Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap was a faithful recreation of a beloved classic title that I walked away from with a smile, and made a mental note to check out the successive titles in their weirdly arranged series. Then a year later I finally remembered that unwritten commitment, and moved onto the sequel, Wonder Boy in Monster World, also known as Wonder Boy V: Monster World III. A title that seemingly gets nowhere near the same level of regard as its predecessor, and after going through it… I can easily understand why.
Wonder Boy in Monster World (Wonder Boy V: Monster World III) Review
Platforms: Sega Genesis(Emulated), Master System, Turbo Duo, PS3, Xbox 360
Rather that continuing the extended adventures of cave boy turned hero turned lizard man Bock Lee Temjin (that is the protagonist’s actual name) Wonder Boy V represents something of a reset for the series, discarding the continuing storyline and instead jumping to what may as well be a different universe entirely. One that centers around the chosen warrior Shion who one day realizes that monsters are invading Monster World, and must be cleansed from this land of humans, dwarves, fairies, and whatever else can be considered the “good” monsters. The actual story beyond that is kept largely minimal, and can largely be seen as a generic hero saves the world story throughout and through, only ever deviating from that idea with a conclusion that I would say brings an 11th hour twist, if said twist wasn’t weirdly common in early 16-bit era fantasy games.
The core gameplay is largely retained from its predecessor, being a side scrolling action RPG with basic but intuitive combat along with an emphasis on exploring the many recesses and secrets that Monster World holds. It’s a broad sub-genre that I am quite fond of, but whereas The Dragon’s Trap managed to feel like an early example of how to do this genre justice while incorporating a unique mechanic, Wonder Boy V fumbles in trying to replicate what came before it, and makes a number of genuinely perplexing mistakes that make it feel like a title a predecessor to The Dragon’s Trap, rather than the other way around. The first of which was choosing to boost the difficulty from fairly easy, at least for the time, to a significant challenge, and not for particularly good reasons.
In Dragon’s Trap, just about every enemy had the chance of dropping a restorative health item, whereas that privilege if reserved to a select few enemies in Wonder Boy V, and health is more important than ever seeing as how enemies in general deal more damage, and the protagonist’s health reserves are effectively halved. Meanwhile, enemies now have a habit of respawning while on the same screen in a move that significantly slows down the pace of the game and can frequently result in uncomfortable situations where enemies are coming at Shion from both sides. Stats are no longer represented with clearly defined numbers for basically no reason. The boots that supposedly make traction on ice better barely do what they are supposed to, and make the Ice Palace a major chore. Actually, come to think of it, I don’t think I actually liked any of the dungeon designs after the first one, which has a stupid gimmick where the player needs to write down 3 button-based codes to progress, which gets really confusing considering how somebody thought that the C button in this game, which I mapped to the X button and later LB, should be the jump button.
As a whole, I really did not find the Wonder Boy V to be anywhere as fun to play as its predecessor. The lack of transformations makes the gameplay feel a bit repetitive after the while, quickly devolving into a very humdrum process of learning enemy quirks and whether or not the player should express patience, rush in and flail around their short sword as best they can, or just wait for baddies to waddle over to them while crouching down and stabbing their shins, because swords have a longer reach when crouching for… some reason. The only significant variety comes in the form of dungeon specific companions who rang from mostly useless to being the best way to attack baddies in the fourth dungeon. Which is also where the Pygmy form is introduced, which is a lot like the Mouse form from Dragon’s Trap, but without the ability to walk on walls, reliably hit enemies, or a cute sprite. So it’s really just worse in every way imaginable.
I think the best way to convey the level of frustration with this title is to recount the entire final dungeon, which is a microcosm of so many things that were wrong with this era of gaming. From the nearest inn, the player must ascend a staircase, walk into a portal, do some light platforming, battle some jumping baddies on some steps, go through a dark maze with enemies that have a simple pattern but will wreck the player if they go against an established routine, and then a time intensive minecart section where the player must fight enemies while moving at high speeds, then time a jump just right.
Afterwards, the game goes easy on the player, having them fight two mini-bosses at once, fight another mini-boss, and then go through a platforming section with no less than 30 opportunities for the player to screw up, forcing them to fight the third mini-boss again, before being thrust into the penultimate boss battle, against a foe with shoots projectiles, rams into Shion, and has three phases. If I wasn’t playing this game with save states, I probably would have just thrown it in a rain soaked ditch after coming to terms with just how much bullcrap the developers expect the player to tolerate. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time…
Hell, even with save states I didn’t have the patience to beat the final boss fight, which tetters on the level of parody between the regenerating projectile spammers and the buzzsaw treadmill that surround the giant evil brain that knocks Shion back if they dare to touch them while jumping up to slash their eyeball. Once I realized the sheer absurdity of performing the actions the game was asking from me, I promptly quit, watched a video of the final boss and ending, realized that I am not the only one who was struggling with this rubbish encounter, and proceeded to uninstall the game.
It’s very upsetting to see the title falter so heavily in comparison to what came before it, though I suppose it does do some things right, namely with the presentation. Stylistically, the game is closely aligned with the established cute and colorful style of prior entries, but with a visual bump provided by 16-bit hardware, which is able to render these fairly simplistic designs in more detail and interject a far better color scheme than whatever could have been achieved on the Master System.
While I do like the look the developers settled on, the layout and visual motifs of this game show some growing pains that the developers seem to have faced when adapting to this new hardware, as visuals aside there is very little about this game that could not have also been done on the Master System. As evidenced by the port that came out in 1993. Yeah, the Master System was weird like that, and persisted throughout Europe and Brazil well after the Mega Drive launched.
These technical growing pains can also be somewhat seen in the general music, or maybe that’s just the Genesis sound chip not being the best for more cheery fantasy-esque scores. Yet the OST for Wonder Boy V still manages to produce a collection of charming personality rich melodies that go on to give the game a greater sense of identity, and apply an appropriate level of gravitas and theming to its otherwise fairly stock looking environments. I actually looked for remixes and covers of this soundtrack, but it unfortunately has not received the same affection as other titles of this era. Which is a shame, because if there was was one thing I were to praise about this game, it would easily be the soundtrack.
Oh, and I almost forgot. This game has one really racist section where Shion needs to murder a gang of roaming ‘monsters’ who are stealing dwarf children in order to eat them, and these ‘monsters’ are cartoon caricatures of African natives, in a move that is as perplexing as it is uncomfortable. I get that pre-internet Japan lacked much reference for why this was a bad thing to portray, but this is just… wow. This is the sort of thing that really should be changed in modern re-releases, but nope, I guess Sega wanted to keep things authentic.
As the slightly cheeky subheader indicates, I am under the impression that very few people sing the praises, or at least the detailed praises, of Wonder Boy in Monster World, and after playing it, I can certainly see why. Despite retaining the team from Dragon’s Trap, excluding its director, Ryuichi Nishizawa, the game in many ways feels its predecessor, being a far rougher, less refined, and generally less fun title than what the developers did a scant two years earlier. While I can appreciate the game when it is clearly attempting to experiment with new concepts or ideas, the ultimate execution results in a frustrating experience that I genuinely cannot recommend. Hopefully Monster World IV fares better.