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Monster Land and the pleasure of tension

As I recounted yesterday, Wonder Boy in Monster Land runs hot and cold with its enticing RPG Lite mechanics belied by unmistakable arcade difficulty. But I’m here today to tell you there is life after being thrown from the final stage straight back to the title screen. In fact, this is where the game’s simplistic veneer begins to give way, revealing a textured bag of tricks the player can use to stack their odds in a rematch with the dreaded Round 11.

The first step on road to victory is raising funds, and this is where some outside information comes in handy. You’ll already have found many spots throughout the game where standing or jumping causes coins or money bags to materialize, and it pays to poke around and locate as many of these as possible. However, if these invisible fonts of wealth weren’t arcane enough, Monster Land layers an even more obscure secret right on top of them. By taking damage from an enemy, using a sub-weapon, or—and this is real—rapidly wiggling left and right the instant the money appears, its value will increase dramatically. Unassisted drops typically have values in the single digits, while drops manipulated in any of the described fashions will always come in between sixty and seventy. The technique demands precision, but pulling it off even part of the time will give you a major advantage.

The benefit is so crucial that it’s almost unfair of Westone to have hidden it so well, but it’s really another influence of the arcade scene of its day, where players needed to pool their knowledge to puzzle out how to reveal the treasure chest on any given floor in The Tower of Druaga or unlock better endings in Rainbow Islands. Fortunately, the Sega Vintage Collection release of Monster Land makes up for the loss of that cultural context by explaining these mechanics up-front in the digital manual. Developer M2, in all their wisdom, even let you map a button with the sole function of wiggling at inhuman speed. This is why they’re the best in the business.

The Sphinx is second only to the last boss in difficulty, but you don’t need to fight it at all if you heard the gossip at the pyramid bar.

With this knowledge in hand, you’ll have plenty of money; you just need to hold on to it. And the best way to do that, of course, is not to die. That’s easier said than done, but just as dying the first time sets you on a downward spiral of poverty and defeat, having enough cash to buy boots and a shield at the earliest opportunity goes a long way toward keeping ahead of the curve. Treating the entire game as a one-credit affair also reveals a system where meeting certain score thresholds earns boosts to your maximum HP. Like gold, your score is reset when you die and continue, so you could spend an entire credit-feeding session unaware that you can add to your hearts at all. In fact, you can augment your initial quintet of hearts with up to five more, potentially doubling your odds of survival by the end of the game.

These windfalls afford greater margins of error in which you can practice basic skills like precision movement and positioning, and you’ll wonder how you ever traded so many hits with enemies once you can reliably plant yourself outside their range and stab them with the very tip of your sword. (Aggressively wiggling at coins also has a way of helping you get a handle on your momentum.) Your mind will also be freed up to devise schemes to wring even more leverage out of the game, like dropping  a few gold on a bar drink just so the minimal HP recovery will reset the hourglass, or checking in to a hospital with nearly full health for a score bonus that’ll bring you that much closer to your next heart.

The next time you arrive in Round 11, you’ll be so decked out that you probably wouldn’t mind if you had to lose your remaining gold and points to a continue—but again, it’s all or nothing from here on out. While you may recall from The Dragon’s Trap‘s prologue that the castle is a maze, that incarnation is a mere reenactment, made to recall the basic concept while being short and simple enough to serve as the first area of a new game. The real thing, on the other hand, is as arduous an ordeal as you’d expect from an arcade game’s final challenge. Leaving a screen via the wrong exit will warp you to an earlier position with no sense of structural logic, so your only guide is that the path forward is usually the trickiest one to reach. The reaching itself can be an endeavor as well, whether it requires defeating enemies that spawn sequentially on opposite ends of a hall or quickly leaping back and forth between a pair of alternately rising platforms.

While you’re piecing all this together, of course, the hourglass continues counting down, slowly but surely sapping your hearts and heralding the Game Over of no return. There is a bell item that chimes when you’re on the right track, but it can only be acquired by talking to all the right people throughout the game and foregoing a ruby that can cut the final boss’s life in half. As unfriendly as the labyrinth is, the dragon at the end of it is hard to kill even at partial strength, much less without that gem. The choice is not easy, and playing this game now, staring down the very real possibility of all your carefully laid plans ending in another trip back to square one, no one could blame you for taking the ruby and looking up a map online.

I should also note you can save and load your progress with impunity in the Sega Vintage release—a temptation I resisted until the first time I made it to Round 11 in peak condition. I admit it: I was so pleased with my progress and balked at the thought of doing it all over again if I died in the final stage. And died I did. Now empowered by the clemency of retro rereleases, I simply loaded my save to try again. My second attempt went about as well as the first, but the third time was the charm. I beat the game…but I didn’t really feel like I’d won. I’d nearly gone the distance on Monster Land‘s own terms, and I knew merely watching the credits roll couldn’t be as exhilarating as sealing the deal in one beautiful, unbroken assault on the dragon’s castle. Far from feeling done, I couldn’t wait to start over from Round 1. Half an hour later, I beat the game again. First try—didn’t even need to use the life medicine I got in Round 10. And though I was back where I’d just been, watching the same credits roll, the feeling couldn’t have been more different.

This, at last, is Monster Land‘s greatest strength, perfectly encapsulating how our experiences with games can be transformed simply by altering our approach to them. First you learn to keep moving because the game demands it, and you might figure that’s what it’s about. When moving by itself proves insufficient, you gradually learn to make strategic considerations and identify the opportunities provided to you. Once you’re at this level, you can focus on honing your skills, and only when you’ve mastered them can you finally put together a winning run. (And somewhere along the way, you learn to wiggle.) Each layer you uncover requires your mindset to evolve and adapt, and it rewards you with an ever-increasing sense of accomplishment. Save-scumming may get you to the end, but you might not look back on what you beat as anything more than a pleasant diversion. However, should you engage and appreciate everything it has to offer, you just might remember Wonder Boy in Monster Land as one of the most satisfying times you’ve ever spent with a game.

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How “Wonder Boy 2” became genre soup

Released in 1986, Westone’s Wonder Boy might be the quintessential arcade platformer. Even a casual observer would note its breezy sensibility, its single path forward, its sense of forward momentum—its “arcade feel.” But what all these boil down to is an intimate connection to the economics of arcade games. To wit: “Time is money.” We know from interviews with industry veterans that arcade developers designed their games with a certain rule of thumb in mind: On average, players should drop a hundred-yen coin into the machine every three minutes. This was easily gauged early on, as games didn’t allow for downtime at all: There’s nowhere to run from the encroaching aliens in Space Invaders, and aside from some inherently brief intermissions and flashes of invincibility, Pac-Man keeps the player under constant threat of being hunted down by monsters. But as games evolved into more granular experiences, they began to allow the player more control over their pace. With this came the potential to lengthen that all-important wait for the next coin, so developers realized the need for measures ensuring the player would always be either in danger or in the process of moving somewhere dangerous.

Bosses in Gradius games abruptly explode if fights drag on too long, not to reward or even admonish the player but simply to get the screen scrolling again, hopefully to somewhere they might be better at dying. Some games track an invisible timer that spawns a hard-to-dodge hazard when time’s up, such as the infamous Baron von Blubba in Bubble Bobble or the fatal mist that slowly but inexorably creeps up behind the player in Splatterhouse. Many others settled for the less organic but easily understood tactic of imposing a hard limit on the player’s time and throwing it up on the screen. This was the approach Westone used for Wonder Boy, but they took it further by making the timer a distinctly prominent part of the display, depicted as a gauge so the player can watch as the color drains out of it. And it depletes quickly—far more quickly than you can complete even a single stage—demanding you gather fruit to bump it back up. This constant tug-of-war against entropy proves to be a major focus of Wonder Boy‘s design, as important as beating enemies and leaping hazards as you charge ever to the right, eyes peeled for the next melon.

A year later, producer Ryuichi Nishizawa found himself in a mindset that couldn’t have less to do with arcade games. Much like Yuji Horii, he was obsessed with the seminal computer RPG Wizardry. But while Horii had no trouble transitioning from graphic adventures into Dragon Quest, Nishizawa was burdened by his previous success. Everyone expected a sequel to Wonder Boy. Ultimately, his solution was to take the first game’s trademark urge to move and mash it up with an RPG’s exploration, resource management, NPCs, and character growth. The Frankenstein child that resulted was Wonder Boy in Monster Land.

Even the display is influenced by RPGs of the day, with a screen-sized HUD divided into discrete little sections for your stats and equipment while the action unfolds in a window.

You won’t find much fruit in Monster Land, but you will find money that can be spent in shops for boots, shields, and armor. As you upgrade your equipment, you can run faster, jump higher, block projectiles, and sustain more damage. Temporary buffs appear as gauntlets for offense, helmets for defense, and winged boots to make great flying leaps. You can duck into bars and listen to gossip in the form of boss strategies and directions to otherwise unindicated secrets. You’ll knock on invisible doors, outsmart the Sphinx, use an array of magical sub-weapons, and even embark on a game-spanning side-quest for an item of unrivaled power. But throughout it all, true to Monster Land‘s heritage, you will always be under the gun to press on as fast as you can.

Shops close forever after you make a purchase, visit them twice, or idle inside for maybe twenty seconds. Aside from the shop screen, there are no menus. Your sub-weapons can’t be selected; they just pile on top of each other in one big stack in the order you picked them up. And most pressing of all, the timer from Wonder Boy is back, now in the form of an implacable hourglass. When the sands run out, you’ll lose one heart from a row  of only five, and then the thing flips over and starts counting down to the next heart. Recovering HP by any means (including completing a stage) will also reset the timer, but aside from that, the sand can only be restored by touching a rare hourglass item.

As you’re pressured to advance, your first trip through Monster Land will likely be a comedy of errors where you dash past opportunities to improve your condition and rush headlong into enemies due to your slightly slippery movement. When you inevitably die, you can keep your progress as long as you insert another credit, but you lose your gold. This leads to a vicious cycle where you lack the funds to buy equipment, die because you’re sorely underdressed, lose your gold…and repeat. Swords don’t cost a thing, but they’re all guarded by optional bosses, and you’ll reach a point where these become practically unwinnable without the right gear. With enough determination, though, it is possible to bumble through the game in this sorry state—right up until the Round 11, the final stage. When you die here, you’ll line up the next credit as you’ve done many times before…only to find yourself looking at the title screen.

Yes, in the harshest reminder that it’s an arcade game first and foremost, Monster Land cuts off the ability to continue once you approach the end, ruling out even a cynical “pay to win” option. It’s a shot in the gut if you’re not expecting it, but this is a short enough game that you can keep most of it in your head at once. Once the shock wears off, you may find yourself thinking back over every wrong turn and how much better things could have gone—formulating an all-encompassing plan of attack. And the trip back to Round 1 may not be the cruel joke it appears to be, for it’s here, in the runback, where Monster Land really starts to shine.

Come back tomorrow for what I promise will be my last time writing about Wonder Boy and/or Monster World…for a while. And I swear I’ll tell you about the wiggling.

 

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There awaits only more Monster World

Last month, French developer LizardCube released their beauteous remake of Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap remake, a painstaking ode to a classic game which had gone largely overlooked solely for being trapped on the wrong hardware. Now any fan of retro platformers, action RPGs, and/or Metroidvanias owes it to themselves to put console allegiances aside and spend a few hours getting lost in the dense forests, arid wastes, winding caverns, and deep blue sea of Monster World. Then again, being the on-the-ball Retronaut you are, maybe you’ve already completed Bocke’s journey to regain his human form and found yourself yearning for more. If that’s the case, you should look no further than the assortment of Monster World games Sega brought to PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and Wii back in 2012.

Ported by the masters at M2, the titles number three in all: Wonder Boy in Monster Land, Wonder Boy in Monster World, and Monster World IV. Looking past the localized titles that only exacerbate this series’ confusing lineage, what you have here are in fact Monster World I, III, and IV. (Though in fact, the arcade version of Monster Land is titled as such even in Japan. For whatever reason, the Japanese Sega Master System version was renamed Monster World, and the series continued from there.) The Dragon’s Trap, which is Monster World II, was unfortunately passed over at the time, perhaps owing to the fact that only the downsized Game Gear version had been released in Japanese before; the Master System version was exclusive to America and Europe. But with this year’s remake, which includes the game in its original form, the entire Monster World series is now available to play in one modern format or another. (But not, mind you, the entire Wonder Boy series… Westone must have been on some kind of mission to make a line of games this mystifying.) Whether you’re a new recruit or you carried Westone’s torch all these years, there’s never been a better time to plunge into this world of side-scrolling role-playing and funny animal people.

Same.

Monster World IV is the easiest to recommend, boasting a fluid move set, fleshed-out dungeon puzzles, a heartwarming story, a setting that evolves over time, adorable animations, and a stunning use of color that you’d never guess was brushing up against the limits of the Genesis hardware. All that said, it’s also the least similar to every other game in the series—a brave new world unto itself, but maybe not the first thing to reach for if you’re just after a fundamental Monster World experience. Wonder Boy in Monster World is a more workmanlike installment that plays out a bit like a “greatest hits” compilation of the series up to that point. There’s nothing particularly wrong with it, but it’s definitely best to play in order of release. Come to it before its predecessors, and its many homages will fly right over your head; go back to it after the clean break that is Monster World IV, and you’ll probably find yourself disappointed by its relative lack of ambition.

If you’re fresh off The Dragon’s Trap, I would instead point you to its direct predecessor: Wonder Boy in Monster Land. For one thing, The Dragon’s Trap begins shortly before the end of Monster Land, with our hero facing down a robotic dragon at the heart of an impossible maze, and you might be wondering how he got into that predicament in the first place. For another, well…Monster Land might actually be the secret best game in the series. Compared to a latter-day 16-bit effort like Monster World IV, it may appear simplistic at first—archaic, even—but there’s a lot going on under its hood. There’s so much, in fact, that I started talking about it and soon realized I couldn’t stop. So come back tomorrow for part two, where I’ll explain at length how Monster Land‘s various moving parts combine to instill the player with a sense of tension and accomplishment rarely found in games. For now, I’ll leave you with this hint: it involves wiggling. A lot of wiggling.

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Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap | The Retronauts review

Remaking a beloved classic forces developers to grapple with their own pixellated version of the Ship of Theseus paradox: How heavily can a game be altered while remaining fundamentally the same work? What parts should be altered? To what degree should those modifications be allowed to reshape the underlying work?

LizardCube’s new remake of SEGA Master System metroidvania Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap is one of the rare instances in which the developers were able to sidestep this question altogether right at the outset. This remake began as a programming exercise for an enthusiastic fan (Omar Cornut) who wanted to dissect the tech behind the game and rebuild it for new systems. Rather than taking broad liberties with this new rendition of The Dragon’s Trap, Cornut prioritized fidelity first and foremost. This is a remake in the most literal sense: Not a reimagining, but rather a genuine recreation of the 8-bit work from the ground up.

Much as with Saber and 343i’s Halo Anniversary Editions, The Dragon’s Trap gives players a visually upgraded overlay that sits atop the original game, modified to run on new hardware and containing a handful of bonus secrets, but ultimately unchanged. The world layout, the physics, the enemy movements: They’re all the same as they were way back in 1989 on Master System. In fact, as with the aforementioned Halo remakes, The Dragon’s Trap allows players freely toggle between the new look and the original game sprites with the press of a button. The 8-bit visualizer mode isn’t simply the original Master System game running under emulation, either; the graphics have been modified to fill the widescreen layout of modern devices like Nintendo Switch (the version I’ve been playing) or PlayStation 4.

It’s a stunning exercise in digital archaeology, the programming equivalent of unearthing a dinosaur fossil and reassembling it perfectly… then allowing viewers to observe it as either a bare skeleton or with a detailed new skin. It almost seems excessive, but in the best way possible. How many remakes allow you to take a password into the original version of the game to play for a while, then seamlessly carry the progress you made there back into the new rendition?

This scrupulous fidelity to the source material comes with both benefits and drawbacks, of course — the developers’ pixel paradox in action. On the plus side (and this is an enormous plus), it means the extravagant new visuals don’t compromise playability. The Dragon’s Trap looks absolutely gorgeous, with elaborate, stylish, and above all fluid animation fleshing out the game’s sprawling world. Purists can opt to play with the original bitmaps, garish color palettes and all, but I can’t see why anyone would. The remake looks as good as any other 2D platformer I’ve ever seen, and possibly better.

But LizardCube’s core design philosophy — that is, change none of the game’s substance — neatly sidesteps the biggest issue that normally arises when a game looks this nice. Beautifully animated games tend to prioritize animation above responsiveness, an issue you’re especially likely to experience in other hand-drawn games of European origins. Think Rayman: Games that look great and move with visual grace, but which insist on playing out a full animation cycle on-screen before responding to player inputs. Because The Dragon’s Trap is ultimately running on a reconstructed 8-bit framework, it moves like an 8-bit game. When you tap the controls in a given direction, your character immediately moves in that direction. Perhaps the greatest accomplishment on display here (in a release that sets several technical standards for future classic remakes) is the way in which the characters still manage to animate fluidly within those limitations. There’s a whole lot of in-betweening work that plays out between the stilted animation cycles of the Master System original, and each of your protagonist’s five incarnations manages to pull off a variety of moves without ever breaking the illusion. It’s truly extraordinary, all the more so for the impression that every frame of every character and bad guy was drawn individually rather than relying on Flash-style “puppet” animation that many other best-of-class 2D developers (e.g. Vanillaware, WayForward, or Klei) sometimes use as shortcuts.

Taking such a faithful approach does present its share of problems, though, and The Dragon’s Trap unfortunately falls afoul of the biggest of them: Namely, by holding so faithfully to a game from nearly 30 years ago, LizardCube chose to forego any opportunities to refine it.

Now, some may hold to the idea that new developers have no business monkeying around with someone else’s classic, that the point of a remake like this is simply to reproduce the source material, warts and all. I disagree. Game design has come a long way in 30 years; back when Westone first created Wonder Boy III, developers were still tinkering with fundamental concepts of balance and fairness. To their credit, this game feels far less punishing than other contemporary nonlinear games. Wonder Boy (or Girl — one of the more thoughtful cosmetic elements of this remake is the option to chose your protagonist’s gender) can soak up quite a bit of damage from foes. If you venture into an area and find yourself hopelessly outclassed by the bad guys there, you shouldn’t be in that area just yet.

That said, the original game still had its share of minor frustrations. The physics can feel a little odd for those accustomed to the elegant jump mechanics of other games, and there are a few places (especially late in the game) where enemy placement feels needlessly punishing. The world desperately needs a few reverse shortcuts, too. Every area has a door to warp players back to the main village that serves as the game’s hub, but you need to trek the whole way on foot when you want to venture out to the hinterlands. If you lose to a boss, you can look forward to slogging your way back from the start. Likewise, the one shop that sells precious life potions is a good five-minute jaunt through a mouse-sized maze, even for a powered-up hero. You’ll get to know that route quite well, since you have to bumble through it any time you want to restock your potions.

It’s a testament, then, to the excellence of the original game that it still plays well in 2017 despite these quality-of-life issues. The third chapter in the sprawling Wonder Boy series (along with the other Wonder Boy III, Monster Lair — yes, it’s confusing, but we’ve sorted it out for you in podcast form) built on the rudimentary action RPG elements that appeared in 1987’s Wonder Boy in Monster Land. Where Monster World had the brisk pacing and simplistic structure required for a game originating in arcades, though, Wonder Boy III appeared strictly on consoles and could afford to indulge in fully non-linear design. It’s packed with secrets, equipment, and pathways that you may spot right off but can only explore once you’ve acquired the appropriate power.

Those powers helped make the game so interesting. The journey begins at the finale of the previous game, with the final boss encounter working as a sort of prologue; once you defeat the last game’s boss, Wonder Boy is cursed to become a monster. With each new boss you destroy, you’re cursed anew to become a different creature: A lizard, a mouse, a fishman, etc. Each form has both advantages and drawbacks. The mouse, for example, has absolutely awful attack range, but can slip through tiny passages and climb certain walls. In time, you gain the ability to swap between your cursed forms at certain key locations, and learning when and how to make the most of each curse becomes a huge part of completing the game.

Original developers Westone put together one of the most advanced and interesting action RPGs of the ’80s, one that could stand toe-to-toe with hits such as Zelda II and would go on to exert some very obvious influence on the likes of Castlevania: Symphony of the NightShantae and Little Samson. Its problem was one of obscurity. Wonder Boy III appeared on multiple systems back in the day, but they were all the least popular platforms of each category: Master System, TurboGrafx-16, Game Gear. Hopefully the fact that this visually stunning (and still quite entertaining!) remake is showing up on the most popular platforms of the era — PlayStation and Steam, as well as being one of the first notable releases for Switch — will allow this 8-bit masterpiece to finally receive the acclaim it’s due.

The remake’s changes are literally skin deep… but what a great-looking skin they’ve created. And that skin been fitted over a game that didn’t really need much corrective surgery in the first place. I wouldn’t have complained about a few minor gameplay refinements, especially options to make navigating back to conquered areas less time-consuming, but I can’t fault LizardCube for creating a brilliantly, beautifully faithful take on this 8-bit classic.

Verdict: Highly recommended

Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap
Developer: LizardCube | Publisher: DotEmu
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Steam, Switch, Xbox One
Release date: April 18, 2017

This review was based on software provided by the publisher for review purposes.

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