Game: Wonder Boy: Asha in Monster World
Release Date: May 28, 2021
Price: $34.99 digital, $39.99 physical
Rating: Everyone 10+
Platform: Switch, PS4 (PC version to be released at a later date)
Geek to Geek Media was provided with a copy of this title.
A Convoluted Franchise History
Before I get into impressions of this particular game, here's a little background. Wonder Boy: Asha in Monster World is a modern remake of the Japanese-exclusive Sega Mega Drive (aka Genesis) Metroidvania game, Monster World 4. Confusingly, this game is the 6th entry in the Wonder Boy series. The series began in 1986 with Westone and Sega's original Wonder Boy arcade game. This straightforward and very punishing 2D platformer was later ported to home consoles and PC. From there, Wonder Boy received multiple spin-offs and sequels throughout the 80s and 90s.
Now for the confusing part: As the Wonder Boy franchise grew, it bounced around between publishers and platform holders. This caused the series to acquire various alternate titles including Monster World, Monster Boy, and Adventure Island. What this means is that many gamers have played a Wonder Boy game without even realizing it. In fact, I'm in this camp myself! I've played Adventure Island and Monster Boy in the past but have never played any games that actually featured the Wonder Boy branding.
You Don't Have to Be a Boy to Be a Wonder Boy
Being a faithful remake of a 16-bit platformer, the story of Wonder Boy: Asha in Monster World is pretty bare-bones. At the start of the tale, Asha, the youngest member of a long line of legendary warriors, is sent to climb the Tower of Silence as the final trial in the initiation process to become a fully-fledged warrior. Notably, she's the first woman to ever take on this ordeal (a fact that NPCs in the game will frequently remark on).
After climbing the Tower and proving herself as a warrior, a sage instructs Asha to travel to the city of Rapadagna to accept a quest from the queen. Asha's quest is to seek out and awaken the land's guardian spirits, the only beings capable of protecting the kingdom from encroaching forces of darkness. As she embarks on her journey to find the slumbering spirits, she is joined by a creature named Pepelogoo. This small flying monster serves as a pet and faithful traveling companion on Asha's adventure.
In the short amount of time I've spent with the game, there has only been minimal lore or worldbuilding. The setting, however, is an immediately familiar hybrid of anime art and Middle Eastern fantasy themes. If you've ever played Shantae or watched the anime Magi, you'll feel right at home in Monster World. In fact, based on the significant number of aesthetic similarities, I wouldn't be surprised if the Shantae series was partly inspired by the original version of Monster World 4.
A Metroidvania that pre-dates the term Metroidvania
Using modern gaming terminology, Asha in Monster World would best be described as a Metroidvania. However, considering that this is a remake of a 1994 game, its structure doesn't entirely fit the genre as we define it now. From what I've seen of her quest so far, there are two types of environments: towns and dungeons.
The dungeons most closely resemble a proper Metroidvania, but with a few wrinkles from the game's retro origins. For starters, there is no map unless you draw one yourself. Thankfully, the dungeon layouts are fairly linear. Thus, I never lost track of the primary quest path in the first two dungeons but likely missed some collectibles. This linearity keeps dungeons focused on basic hack-and-slash combat and platforming challenges, which gives the gameplay a decidedly old-school feel. I appreciated that Asha in Monster World is merciful enough to allow you to save anywhere and that falling in a pit never means instant death. Overall, I'd describe the dungeon gameplay as simple but satisfying.
The town gameplay offers an RPG-like experience with NPCs to talk to and equipment for Asha to buy. Some of the NPC dialog is pretty humorous but I was disappointed by the high frequency of typos in the text. On a more positive note, the city of Rapadagna offered some interesting opportunities to explore and platform. Even though gameplay takes place on 2D planes, the game world exists in 3D space. Larger areas like Rapadagna are composed of multiple layers of 2D planes that Asha can switch between at certain locations. Each layer offers its own opportunity for hidden items and secret locations to uncover. This made wandering around town much more engaging than similar areas in other Metroidvanias. However, it did lead to some confusion when I had trouble finding a quest-essential item.
Cuteness is Key
With a story and gameplay that aren't particularly revolutionary, what sets Wonder Boy: Asha in Monster World apart from other Metroidvanias? The fact that this game is absolutely adorable! From the get-go, this game's cute character designs immediately drew me in. I also really appreciated Asha's animations and reactions to certain in-game events. In particular, the animation of her opening a treasure chest is a bit over-the-top but also very endearing.
As cute as Asha may be, Pepelogoo is the real star of the show. Asha's faithful monster pet does the real heavy lifting in this game, both figuratively and metaphorically. In most other Metroidvanias, the protagonist gains traversal abilities such as double-jumping. In Asha's case, she doesn't learn these skills herself and relies on Pepelogoo instead. This tireless little critter ends up hoisting Asha into the air to extend her jumps or acting as a heat shield to help her traverse lava. I found this to be very charming (though I did feel bad for the little guy at times).
First Impressions Wrap-up
I really enjoyed the two hours I spent with Wonder Boy: Asha in Monster World and am looking forward to playing more of it in the near future. Being a faithful remake of a game from a series that inspired many modern Metroidvania titles, there's nothing mind-blowing for players here in the year 2021, but that's ok. From what I've seen so far, the game executes well on the core mechanics of the genre and puts it all together in an appealing package. If a retro-like experience with a nice coat of modern paint and some quality-of-life improvements sounds like your cup of tea, definitely give Wonder Boy: Asha in Monster World a look!