Developer: Studio Artdink
Publisher: Inin, G-Choice
Platform: Steam, Switch, PS4 (tested)
Price: $34.99 USD (Digital), $34.99 USD (Physical)
Release Date: May 28th, 2021 (Switch, PS4), Summer 2021 (Steam)
Monster World IV, a 1994 Japan-only Mega Drive release, is the sixth entry in the Wonder Boy series. If this sounds confusing, don’t fret, as Wonder Boy itself is a confused sequence of spin-offs and subseries, with each entry being mostly unrelated aside from some design, gameplay, and style similarities; that, and the fact that they were all originally developed by the now defunct Westone Bit Entertainment.
It’s the key members of Westone that developer Artdink has collaborated with in an attempt to pluck Monster World IV from near-obscurity and polish it up for modern audiences. Unfortunately, the resulting Wonder Boy: Asha in Monster World doesn’t shine as brightly as the original and pales in comparison to its contemporaries.
The world is in peril. The four great spirits have been locked away. A young village girl named Asha hears their calls and embarks on a grand adventure to put things right. At least, this is the story Asha in Monster World attempts to tell, but in reality it all comes across a bit vague. The game opens with a Star Wars-esque crawl of near-jibberish text about some cyclical catastrophe and ancient legends and the heroism of an unassuming young girl, or something. Players then gain control of our heroine Asha, who says goodbye to her villager family before embarking on the aforementioned adventure, although it’s not clear why she’s going on an adventure or what the adventure is. The vagueness continues: Asha enters the “Tower of Silence”, for some reason; she get a magic lamp, which is apparently the sign of a warrior, for some reason; she’s then named a “Warrior” by the Queen moments after meeting her, for some reason.
Narrative doesn’t necessarily matter in a 2D platformer, especially an older one, but the presentation of Asha in Monster World’s story highlights a grander issue: All text and dialogue is loose and clunky, seemingly due to an iffy translation. This becomes especially problematic when it affects gameplay and progress, for example the “tips” signposts strewn almost randomly about the world. One sign found early on informs players that certain enemies can be hurt by touching them—a sign that appears beside a fiery blob creature that damages the player on contact. Another example is an old sage who blocks the door to the next dungeon because the Asha isn’t wearing armour—except there isn’t any armour to acquire, and the sage only moves after a different, unrelated event occurs. Parts of the translation shine through, such as the self-aware humour—a rare occurrence in the mid-90s gaming—but such moments are few and far between.
Poor first impressions continue beyond Asha in Monster World’s story. Asha herself is a cute and expressive character, however most players’ first moments with Asha will be spent watching her amateurish and “slippery” walking animation as she slides through her bright but generic environment. It’s a world that lacks flourish, noticeable in in every rope bridge that doesn’t bend and every long flat plain with minimal foliage or rocks. This is all accompanied by a serviceable but uninspired soundtrack arrangement which in almost all instances gets repetitive and annoying fast.
The most baffling of Asha in Monster World’s design choices is its save system. These is no autosave. There are no checkpoints. Players can save anywhere at any time and can have multiple saves, but with autosave being such a standard feature of modern games it’s easy to forget it’s not there. This results in situations where players can get trapped saving with low health before a tricky section or stumbling into a boss room unprepared and dying. I personally lost my first half hour’s progress after dying and had to start the entire game again, learning the hard way how Asha in Monster World expected me to save. This meant I had to push through the same poor first impression of Asha in Monster World twice, and it wasn’t any better the second time.
Gameplay mechanics fare better. Asha can jump, climb ropes, swing her sword in multiple directions, and block most attacks with her shield. More powerful swords and shields, as well as upgrades to health, can be purchased from shops in the hub town with coins taken from slain enemies. It’s simple stuff, lifted straight from the 1994 original, but it works, at least to start with. But even basic platforming becomes a chore once players gain access to Pepelogoo, a cutesy blue flying sidekick that lets Asha double jump and hover as well as performing his own dungeon-specific actions. Each of these actions require a button to be held to call Pepelogoo before they can be performed. In particular, the need to double jump is constant, and having to hold the “call” button for each jump becomes tedious quickly.
One would expect obviously out-dated or otherwise peculiar design choices—like a chest containing a single-use bomb directly next to the place it needs to be used, or having to fill a bucket at specific fountains in a dungeon filled with water—to have been ironed out or polished up with hindsight unavailable to the original developers. But with Asha in Monster World, these archaic decisions are left unchanged for all to see.
Wonder Boy: Asha in Monster World is, at a glance, a bright and charming celebration of a near-forgotten gem. And there are some things to like. Each dungeon is themed both aesthetically and mechanically e.g. a steampunk tower with keys and locked doors and keys, a frozen pyramid with riddles and codes, and an ancient waterway with gushing tubes for Asha to crawl and splash through. But Asha in Monster World has an undeniable cheapness about it that suggests either a lack of dev time or a lack of care, attention, and ambition on Artdink’s part.
Environmental details that were charming and impressive as pixel art in 1994 have lost their spark in the process of being converted to 3D, and Asha in Monster World lacks any kind of visual style, especially compared to recent remakes and reimaginings of other games in the same series i.e. Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap and Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom.
The goal of a “retro” videogame remake should be to showcase and enhance the best and most memorable aspects of the original with modern design sensibilities. Wonder Boy: Asha in Monster World fails at this goal in every way that matters. Simply put, 1994’s Monster World IV for the Mega Drive, a childhood favourite for many in Japan, doesn’t benefit from this remake, and those feeling nostalgic or curious will not benefit from playing it.
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
*A code was provided for this review