Sega’s somewhat forgotten (and convoluted) Wonder Boy franchise has been receiving some proper recognition in the past few years thanks to Monster World IV getting an official North American release, the release of Lizardcube’s fantastic Wonder Boy 3 remake and most recently Monster Boy In The Cursed Kingdom. While the few that have played these games remember it for its action-RPG entries, few seem to bring up the wildly different first entry in the franchise. That’s most likely due to them remembering it as Adventure Island on the NES (the development of which is best discussed at a later time)- and it’s quite a shame too since it’s pretty much the “Great Value” edition in every department save for the soundtrack. Personally, I never cared to revisit Adventure Island after finishing it many moons ago thanks to it being painfully difficult- right up there with Micronics’ sloppy Ghosts n Goblins port on the NES (but hey, at least that one let you continue without having to find a secret item!). Suffice it to say, I was skeptical to jump into a game with a similar formula after having nightmares of Adventure Island 8-3 (anyone who’s reached that point should know EXACTLY what I’m talking about), but felt it necessary to run through what inspired it at least once.
It wasn’t long before I realized just how badly the NES got the shaft on this one. Yes, Wonder Boy looks considerably better with its more pleasing color palette and further variety in setpieces and backdrops…but it also manages to be superior where it truly counts- the gameplay.
Wonder Boy plays by the same general rules of that NES game I played religiously as a child, but with a few added tweaks. I was still running through tropical locales and caves, chucking tomahawks at the local wildlife all while keeping that bar at the top of the screen at a healthy length (it’s essentially a timer that’s replenished with the chow that appears throughout each stage). As usual, one hit from anything kills unless I happened to be riding a skateboard if I was lucky, I’d get a fairy that allowed me to plow through hordes of enemies without consequence. You may be asking yourself, “Retro, if it’s basically the same game (save for better graphics), what makes Wonder Boy that much better?”. My answer to this comes in four layers.
It’s Not One Long Ice Level
It didn’t dawn upon me just how slippery the controls were in Adventure Island until playing it right after finishing Wonder Boy a handful of times. Higgins would slide all over the damn place even when the heat of the forest was glaring down on him, and this problem was compounded by the legitimately icey caverns that would pop up frequently during the course of the adventure. This of course, made the platforming difficult in a way that it really shouldn’t have been. Tom-Tom (Wonder Boy’s protagonist) by comparison, has a smaller learning curve to handle. He still can’t stop on a dime, but there’s far more friction and jumping was generally tighter. This of course meant that death felt like it was more my doing than the game’s, which is how it ought to be.
The Set Pieces And Obstacles Are More Interesting
To be fair, the NES was technically inferior to the Sega Master System. However, I’m sure that Hudson could have incorporated at least some of the variety that Wonder Boy provided. Master Higgins winds up in forests, a seaside, a cave and occasionally a fortress of sorts…rinse and repeat for the course of eight worlds. Tom-Tom makes his way through a good number of those settings, sure, but there are a few additional settings with their own obstacles sprinkled throughout. There’s an oasis, clearings with volcanoes that spew out rocks in the background (I thought this was really neat), waterfalls and cloud kingdoms with thunderbolts raining down from time to time. It all makes for a much more engaging game with a better sense of progression and while some settings did of course repeat, I never felt like I was playing the same level twice-a feeling that set in quite often with Adventure Island.
It’s Tough But Fair
There are a lot of theories as to why older games were so hard. Some say that it was to prevent kids from beating a game during a weekend rental, some say it was to compensate for a lack of memory, and some would argue it helped sell guides and to get folks to phone in at costly tip hotlines. Whatever the case, Adventure Island was a prime example of a game that was “NES hard” for all the wrong reasons. As mentioned earlier, ice physics made certain areas needlessly difficult. In addition, there were some changes made in the level design to screw you out of a life from time to time including platforms that would drop without any indication and jumps across multiple platforms that simply required a lot of memorization to succeed with. Last but not least, the only way you could even hope to continue the game was to know of a rather cryptic secret towards the end of the very first level. Extra lives were quite scarce too, being awarded only at certain score increments. The last point makes sense given that Wonder Boy was originally an arcade game, but the culmination of these problems leads me to believe that Hudson kind of forgot about this when bringing it to the NES.
Wonder Boy on the Sega Master System, however, realizes it’s a home game and not an arcade game. The controls are much tighter, there are far more telegraphs when it comes to platforms that will move or collapse thanks to color changes as well as flickering (whether this was intentional or not, I can’t be sure, but it did help). There were still a few moments where I found myself saying “that’s bullshit”, such as lightning bolts coming out of nowhere in a later stage and the occasional falling-through of a platform but thanks to the fewer low-blows in stage design, I never found myself getting all that flustered at any point (not enough to make me want to shelve the game anyways). Hell, I even got to 9-4 without using a single continue on my second run to make it a near-1CC playthrough (something I wouldn’t dare even attempt with Adventure Island).
Perhaps the biggest difference that showed Sega’s understanding of the home market, however, is an infinite continue system that you don’t have to perform any decoding to use. Just as arcade compilations of the future would allow players to plop in as many virtual quarters as they’d like, this port allows you to keep playing regardless of how often you die (which will be a lot on a first run) with the only sacrifice being a reset score. The challenging level design still remains, but at least there’s no threat of losing a half hour to forty five minutes of progress after getting deep into the game. If that isn’t a “tough, but fair” approach to this kind of game, I don’t know what is.
There’s Reason To Come Back For More
Once you beat Adventure Island, there’s really no reason to come back to it unless you hate yourself and want to attempt the game on a single continue. While you can take a stab at one-credit-clearing Wonder Boy all the same, there is an added incentive to replay the game for those who aren’t into that kind of thing as much as I am.
Each level has a doll to collect. Some of them are right out in the open and others are in cryptic locations that may see you running smack dab into a boulder or campfire that would otherwise shave off precious seconds of the “timer”. Collecting every last doll and killing the boss of 9-4 (which would normally trip the game’s ending) will extend the game for one more set of levels. There’s unfortunately no way to revisit previous levels, so it’ll have to all be done in one playthrough. If you miss just one doll in the nine regular worlds, you’re shit out of luck as far as this side quest is concerned. Like the Chaos Emeralds/Special Stages in the classic Sonic trilogy, this objective isn’t forced on you and is simply something extra you can do on repeat runs once you’ve mastered the main game. Still in all, it’s better than nothing!
While Adventure Island hasn’t aged nearly as well as some other NES games, it’s definitely worth giving Wonder Boy a shot if it didn’t sell you on the gameplay formula via emulation or installing the Wii VC release via a back door. As of the time of this writing, the only re-releases of the original game are Japanese only. Given that the arcade game was given an “Arcade Archives” release by Hamster on the japanese Playstation Store, there is some hope that it will eventually find its way onto the North American store or perhaps even the Switch Eshop in the future though!