A quality collection for a confusingly named series.
In recent memory we’ve been blessed with a treasure trove of classic game compilations. The TMNT: Cowabunga Collection not only compiled a nearly complete history of the “heroes in a half shell” but also piled-on a dump truck’s worth of artwork, box art, music, and an animated series overview. Regardless of how well you think the games have held up, Atari 50: The Anniversary Collection is the most comprehensive historical telling of the grandfather of gaming’s history and is worth the price of entry for that alone. We’ve come a long way from the Capcom Beat-Em-Up Bundle days of dumping a handful of roms, and it’s with that context we have to view The Wonder Boy Anniversary Collection.
The Wonder Boy Collection includes six titles across the series: Wonder Boy (Adventure Island for those in the US), Wonder Boy in Monster Land, Wonder Boy III: Monster Lair, Monster World II, Monster World III, and Monster World IV. My only exposure to the series was Adventure Island on the Nintendo Entertainment System. Not knowing its arcade origins, I was struck by how crisp and detailed the animation was, how vibrant the music was by comparison, and oddly enough how more forgiving it felt. The foundational gameplay is very basic - run on screen, avoid pits and obstacles, throw a tomahawk, and collect fruit along the way to keep your health from depleting over time. By today's standards it’s rudimentary, but I was pleased to revisit it and explore the other five titles.
The other games hew closely to that 2D action side-scroller formula, but there’s a clear division in direction. On one hand, Wonder Boy III: Monster Lair feels like a direct continuation of Wonder Boy with that side-scrolling platforming and combat, but it’s expanded upon to include side-scrolling shoot-em-up levels and up to two players. There is more than one weapon, including spread fire shots and one which surrounds you like a barrier that is dropped by enemies and used as a temporary power up. The levels are forced-movement which adds a bit of extra pressure, but never insurmountable. It’s a refinement of Wonder Boy that is natural and comfortable for fans of the original.
Then there’s the Monster World portion of the series which lean more towards a 2D side-scrolling dungeon crawler a la Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. These titles also show the threadline starting from the almost painfully simplistic Wonder Boy in Monster Land up to the colorful and fun Monster World IV. Wonder Boy in Monster Land, while cute, has a painfully slow pace, with a stiffness in movement and jumping that just feels like walking through mud. To its credit, the boss battles are interesting enough and there are upgrades via items you can buy in shops, but it’s still a bit threadbare. Monster World II (or Wonder Boy III) is an iterative improvement - structurally very similar, but with a much crisper animation, a camera that’s much more focused on a smaller space, and a nice brisk movement. Monster World III (or Wonder Boy in Monster World) feels like a weird middle ground - it retains the more vibrant, detailed look of Monster World II, but backpedals by re-committing to that stiff, plodding movement. Monster World IV is the clear winner of these games. The protagonist Asha has been balanced, not quite as fast as Monster World II, but a motion that’s fluid and satisfying to navigate with. Visually it’s the most vibrant and expressive animation yet. Going in with the expectation that these are a product of their time, most of the games are fun and all of them are worth checking out from a historical perspective.
Like any good collection, Wonder Boy Anniversary includes a healthy dose of extra features and content. There are several different language options at the outset. Each game includes versions that were released, ranging from arcade to Sega Master System and Game Gear. Some versions don’t hold up well and act as more of a fun curiosity than anything else, but they’re still a nice feature to include. Each game has a save state/load option, quick rewind, and quick fast-forward. Some of these games are slow in places, so that’s a godsend. Mercifully, each game includes level maps that can be accessed at any time. All these make for a For any fan of the series, the gallery includes concept art, character sketches, soundtracks that you can play while perusing the menus, box art, and game instructions.
The Wonder Boy Anniversary Collection is the definitive way to experience the series, with all six titles wrapped in a package that seems to look for every way that a fan can explore the content. There are a few games that are tough to go back to, but when they’re good, they’re really good. The worst I can say is that it doesn’t reach the heights of fan service some of the aforementioned collections do, but comparing Wonder Boy to those standard bearers might be a bit unfair. If you enjoy 2D platformers, liked a game in the series and want to explore more, or just have a curiosity for lesser known classic games, then The Wonder Boy Anniversary Collection is something worth looking up.