The latter years of Sega’s Mega Drive were a tumultuous time. With the looming threat of 32-bit powerhouse consoles on the horizon, to a casual observer, you would have been forgiven to think that the days of 16-bit were nigh. Despite this, 1994 proved to be one hell of a year for Sega, with releases of platform defining titles still coming thick and fast, such as the likes of Earthworm Jim, Sonic 3 (and Knuckles) and Dynamite Headdy making waves with their high-quality releases and demonstrated mastery of hardware.
However, things were about to change. The Sega Saturn was due to launch in Japan that same year, which meant a great many things. Games were about to dry up for the 16-Bit hardware, developers would push their efforts onto the newer, shinier hardware and the plucky world of 2D gaming was soon not going to cut it for most people. This left Sega of Japan in a bit of a conundrum, for all the projects that were in the works or just completed at the time, would you spend your efforts on localising certain games for a western audience or do you instead focus on catering for the new hardware so that there is content on and around launch?
Couple this with the famous selectiveness of the western wings of Sega during this era and you have two very good reasons why we didn’t see some games make it across the Pacific. One of the famous omissions from a western release was Monster World IV , a sequel to the well-loved Wonder Boy series that had been challenging gamers since 1986 with its arcade mix of platforming and RPG-lite mechanics. Decades passed after the initial 1994 release, it wasn’t until 2012 that we would receive a localised port of the game, thanks to the advent of the Wii Virtual Console service, XBLA and the PSN store on PS3. This introduced western gamers to the title, but now Monster World IV returns in the form of Wonder Boy: Asha in Monster World, a fully remade rendition of the original game. This remake was created by Artdink with publishing duties going to Inin games. This is the latest in the series to get an airing, with a remaster of Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap and a spiritual successor called Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom being released recently.
Despite growing up as a Sega fan in my formative years, I freely admit that the Wonder Boy series passed me by. Like a great many UK based Sega fans, the RPG genre was something that felt a bit off limits to me, with no help from Sega who focussed primarily on arcade action titles in the UK. Although, not that I was complaining with my copy of Afterburner II or Streets of Rage. So, going into Wonder Boy: Asha in Monster World (Hereby shortened to Wonder Boy: Asha) I felt a bit daunted, as if there would be some sort of impenetrable wall of mechanics to learn or years of story to make up for. Thankfully, despite being the fourth main entry (sixth in the series) Wonder Boy: Asha is a self-contained narrative that can be enjoyed with no prior knowledge of the series.
As the title suggests, you take control of Asha, a young warrior who wishes to do nothing more than to save the world (of course). To do this, she must venture forth and rescue four spirits that have been imprisoned by an unseen evil, which has unleashed a myriad of monstrous creatures which have been attacking the local townsfolk. The plot is as simplistic as the gameplay, which sees Asha adventuring through 2D landscapes or dungeons with basic swordplay and Zelda style puzzles which range from manipulating the environment to simply clearing rooms full of monsters to progress. There is also the focus on exploration, whether that be in the hub town or when adventuring through dungeons. Wonder Boy: Asha incentivises the player to talk to everyone and search each room, either rewarding the player with secret, life-saving items or opening up the ability to purchase better and stronger weapons or gear.
Shortly into the game, Asha is joined by a small creature known as a Pepelogoo, a blob/rabbit like flying creature that acts as both a platforming aid and puzzle solving companion. Pepelogoo allows Asha to double jump, or slowly descend from tall areas with a flap of its ears. The critter is also capable of assisting Asha with puzzles that involve extreme heat or cold, either acting as a shield from raining fireballs in one section or being frozen in another in aid to act as a platform for Asha to ascend to new areas. Out of all things I enjoyed in Wonder Boy: Asha, it was this creature, both for being a cute ball of fluff, but also for all its versatility with getting around the platforming sections.
To those reading this from a 2021 perspective, where indie games have done all of the above with far more complexity over the years, it can seem like there is not much to see in Wonder Boy: Asha. However, this simplicity is part of the charm. It feels far purer as a game, ignoring the flashiness and the ‘look at what we can do now’ of modern retro styled titles. Of course, there are some concessions made to the original version for the game to meet a modern viewpoint. These come in the form of quality-of-life improvements which fans will either appreciate or absolutely despise, depending on who you ask.
These concessions come mostly in the form of the revamped exploration in the main town hub. Previously in the 16-Bit Monster World IV, you had to explore the town and attached castle by a series of jumping puzzles and obscure routes to discover all the secrets. Instead, Wonder Boy: Asha features a shifting foreground/background mechanics that allows Asha to explore more seamlessly. A lot of the mindless ambling has been removed from the original game as a result, especially considering that key items in your inventory will now interact with the intended McGuffins without the player having to dip into the pause menu each time, which helps keeps the game’s pace up throughout its four-hour lifespan.
I say that fans may not like this however as it does seemingly remove a lot of those head scratching moments from the original 16-Bit release, where you would run around town and try each item on each thing until you figure out how to progress. I much prefer the modern option however, it keeps things moving and while it has removed some of those puzzles, it hasn’t completely eradicated those moments where you need to think or talk to villagers before working things out, if anything it just makes for a more streamlined experience.
In addition to these gameplay tweaks, the folks at Artdink have done an excellent job of realising the world of Wonder Boy: Asha with a modern twist. The mix of cel-shaded character art and the simplified 3D world looks great in action, with the charmingly expressive Asha and Pepelogoo being given time to shine with even more detail than could have been afforded back in 1994. It’s quite something when you look back at the original release, which is provided if you purchase physical edition of Wonder Boy: Asha. As playing one version, then the other shows just how far we have come in terms of character expression and how adding a few extra frames of animation helps apply more personality to our heroes. It’s just a shame that this game did not follow the same style as previous rereleases in the Wonder Boy Series. I would have loved to have seen the game replicated with higher detailed hand drawn art. However, this is not a deal breaker, as the presented alternative is still very pleasing to the eye.
Another area that sees an improvement is the within the soundtrack department. These are lifted directly from the 16-Bit original but have been given instrumental arrangements that fit each area appropriately. Now, you must consider that this music is from an original Mega Drive title, so your enjoyment of this will be based on your tolerance levels of repeating themes, particularly with this game as Wonder Boy: Asha makes use of leitmotif which can make the soundtrack seem a bit samey throughout. To my taste, I was a fan of the theme and how it was used, particularly for the volcanic dungeon early in the adventure.
Overall, Wonder Boy: Asha in Monster World is a great retread of the forgotten classic title and a worthy addition to any Sega fan’s collection. The extra steps to bring the title into the current year are appreciated and the updated graphics and soundtrack are lovingly recreated in this simple and charming adventure.
As a bonus to those that buy the physical release of Wonder Boy: Asha in Monster World also receive an emulated version of the original Monster World IV. Currently, this is the only way in which to get the original version on PS4 or PS5 so it is worth considering if you are either a fan or you want to see first-hand how the remake stacks up with the original. During my playthrough, I switched between the two versions as I completed the first few dungeons, and I was genuinely impressed at how much had been considered and addressed in Artdink’s remake. It is also a way in which to appreciate what many consider to be an underappreciated classic, one that injected a ton of personality and great gameplay into such a small package.
+ Quality of life improvements that remove a lot of the gameplay roadblocks from the original version
+ The added save anywhere feature makes the game much more accessible
- The soundtrack Leitmotif is repetitive and will grate on some players
- Fans of Dotemu’s Wonder Boy III remake may be a bit put out by the lack of hand drawn art