flames at your enemies.
Each realm also yielded its own trinket for our valiant hero to keep. That feeling of holding something rare and exotic – whether it was the Fairies’ ocarina, Poseidon’s trident or armour from the pygmy people – was incredible, and each served as a unique and interesting souvenir from my travels, proof of my journey and the trials I had faced and conquered with Shion.
After a week or so I finally reached the Nightmare Castle and could breathe a sigh of relief. I’d done it, I could return the game to my friend, he could pass it back to his uncle and no one would be any the wiser. Except, why stop here? Hardened from the repeat play of both the early and end game, I blitzed through the castle, fought the demon king… and died.
Undeterred, I challenged again, knowing I could win. I wasn’t the same wide-eyed nine-year-old I was when I first played the game. I’d seen things, man! I’d riddled with Sphinxes, I’d explored the bottom of the ocean, I’d shrunk to enter a volcano and fought the gargantuan dragon therein, and I wasn’t about to let some chump with a trio of furry heads stop me now!
There were many attempts, but I’ll never forget the moment I defeated him. As he exploded and melted into someone I didn’t expect, his true identity laid bare, the biggest twist was that it wasn’t the end. One more foe lay waiting – in space!?
I won’t spoil the very end, dear reader, but eventually this final foe was defeated and the credits rolled as I sat back in satisfaction. This would be my most epic journey on the Mega Drive at that point, having lived purely on a diet of platformers, brawlers and shooters. This was the only game to offer an experience like a certain Zelda game a friend had shown me on a SNES a year before. The only problem was that the adventure was over, my in-game quest and real-world dilemma had been solved, and now I had to hand the passport to Monster World back to its rightful owner.
It’s been years since we had a visitor
Many years later, thanks to the wonders of the internet and digital distribution, I revisited Monster World, and I still do. The game has lost none of its charm. Graphically, it may be simplistic, but it works, the doe-eyed characters fitting the tone perfectly. The game still feels slick and responsive to play, with accurate and satisfying collision detection. Even as an Action Role Player, it may be simple, but there’s still a thrill in upgrading your gear; buying boots that make you run faster and jump higher, finding weapons that let you hit harder, and learning spells that add new dimensions to Shion’s attacks.
And the music, oh the music! Whether it’s the whimsical village theme, the charming Dragon Town tune or the epic heavy metal of Sky Castle, the score to this game is sublime and full of memorable pieces.
It truly was a timeless package then and one that is now available on a variety of platforms for almost nothing, so if you’re a fan of platformers, adventure games, Zelda, RPGs or all of the above, I urge you to give it a try.
For me, the full, physical Mega Drive copy of Wonder Boy in Monster World is something I have never owned myself, having only once held and played it in that summer of 1993, when my biggest concern was someone else’s save file. While I own the game digitally, the original cartridge remains something exotic, a reminder of a small but memorable adventure and a trinket that always seems just out of my reach.
- A delicious blend of platforming, role-playing action
- A sizeable quest in an engaging and varied world
- Wonderful soundtrack with some beautiful tunes
- Various weapons and spells to master
- Charming graphical style
- Only one save file!
- Story feels like it needs to be fleshed out a little more
- Steep learning curve
Wonder Boy in Monster World is a wonderful adventure that often seems to be overlooked. Action role-playing platformers don’t come more polished or well-rounded than this.