a review of Monster World Complete Collection
a videogame developed by sega
and published by sega japan
for the sony playstation 2 computer entertainment system
text by tim rogers
Few people without exceptionally large calculators can tell you the precise difference between Wonder Boy and Monster World. The first game, made by a developer called Westone and published by Sega, starred a muscly blond man in vague green shorts running to the right, perpetually jumping over things, throwing hammers, or riding a skateboard. What was Wonder Boy’s political position, other than that his name sounded kind of pleasantly gay? No one was quite sure. Just a year after the release of the original Wonder Boy, a monkey-headed boy in a red jumpsuit, named Alex Kidd, popped along, and things got ambiguous. Which one was Sega’s mascot? Alex Kidd, who got sent to “Miracle World” versus Wonder Boy’s “Monster World” (miracles are semantically better than monsters any day) got his game built into the Sega Master System II, so I think that means he wins. Also, to be brutally honest, Alex Kidd in Miracle World is a far more playable game than the first Wonder Boy, or even Wonder Boy in Monster Land. Regardless, there are people who will cop an elitist attitude about either series at the drop of a hat. I knew a guy once who suggested that he would play Mario Party if it were published by Sega and called Alex Kidd Party (“The party genre is the perfect chance to reintroduce Alex Kidd to the gamers of today” — not kidding), and a friend over my house a few months ago said, as I was playing New Adventure Island on the Virtual Console, “Way to rip off Wonder Boy.” Yes, Adventure Island is a rip-off of Wonder Boy, in all ways, shapes, and forms. It’s a rip-off because the developer, Westone, confident that they had a pleasant game engine that could benefit from some revision, had sold the rights to Hudson Soft for development on other consoles. This means basically two things, in the end: that Adventure Island, the first and last platform action game to star a real-life videogame industry celebrity (Takahashi Meijin) as the player character, ended up on the winning console, the Famicom, and saw far more success there than it would have with Sega, and secondly, that the near-infinite tweaks and nips and tucks made to the Adventure Island game design render the original Wonder Boy pretty much unplayable to modern gamers.
The easiest way to explain the difference between the Wonder Boy and Monster World series is this: there is no Wonder Boy series. It’s just one game, the one with the yellow-haired kid who occasionally rides a skateboard. Once they introduced Monster World to the market, Wonder Boy was gone — hell, in Wonder Boy V Monster World III, his name is given as “Shion” — that’s the same name as the main character of Xenosaga. The words “Wonder Boy” stayed above the title for perplexing reasons. Namely, they stayed there so that Sega could point at the series and say, yeah, look at this! He’s Shion, the Wonder Boy, Five, in Monster World — Three. We’ve definitely got enough money to make sequels! We’re hard enough to make two sequels at once, heckers. Our games are totally selling well enough! They’re even selling well enough that we don’t even need to settle on a genre — platformer, side-scrolling dungeon crawler, fixed-scroll platform shooter (the sometimes-excellent Monster Lair), you name it! We can make stuff up and call it a sequel!
In reality they were just stalling for time, thirsting for something that was worth making sequels to — Sonic the Hedgehog, for lack of a better word. Years after this (*warning: fiction ahead), Sony Computer Entertainment America would hold a board meeting to discuss potential games to develop for the Sony PlayStation 3 Computer Entertainment System, and some man with a neckbeard and a matching tie would stand up with a laser pointer and motion at a PowerPoint presentation and say, “We should make a new game in the Warhawk series. Here are the reasons why: first of all, Warhawk was a PlayStation One launch game. We call this ‘going back to the roots’. Secondly, it was an excellent game, getting morbidly high review scores and everything. Thirdly, because we own the trademark. And fourthly — and most importantly — because no one remembers what the hell it is. It would be like starting a new series!” Do you see the connection? Maybe you do, maybe you don’t. Me, though, I love Wonder Boy (as a concept), and I love Warhawk (as game design), so I’m personally prepared to let this analogy slide. Be a dear and let it slide with me.
At any rate, Monster World Complete Collection does not use the words “Wonder Boy” in the title, and for a good reason. Look at this list of titles, diligently stolen from Play-Asia.com: “Wonder Boy”, “Wonder Boy in Monster Land”, “Wonder Boy III – Monster Lair”, “Monster World II”, “Wonder Boy V Monster World III” and “Monster World IV”. What a crossword puzzle this world ends up as, sometimes. Notice how there is one Monster “Land” and one “Lair” before one is inexplicably called “World II”. A little semantic detective work would tell us that “Wonder Boy in Monster Land” is the culprit — it’s both the reason that some people are tricked into thinking there is a Wonder Boy “series” and the reason that the third of the games with “Monster” in the title is called Monster World II. Furthermore, it’s also the reason that there is no game called “Wonder Boy II”. Man, typing all this up is almost more fun than playing the games. Less loading times and everything.
Some of them really blow, in fact, unless you’re blind with your own nostalgia. At least the graphics are nice — the collection is masterfully re . . . uh, mastered, and the 480p modes look incredible on an HDTV. Monster World IV looks delicious in 480p with scanlines. The back of the box, classic Sega, advertises that there are over sixteen games in the collection, which is just as cute as a Chihuahua with a mutilated hind leg and one of those cone-shaped collars to keep him from licking himself. If you squint very hard you’re likely to find three games — Wonder Boy III: Monster Lair, Wonder Boy V Monster World III (perhaps the best game title of all-time), and Monster World IV. The “sixteen” so proudly proclaimed by the makers refers to the various versions included of each game: Mega Drive, Genesis (yes, the English version), Master System, and Sega’s various arcade hardwares. It’s a peculiar walk down a deserted Memory Lane that allows us to observe that, this far from the original release, the arcade versions are better than some of the home versions, the home versions are better than some of the arcade versions, and the Game Gear (portable) versions are hideous, though not as hideous as the Mark III version of Wonder Boy. Man, they ported the stuff out of Wonder Boy — maybe that’s why so many people think there’s a “series”. Many of the “sixteen games” in this “Complete Collection” are just different versions of Wonder Boy; another of the games — the Master System port of Wonder Boy V Monster World III — contains such horrid collision detection that it’s unplayable (the enemy sprite must literally intersect with your character before you can score a hit). And one of the games — Monster World II, for Game Gear only — is such a clippy drudge that to put it on a collection with more or less fifteen “games” on it and raise the numeral on the back of the package by one integer is more or less the same thing as recording the moans of a man masturbating in the shower and calling it an operetta.
The reason this collection scores three stars, then? It’s a simple question of value, and the answer is a one-two punch. The first hit is because this game makes me feel like I’ve actually grown up, to not find this stuff funny anymore. That’s pretty good, for a videogame! And the second is a miraculous revelation — it makes me feel like a critic or something, all of a sudden, to play through all these games and know which one is worth any time at all. Monster World IV, released for the Sega Mega Drive in 1994, aka one of the best videogames of all-time, aka a summary of all that is joyful in the world. Before there was Cave Story and after there was Super Metroid, before all these Castlevania games on portable systems, where you can keep fighting monsters over and over again to gain levels so that nothing is difficult anymore, there was Monster World IV, a side-scrolling RPG with bright graphics, brilliant cross-section portrayals of towns, extremely difficult bosses, dungeons that stretch the limit between enthralling and frustrating as hell, physics that feel unworldly though never cheap or wrong, a cute sense of humor, and one twelve-bar happy melody threaded in and out of various themes. There’s a volcano level in it, for example. It’s set in some kind of weird Arabian-Nights-ish setting, which makes it either the precursor of Sonic and the Secret Rings or a potential conspirator to terrorism that America would deem unfit for release in the noble Best Buys of Interstate Highway 70. The original MegaDrive cartridge version of Monster World IV‘s Akihabara Blue Book Value is 3,900 yen used; moreover, you’d have to buy a MegaDrive. If you have a Japanese PS2, hey. Mathematically, this collection is worth the price for this game alone. That is, if you’re the type of person to actually play your games. I reckon a lot of self-professed Wonder Boy “fans” aren’t the type to open the box, if you catch my meaning. Well, rest assured, importers, that the instruction manual within is as gorgeous as you’d expect for the Sega Ages series (though I reckon most people inclined to call instruction manuals “gorgeous” aren’t the type to open the box, et cetera). There’s some original artwork for Monster World IV all over the damned thing — neon signs pointing you toward which game to play — and hey, for the manual and Monster World IV alone, we’d gladly have given this a perfect score. My manual, however, had a hideously dog-eared final back cover straight out of the box, which may or may not be Sega’s fault. Here at action button dot net, we stand firm in our belief that When in doubt, it’s always Sega’s fault, so three stars it is.
In closing: the retro compilation of the month. Astounding, amazing, humbling. It used to be that some bastards like Namco would put three 128-kilobyte computer entertainment programs on a 1.5 gigabyte UMD and then air a Japanese TV commercial in which a man dressed up as a magician displays how you can send an entire game to your friend’s PSP while a bunch of hicks ooh and ahh, and I’d sit there on my sofa screaming until I was unconscious. Now we’ve got too much on these discs. Isn’t that nice? And did you hear about Wonder Boy V Monster World III showing up on Nintendo Wii Virtual Console? 600 yen, yeah. Man, heck that stuff.