Gaming History 101

Know Your Roots

Wonder Boy Retrospective Part 1: Grass Skirt Roots

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One might argue that the Wonder Boy series has a more convoluted timeline than Zelda and since no one will make a book about it, I thought I would give it a bash in this series of articles. While this article series will explore the facts, it will be from my perspective, which means I’ll mostly be discussing the PAL (European) release of each game and only referencing other regions where necessary.

The Wonder Boy series holds an especially large place in my nostalgic heart. When I was growing up I didn’t have a Nintendo so the idea of the Zelda series being this amazing adventure title, was more of a myth that I’d only read about in magazines than a reality. For me, it was a very different kind of ‘Boy’ that took me on multiple adventures and filled my head with ‘wonder’ and captured my heart.  I’ve wanted to delve into the Wonder Boy series for a long time so thank you for reading and I hope you enjoy it as much as I have.

Now without further adieu let me take you on a wonderful journey back to the first….

Wonder Boy

Released: 1986

Original hardware: Arcade

Other releases: SG-1000, Sega Master System, Game Gear, ZX Spectrum, C64, Amstrad, mobile, Wii (Virtual Console)

How to play today: PS4 (Japanese Store Only)

It seems appropriate that my introduction to Wonder Boy would begin with the very first game of the series. Although Wonder Boy did make it to the arcades in the UK my first experience of the game was on Sega’s portable system: Game Gear. Yes, that little portable system owners used to think was better than the Game Boy because it had colour! The Game Gear port was practically the same as the popular Master System port, the only main difference between them was that the screen size was adjusted for the portable system. A lot later down the road, at a retro convention in Blackpool, I was eventually able to appreciate the original arcade game. It was great to get that added wow factor of it being an arcade game, but I was more impressed by how similar the arcade was to the Game Gear version.

Arcade Version

To begin, like many other titles of the time, you play as ‘Boy’ (Tom-Tom in North America) on a quest to save the love of your life Tina (Tanya in NA) who has been taken by the Dark King (Dracon in NA). It wasn’t an original story, but hey early gaming days right? It’s a simple run and jump platformer, like many others however what stood out most was the vitality bar. This was at the top of the screen and drained continuously as you progressed through the levels acting as a sort of timer. Most people myself included, often mistook this for a health bar. Of course if the bar drained completely you’d die so you would need to regularly collect fruit pick ups to maintain it. This added an additional layer of urgency to the arcade gameplay, as a bonus it was also a clever way of killing off arcade players that would rage quit and leave the cabinet before finishing. An extra challenge was that Boy dies from a single hit from most hazards except for rocks which drain vitality rapidly but does come with a funny animation of Boy tripping continuously.

Game Gear Version

You can collect power ups throughout, the essential one being the hammer, which helps you to take down enemies in a single throw. You can get through all levels except boss fights without the hammer but you will have a horrific amount of enemies to navigate through. The hammer essentially turns the game into Normal mode, without it it’s the ‘Oh My God I’m Going To Die Mode!’ The other power up is the skateboard. Yes, Boy takes skateboard safety very seriously with his helmet and knee pads however, although you can slow the skateboard down it does add to the difficulty as Boy will continuously move to the right regardless. The benefit to the board is it does allow Boy to take a single hit from an enemy or hazard without dying. The best power-up by far however is the Angel, which is like the star from Super Mario Bros, you become invincible and can temporarily smash your way through anything.

Most memorable moments of Wonder Boy:

  • The Music – good lord that memorable looping music that just worms its way into your head and never leaves you… ever. While it does change on the boss levels you’ll be hearing the main music in your sleep. It still haunts me to this day.

  • The Skateboard – The skateboard was cool you still wanted to pick it up even on those darn beach levels where you had to platform across the clouds and my favourite power up by far.

  • The Boss fights – All the boss fights were practically the same; fling the hammer at his head, which would be accompanied by a funny vibration animation. That head falls off onto the floor and pop. Only for a new head to grow as he flies off the screen (this experience comes from the Game Gear port). There was something so weird yet so funny about this. Very reminiscent of fighting Bowser at the end of every world in Super Mario Bros. Much like that the boss became slightly harder as time goes by, by flinging more projectiles at you.

  • Those Dolls? – There is a collectable in every stage that you can acquire that looks like a doll. When I was younger I never knew what purpose it served but the game made it very clear how important it was that you had collected it on finishing a level. I would later learn that collecting all of these enables you to enter the final level.

  • The Game Gear Box Art – Its terrifying and haunts my dreams. A dark comparison from the utterly hilarious Master System box art.

It’s worth addressing the Adventure Island elephant in the room. Yes, Adventure Island is practically the same as Wonder Boy. Developer Escape (who quickly changed to Westbone Bit Entertainment) owned the design of the game but Sega owned the Wonder Boy trademark. When Escape teamed up with Hudson Soft to make a conversion for the NES, Hudson simply changed the character to and title of the game. Hey presto Adventure Island would begin and continue as its own series across several systems. Adventure Island would refine its gameplay with sequels and many will happily debate it is better than the original Wonder Boy. Yes, actual wars are still fought over this today. In case you were wondering what happened to Adventure Island, Konami now owns the rights after it absorbed Hudson Soft in 2012. So I guess don’t get too hopeful for an Adventure Island reboot anytime soon.

Wonder Boy received a remake called Wonder Boy Returns developed by CFK in 2016 and is available on Steam. At the time of writing this article I’ve yet to play that title since its PC and my poor little laptop can’t handle the awesomeness of the PC master race just yet.

Wonder Boy Returns (PC remake)

Wonder Boy is a unique start to the series, it’s not the best and the game hasn’t aged well with time. It suffers from repetition and goes on longer than it needs to especially for an arcade title, eight worlds with four levels a piece? Yes, of course today one can use save states etc. but back in the day there was no save feature across any of the ports. On Game Gear I rarely witnessed the end of the game from start to finish without using cheat codes to level skip. The game is frustrating and has a lot of cheap deaths littered throughout. While not an impossible game, it takes a dedicated and patient gamer to see it through to its conclusion. If you manage that you really do deserve a high five.

It pains me to say it but Adventure Island would take this formula and make it better with sequels. This would-be “boys only” game in this particular style as Boy would quickly evolve and move on to something new as we’ll see as this retrospective progresses.

Written by jamalais

December 8, 2018 at 12:00 pm

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