Good old 2012. I remember the year fondly. It was a simpler time. Nowadays we have to endure the horror of seeing the world collapsing and all of our previously trusted institutions along with it before our very eyes, but back then we could only speculate about the apocalypse through vague interpretations of an ancient Mayan calendar. And back in 2012 while everyone else was wringing their hands over the impending destruction of the planet Earth, I was being introduced to the delightful 16-bit romp called Monster World IV.
The game had just been made available on the PS3 via the PlayStation Network. I was (and still am) a sucker for old-school 2D adventures, and it was on sale as part of some Vintage Sega line-up, so naturally I bought it digitally. And despite having never played it in my childhood, I felt a strong sense of nostalgia from my Monster World IV experience.
Maybe it was the retro music. Maybe it was the pixelated graphics. Maybe it was the fact that the protagonist Asha looked like a progenitor of the genie Shantae, one of my guilty gaming pleasures. But whatever it was, I instantly fell in love with the title.
Monster World IV is a brilliant mash-up of genres. It’s an action-adventure game that combines RPG elements with puzzles and 2D platforming, and it’s all wrapped up in a wonderful package full of characters that are brimming with personality.
During my first playthrough of the original game, I specifically remember thinking “I wish I had a physical copy of this masterpiece”.
Lo and Behold, nearly a decade later I not only have a physical copy of the game, but it’s a remake complete with 3D models, a revamped soundtrack containing those beautiful ditties, and not only the blessing but the hands-on involvement of the original team (which includes director Ryuichi Nishizawa, sound designer Shinichi Sakamoto, character designer Maki Ozora, and creative manager Takanori Kurihara).
This latest incarnation of Monster World IV is called Wonder Boy: Asha in Monster World, and publishers have gone all out with its release. Not only will it be receiving both digital and physical editions, but it’s also getting a Mega Collector’s Edition which includes an artbook, reversible cover, a soundtrack, a special box, a poster, a world map, a magnet, an actual manual, and a certificate of authenticity among other goodies.
That just goes to show you I’m not the only one who fell in love with the original game. It’s a veritable cult classic with a ton of loyal fans. There’s a reason it was included on the Sega Genesis Mini, despite not having received a Western release when Japan first received it in 1994.
And its remake comes on the heels of a slew of modern Wonder Boy/Monster World remakes being released over the years, such as Wonder Boy Returns, Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom and Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap. All of which have enjoyed positive feedback from professional critics and casual gamers alike. And all of which inspired creator Ryuichi Nishizawa to return to the director’s chair.
So where does the awkwardly titled Wonder Boy: Asha in Monster World fit in the bunch? Does it continue the trend of rejuvenating the franchise? Does it do justice to the original? Or is it a soulless cash grab?
Well, right away it stands out from the other Wonder Boy/Monster World remakes in that it doesn’t feature hand-drawn animated sprites as playable characters, but instead opts for 3D models melding with 2D gameplay to create a sort of 2.5D experience similar to the New Super Mario Bros. series. Although graphically Asha in Monster World sometimes looks closer to a 2.5D GameCube title, like Mega Man Network Transmission.
Yes, the 3D graphics lack polish. Sure they’re in HD, but they could’ve used some sprucing up. That said, I’m personally happy they went this route rather than continuing the hand-drawn trend. Sure the hand-drawn animations of the other Wonder Boy remakes looked awesome, but honestly with Rayman Legends, Glimmer, and even the previously mentioned Shantae series all jumping on the hand-drawn sprites bandwagon, I’m actually glad that the team here decided to totally reimagine Asha in 3D. I just wish she and the world she inhabits looked a little more polished. Still, it differentiates this remake from the others as well as the original, which justifies remaking it in the first place (not that they needed any justification to begin with).
And on the whole, the character designs are still as charming as ever and their appeal still shines through as they remain faithful to the spirit of the original, even if the details and lighting aren’t as upgraded as one might hope for in a modern game.
And hey, we still get the iconic wiggling butt when Asha opens a treasure box, which never gets old. In fact, the game is filled with all kinds of callbacks and references to the original like that – like the old Sage that used to serve as a save point now telling you that he’s out of a job since you can save at any point of the game from the pause screen. It’s a fun way to pay homage to the original and remind fans that the developers haven’t forgotten what made the original such a classic in the first place.
Gameplay-wise the game feels as good as it looks, which means it’s a mixed bag. Like the graphics, I wish the controls were a little smoother. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but something just feels out of sync; which again brings back memories of lackluster 2.5D games from the past like Mega Man Network Transmission, or even more recent disappointments like *shudder* Sonic the Hedgehog 4, where something just feels off. Like the character feels a bit floaty and unresponsive.
For sure, there are also some frame-rate issues that contribute to this feeling, especially while saving the game – at least in the Nintendo Switch version that I played.
But don’t worry. While yes, the controls aren’t perfect, they’re still not as bad as something like Sonic the Hedgehog 4. I only mention the gameplay drawbacks because they will be noticeable to many players and I’d be remiss not to.
Although the controls are admittedly not as buttery smooth as I’d like, they’re also not game-breakingly bad. They work. And slashing enemies with Asha’s sword feels just as rewarding as ever before. As does the downward thrust. As does defending yourself with a shield.
Asha’s playable Totoro-esque pet, Pepelogoo, feels acceptable to control as well. In fact, while I have some gripes with the gameplay – I have to admit at times it does feel a bit easier to handle than the original game. And the original wasn’t bad either, so on the whole I think players will adapt to the controls here. Even if they’re not up to Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze standards.
The music and sound design are all on point. Every track and sound effect is faithfully restored and just as catchy as before. This should come as no surprise since the original composer is involved. Major props here. This is a game where you’ll want to listen to the soundtrack while you play rather than your own personal playlist.
One minor nitpick: I was a little surprised at how poor the English translation was at times during my playthrough. My physical copy is from Japan and distributed by G Choice though. The Western physical release is being published by ININ Games. I’m not sure if the Western release will have an alternative translation or not. The game is filled with little typos and awkwardly phrased exchanges.
The bad English is sometimes funny and charming in its own right, but it does kind of cheapen the experience and hopefully it’s patched in the future as Monster World IV deserves at least a decent translation.
Experienced gamers should be able to complete the game in about 3-5 hours. That may sound short, but that’s just for completion. If you want to collect everything in the game, it’ll take longer. Plus, if you’re like me, then this kind of game is kind of like Kirby, Sonic, Mario, or even Zelda. No matter how fast you complete it, it is still such a fun game to play with such lovable characters that you’re likely to want to revisit it again and again. And if you have any younger gamers in your life, you’ll want to introduce them to it as well.
Overall, Wonder Boy: Asha in Monster World is not a perfect game, but it mostly lives up to the source material. After all these years, I can still feel the passion the director has for the world and characters. I’m assuming he was given a small budget to work with, and little time and resources to get it done. If that’s the case, he did an excellent job recapturing the essence of the original.
And for you purists out there, physical copies of the game do include the original Monster World IV in all its glory as well. Keep in mind that is not available in the digital version, only exclusively for the physical release. That alone should warrant a purchase. Especially when you consider that the game retails for roughly forty bucks.
So for $39.99 you’re not only getting the remake but also the original. Honestly, that’s more than fair and at that price I highly recommend it to fans and newcomers alike.
A post-credits scene of the game also teases a potential sequel. (The director also stated in a recent interview that if this game sells well enough, he’s hoping for a follow-up release.) So if you’re like me and you want to see Asha return in a new title down the road, you owe it to yourself to support this game.
Wonder Boy: Asha in Monster World will be available on Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4 on May 28th, and for PC on June 29th.
Wonder Boy: Asha in Monster World – Score: 8/10
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