If, like me, you're one of those ancient gamers out there you might remember the Wonder Boy series from your youth. Named Monster World in other regions, the franchise was quite popular, with the first game seemingly ported everywhere (as far as I can remember) appearing all over the place, from your local arcade to you and your friend's homes via various ports to a myriad of home systems. The franchise expanded with the 3rd game, The Dragons Trap, being a highlight that's fondly remembered. Over time though, the series seemed to fade into obscurity and only really remained popular with retro gamers.
Until recently anyway...
In the past few years, there seems to have been a little bit of a resurgence, probably caused by the popularity of retro-styled platform games. The aforementioned Dragons Trap got a remake, bringing this already well remembered but niche game to a whole new audience. With this remake being generally well-received, I'm assuming the developers decided to capitalize on its success by giving the same updating treatment to the next title in the series too, which leads us to the game I'll be looking at today: Wonder Boy 4- Asha in Monster World
A much less well-known game, its original release never really leaving Japan, it got the same treatment as its predecessor with a whole new visual upgrade, completely upgraded sound, and various other quality of life improvements but kept the original level layout, story, enemy placement and so on. What we end up with is a game with one foot in the past and another in the present, creating a result that while looking modern, doesn't quite feel like it, with concepts that originally would have been new and interesting now feeling a little underdeveloped.
Now the first thing you'll notice about Asha in Monster World is its visuals. It looks GORGEOUS in my opinion. The entire thing is done in a bold and colorful cell-shaded style that's both cute and charming. Asha herself has a beautiful and fluid animation to her and the Arabian "I Dream of Genie" design looks great, especially in movement and cutscenes. Important NPCs (of which there's not many), enemies, and especially the boss characters carry on with this cutesy look, they are big and bold characters that (at least to me) bring to mind the look of the Dragon Quest series or something similar.
Unfortunately, they don't have much personality to go with the excellent aesthetic though. The few NPCs you meet simply repeat a few lines of dialogue shared between them all, and impart nothing of consequence to the story or the world-building. Even the "important" main characters, those unique looking and more integral to the plot spout hackneyed and predictable lines, lines that could be pulled from a million other "save the world" type stories.
Plot-wise the only stand-out area is that Asha (our titular character) is a girl who wishes to be a Knight; a thing that's almost unheard of in her culture. Strangely though, all this amounts to is little more than one throwaway line on the subject, before Asha is accepted into the order with no more questions asked. I mean it's supposed to be a cutesy and simple platformer, and it is one from more than 20 years ago, so I can't hold this against it too much but those wanting a little substance to go with the style will be left wanting in this regard. The story goes like this: Asha has just reached the age of majority. She's officially an adult and must decide to do what to do with her life but she only really has one wish, to become a knight of the realm. This requires an official acknowledgment from the kingdom's princess however so we join Asha as she heads off to make her request. She's quickly accepted into this role and before long is tasked with a monumental quest, complete with a "chosen to save the world" prophesy and the liberation of 4 guardian spirits from their respective temples. These spirits have each been imprisoned by an unknown boss demon and Asha, together with a floating cat-like monster called Pepelogoo, must make her way through each of the maze-like locations, overcome the simple obstacles and puzzles within and ultimately defeat the evil beings holding each of the spirits hostage.
The various temples, the hub city you'll return to, as well as enemies, their locations, and the boss fights, are all unchanged (at least that I can remember) from the original Genesis/Mega Drive version and it gives the whole thing an "out of date" feeling. Updating these locations to include modern innovations, new features, and better puzzles could have made this a much-improved experience but instead, we're left with a remaster that feels mostly style over substance. Now don't get me wrong, it's not terrible. For kids, for casuals, or for those who don't play many platformers or games in general, there is a basic and reasonably fun game here. When originally released, it would have been fairly innovative but the problem is, that to modern eyes, it feels like it's got seeds of ideas that don't ever germinate fully.
Each of the temples, for the most part, are made up of long corridors with the occasional gap to jump, a platform to reach, or rope to climb that breaks them up. Scattered around these corridors are various doors or entrances, entered with X, that create separate areas that loop back, contain side rooms to explore, and ultimately lead to the boss of the area. While trying to get to the final opponent though, backtracking and repeated journeys through the same area becomes common as you seek out the correct path or look for needed items.
It is of course, a little more complicated than just that though as you'll occasionally come across some sort of obstacle that will bar your way and must be overcome. This is where Ashas companion, Pelelogoos (Pepe for short) comes in. At any time Asha can call Pepe, who usually floats beside her, to her hands by whistling with the R button. Pepe will be held above her head and allows Asha to glide across long distances or slowly float down deep chasms. Jump while holding him and he'll function as leverage, basically allowing a double jump to reach high places. You can even throw him while he's being held, launching him at far away collectibles or switches. He also has natural immunities that come in handy to get past certain obstacles. He isn't affected by heat for example, which helps you get past any geysers of lava you find blocking your way. When you fall into the water and find yourself sinking into its murky depths, simply call Pepe to you and his balloon-like body will float you back to the surface. He has a couple of other uses but this brings me to the problem with the environmental obstacles you come across. For the vast majority, the answer is the same, use Pepe in some way. Considering he has only a few moves it doesn't take long to work out what to do. You'll never feel particularly challenged by the platforming or stumped by the puzzles and the game's only real challenge is from trying to fully explore each area. There are extra rooms, side paths, and alternative corridors that make progress less linear, although ultimately there's only one way to go, and these other paths are worth seeking out. Although containing money, healing items, and collectibles too, the real reason to explore these side routes is for the Angels Tears you can find scattered around. Every ten you collect will up your health bar permanently, increasing the damage you can take.
Asha in Monster World is not a long or difficult game, I completed the whole thing in 4 hours, there are only 5 temples to overcome and it isn't until the 3rd that things become slightly more interesting, but not by much. Some mild "work out the combination to open the door" puzzles appear and you have to find statues that must be placed in a certain order that you have to work out from clues scattered around. The thing is though that these puzzles are also simple too, with the only real challenge coming from actually finding the clues. This however only leads to even more backtracking through now empty levels (because you've killed everything) searching for the one clue or statue you missed first time round.
Even combat doesn't do anything to shake things up as it's of the simple "spam Y" variety where you spam attacks till the enemy is dead. Occasionally you'll need to use your shield to deflect attacks or mix up your standard attacks with a jumping downwards slash but that's about it. Even the special magic attack you can do, powered up by using normal attacks to fill the meter, is nothing special amounting to simply a normal sword slash but stronger. Even buying new swords from the hub merchants simply increase attack power instead of opening new moves.
Now I've already said that this remake is mostly just the original game just paired with an admittedly very pretty new graphical upgrade. However, there are 2 small Quality of Life additions that do improve the game but have the side effect of making this already very easy game even easier. Firstly is that you can now save anywhere, anytime (except during boss fights) allowing you to save spam around in the unlikely event you're struggling. Secondly, you can now return to completed temples, farm money, and seek out any Angel Tears you missed. As I said welcome additions, but ones that also make this adventure a much less challenging prospect than it once was.
Ultimately, Asha in Monster World is a beautiful looking but rather bland experience. There are the germs of good ideas there, ones that could be developed into something enjoyable, but unfortunately, the game doesn't fully realize them. With so many other deserving platformers out there, it's hard to recommend this one as it does nothing special or unique. It would have been more impressive in its heyday on the Genesis but times have moved on, especially in the flooded platforming genre. One that would be fun for the youngsters, and those new to gaming or unfamiliar with platformers, but veterans of the genre and those with experience will fly through this adventure in no time and be left feeling unsatisfied. A mid-level experience, it might be worth a look for Wonder Boy fans or those with nostalgia for the original but anyone looking for a challenge or something new to experience should perhaps go elsewhere, especially when considering the price tag.
The digital version of Wonder Boy: Asha in Monster World can be purchased from the Nintendo and Sony stores and is published by STUDIOARTDINK.
The boxed retail version of Wonder Boy: Asha in Monster World comes exclusively with the original Monster World IV published by ININ Games
*Note: A copy of the game was provided for the purpose of the review
Final Score: 6/10
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