SEGA is never shy about re-releasing Sonic the Hedgehog and Shinobi games on every new console under the sun, but is oddly conservative when it comes to Wonder Boy / Monster World (different names due to localisation history, but the same series). With more focus on adventure and exploration and a light RPG touch, these games are a nice alternative to the action RPGs that dominated the early ‘90s, yet they often miss the cut for remake compilations and the like. Monster World IV has been particularly unlucky in this regard: it originally came out in 1994 for Mega Drive, but only in Japan, didn’t get localised until a Wii release in 2008, and hasn’t been seen since PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 versions in 2012.
Wonder Boy: Asha in Monster World is an attempt to remedy that oversight. A full remake of Monster World IV, it looks to revive that forgotten Mega Drive classic with a new art style and modern conveniences, while keeping the spirit and feel of the original truly alive. In that, it’s wildly successful: an almost exact note-for-note replica of its source material, flaws and strengths alike, but looking gorgeous and with some handy new little add-ons.
The most immediately apparent change, obviously, is how the game looks. Gone are the colourful pixel-art sprites in favour of equally colourful cel-shaded 3D graphics, keeping exactly the same tone and style but with more scope and depth in the scenery and more fluid animations. Anyone who knows me knows how much I love the 16-bit era of pixel art in particular, and the original Monster World IV remains a beautiful game to this day. Asha in Monster World doesn’t seek to replace that or even “update” it as such, but is just a new interpretation of the same sense of vibrant energy as the original.
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The other major changes come in the form of new features to make the more dated elements of the original a little more manageable. Instead of sparse, poorly-placed save points, you can now save anywhere you like, and with 15 save slots instead of the original game’s measly two. There are more Life Drops to find this time around, 200 compared to the original’s 150, and while there isn’t any extra health to gain from those extras—the bonus hearts you get from Life Drops still cap out at 15, with additional drops beyond that point being solely for the sake of completion—it’s a little bit easier to max yourself out even if you miss a few along the way. There’s also new easy difficulty, which doesn’t drastically alter the game but does make healing items a little bit easier to come by, in turn making it easier to just bulldog your way through the game’s more difficult fights. It doesn’t do much to help with some of the tricky platforming that comes in the later game, though.
There’s voiced dialogue now, only in Japanese (sorry, dub fans), but still enough to add a lot of personality to an already colourful cast. And this time around, instead of heavy armour being the inexplicable source of defence boosts for a girl in light Arabian dress that never changes, you get new bracelets in their place—exactly the same effect, but more consistent with the setting and visual design of the game.
Beyond that, Asha in Monster World is identical to the Mega Drive game. Every level is laid out exactly as it was, with the same enemy placements, the same puzzles, the same boss fights. The combat is still relatively simple on its own, but presented more as a small piece of a game focused more on exploration, with non-linear, puzzle-filled levels and the lure of Life Drops and gold to encourage you to leave no stone unturned. It’s not quite a full-blown metroidvania, but leans more towards the exploration side of things.
The best part of that discovery comes from your Pepelagoo, a strange little cat-like flying creature without whom you’d never get very far in your quest to save the kingdom from its latest monster invasion. Pepe can help you glide and double jump; he can swallow fire and act as a platform; you can throw him to hit distant switches. He’s an all around useful buddy to keep around, and packed into an extremely cute package.
He also grows. He’s a tiny hatchling when you first meet him, but with each new level you complete, he gets a little bigger. That has… interesting impacts on the way you interact with him. Monster World IV might be more than 25 years old, but I’m still not going to spoil what happens—suffice to say it’s a bold twist on the typical metroidvania progression, certainly divisive but, one that I appreciated all the more for its willingness to paint outside the lines a bit.
But staying so close to the original also means that Asha in Monster World keeps some of its flaws and annoyances intact, too. Combat may not be the primary focus, but it’s still a constant presence, which makes it a nuisance when you have to deal with enemy designs and combinations that make avoiding taking a hit practically impossible. And because of the way you bounce off enemies when you get it, there are some places where you can get stuck in and endless loop of just bouncing around off the electrified heads of a group of slimes with no real way to regain your footing. Boss fights are underwhelming at best, and tedious at worst—never really difficult in any meaningful way, but with little weak points that making scoring hits frustrating even once you’ve figured out how to dodge all their attacks.
A lot of items, upgrades, and Life Points are permanently (and easily) missable, which is disappointing in a game that has exploration at its core—few things are quite as satisfying in this sort of game as revisiting an old area to search for what you missed before. The maps are complex and labyrinthine enough to make the absence of a map noticeable: not so confusing that you can’t find your way to the end, but enough to make it a pain to keep track of where you’ve been and making sure you’ve explored every corner of every level. A remake like this would have been a perfect opportunity to add an in-game map (if Phantasy Star could do it…), but no dice.
Finding the right balance between being authentic to the original and easing the burden of dated game systems is always tricky, and Asha in Monster World mostly gets it right. But if it’s going to take the first few steps with its save system and easy mode, already ruling out being an exact replica, why not go a couple steps further and address some of those other issues?
For the purists and historians, Asha in Monster World also includes the original Monster World IV—but only as part of the boxed retail releases, with no alternative way for people who buy digitally to get it. I can understand the business case for doing this, and the appeal of a nice bonus for retail buyers, but it’s also frustrating to see a piece of history sectioned off like that. A full remake with the untouched original packed in is a neat way to both modernise a game and preserve the history that inevitably gets lost in the remake process, so it’s a shame that Monster World IV hasn’t been made more widely available. Hopefully it’ll get a separate release in due time.
But preservationist gripes aside, Wonder Boy: Asha in Monster World is a great remake of a delightful, if flawed, Mega Drive classic. The new art style is gorgeous, capturing the vibrant beauty of the original wonderfully, and the modern tweaks are welcome, though a few more wouldn’t go amiss. But most importantly, it stays true to what made Monster World IV so unique, which, for a game that Sega seems to have largely forgotten about, is lovely to see.
Title: Wonder Boy: Asha in Monster World
Developer: Westone Bit
Publisher: ININ Games
Platforms: Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PlayStation 4
Release date: 28 May 2021
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.