You can forgive Westone their naked imitation of Super Mario Bros. with the original Wonder Boy; everyone was ripping that game off left and right in 1986. Now, if they’d continued churning out pale imitations with Wonder Boy’s sequels—as Hudson did with its Wonder Boy derivative Adventure Island—well, now that would be an act deserving of censure.
But they didn’t. Westone merely used Mario’s seminal adventure as a starting point for exploring radically different ideas, and the Wonder Boy series demonstrated significant change as early as its second entry. Wonder Boy in Monster Land owed more to arcade action-RPGs like Dragon Buster and Black Tiger than it did Mario—and in fact it debuted at roughly the same time as Black Tiger, which means their similarities are more likely the result of parallel evolution than direct imitation.
Wonder Boy in Monster Land downplays the need for raw platforming and nerve-wracking haste that defined its predecessor. Protagonist Tom-Tom still struggles beneath the oppression of a tight time limit, but the stamina meter and constant need for collectible nourishment took on the simpler form of an hourglass that constantly ticked down and would penalize Tom-Tom a bit of health every time it flipped. Supplementing this, Monster Land incorporates mechanics more reminiscent of a role-playing game: Weapons, gear, consumable items, even an in-game economy.
Given Monster Land’s arcade origins, these elements take a sharply reductive form. Progress remains linear, leaving only limited opportunities to acquire cash for use in shops from the predefined enemy spawns that appear along the way. Only the Master System version of the game—visually diminished from the arcade original, but in many ways the “definitive” edition of Monster Land—offers any sort of indication of Tom-Tom’s progress as a character through a Zelda-esque sub-screen. And even then, it’s not entirely necessary; the secondary screen simply removes visual clutter from the edges of the action, making it look more arcade-ish and less like a PC game than even the arcade version.
Fundamentally speaking, Monster Land represents an evolutionary midpoint for the franchise. Westone clearly had grand ambitions for their most popular creation, but as pioneers of platform design found themselves briefly mired in the tricky grounds of trial-and-error experimentation. Monster Land’s intentions are stamped across its face and made it interesting and grand in its day, but the limitations of the arcade format—the need to constantly turn a profit at the player’s expense—really undermine any hope it might ever have had of becoming a timeless classic. Westone would better express their ambitions once the series moved entirely to console, and later Wonder Boy and Monster Land games stand among the finest action-RPGs of their day. This game, however, sits uneasily at the crossroads of the original Wonder Boy’s twitch simplicity and The Dragon Trap’s expansive depth, committing to neither and failing to define itself as a result.
Article by Jeremy Parish
GameSpite Journal 12: Wonder Boy in Monster Land