Wonder Boy has a bit of an odd history. It sits alongside Alex Kidd as one of Sega’s more iconic second-string platformers (behind Sonic the Hedgehog, of course), yet inconsistencies with naming conventions, numbering, localisations gave the series a bit of a disjointed canon. Spotty appearances in other Sega compilations haven’t helped matters—Wonder Boy games show up regularly, but to date, the only place to find all six classic games has been a Japan-only PS2 collection. You might hope that something called “Wonder Boy Collection” would address that.
You’d be wrong. The latest collection to hit digital storefronts includes four Wonder Boy adventures: Wonder Boy, Wonder Boy in Monster Land, Wonder Boy in Monster World, and Monster World IV. But four is a couple short of six, which means there are a couple of absences—namely, the two Wonder Boy IIIs (Monster Lair and The Dragon’s Trap, which, despite sharing a number, are two completely different games released a year apart).
It seems a strange exclusion. To be fair, store descriptions are make it very clear that this is “A carefully curated collection of essential Wonder Boy releases”, and never suggests that it’s a complete collection, it seems bizarre to go to the effort of compiling those four without just going a few extra steps and doing a full set… until you remember that Strictly Limited Games also has a limited edition (and already sold out) Wonder Boy Anniversary Collection on the way. That one does include all six games, and with a few different versions of each based on different releases.
It seems a cynical move, releasing what is, essentially, a stripped back digital version in the lead up to an upcoming limited edition physical release. Special Editions should absolutely have special goodies and rare items that make them, well, special—you’ll never hear me argue otherwise. The Collector’s and Ultimate Editions of Wonder Boy Anniversary have art books, stickers, soundtracks, and all that quintessential collector’s edition stuff, as well they should. But gating pieces of the software that feel like they should be core to the package—as opposed to bonus skins or whatever—just seems unnecessary and miserly. The lack of Wonder Boy IIIs would have been disappointing regardless, but seeing them included in the limited edition of what is, effectively, the same game leaves an especially sour taste in my mouth. (And despite having slightly different names, make no mistake: Wonder Boy Collection is the digital equivalent of Wonder Boy Anniversary Collection, right down to the key artwork used.)
But missing pieces and cynical release strategy aside, Wonder Boy Collection is a decent bundle. It traces the series roots, from relatively humble roots to a rather unique blend of RPG and nonlinear, exploration-centric platformer. The original Wonder Boy is a fairly straightforward arcade platformer, but with plenty of personality and a few fun little gimmicks—it’s fun, if not especially remarkable beyond nostalgia and its place in history. Wonder Boy in Monster Land is where things start to get a little more experimental, with light RPG-inspired touches and a level design that’s a little more open. By the time we get to Wonder Boy in Monster World—skipping past the intervening games that aren’t included here—the series’ unique qualities are pretty firmly established; exploring all its intricacies remains a delight to this day, whether or not you’ve played it before.
But the real standout of this Wonder Boy Collection is Monster World IV. That’s partially because it’s the newest of the bunch, and with that, the most refined in a lot of ways and the most experimental in others. It’s partially because Asha is just a much more interesting and likeable hero than any of the various Wonder Boys before her, with the most personality. But mostly, it’s because it makes a noteworthy but relatively obscure historical artifact readily available on current platforms for the first time since the PS3/Xbox 360/Wii era. The Mega Drive version of Monster World IV was included in limited editions of last year’s remake, but anyone who didn’t get one of those was out of luck. Now, there’s at least some way for folks to easily access an official release of the high point of the whole Wonder Boy series.
Despite their age—Wonder Boy is more than 35 years old now!—each game holds up surprisingly well. They’re smartly designed, challenging without being deliberately unfair in the way that so many of their peers are, and the later, more RPG-ish ones were ahead of their time in a lot of little ways.
They do still have a few rough edges by modern standards, but the ports come with the usual assortment of convenience functions to help make them more playable and less potentially frustrating: fast-forward and rewind, save states, customisable difficulty settings, and the like. (If you’ve played any of Ratalaika’s other retro ports, like Gynoug, the interface and options will be immediately familiar.) There’s also the standard array of display filters and aspect ratio settings. I don’t know the originals well enough to be able to comment on the accuracy of the ports, but they certainly look, play, and feel as you’d expect from a set of arcade and Mega Drive games.
Lastly, Wonder Boy Collection also includes an art gallery, as has become pretty standard for retro collections like this. It’s a comparatively small assortment of artwork and packaging scans—a far cry from, say, Capcom Fighting Collection‘s literal hundreds of pieces—presented in a rudimentary fashion with no options to zoom or disable the navigation. But barebones as it is, it’s at least something, and the art itself is as joyous as ever.
If you look only at what is included, Wonder Boy Collection is a decent compilation: a selection of historically significant games—the elusive Monster World IV among them—that hold up surprisingly well, ported cleanly and with the usual assortment of helpful functions. But as good as what’s here is, and despite the marketing speak describing it as a “carefully curated collection”, the package feels incomplete without the two Wonder Boy IIIs. That’d be disappointing regardless, but it’s especially egregious when the (already sold out) limited edition counterpart does include them. Wonder Boy Collection is good for what it is, but it’s missing some crucial pieces, and for the most cynical of reasons. Westone Bit’s classics deserve better than that.