By Ewen Hosie
If I were to pick one word to sum up the Wonder Boy series, also known as Monster World, it would be ‘charming’. A classic Sega franchise of the Master System and Mega Drive era, its chibi characters, bold colours, tight controls and catchy tunes were all beloved. Then, it just kind of...stopped. There hasn’t been a new Wonder Boy since Monster World IV on the Mega Drive all the way back in 1994 – one of the system’s best games, but one that never came out in the west until a quiet digital launch in 2012 for PS3, Xbox 360 and Wii.
Wonder Boy also has a convoluted history; not only is it known by two names, Wonder Boy and Monster World, but the games were also rejigged under different titles and sometimes with different characters. Sega owns the rights to the titles and characters but not the game design, which has allowed different developers to adapt their games under different names and licences for various territories and formats. Hudson Soft, famous for Bomberman, adapted the original Wonder Boy as Adventure Island, eventually a unique series of its own, and would later reimagine Wonder Boy in Monster World as The Dynastic Hero for the TurboDuo console. In Brazil, three of the Wonder Boy games were swapped out with characters from popular local comic ‘Monica’s Gang’.
But there’s something of a resurgence on the way; Wonder Boy celebrated its 30th anniversary earlier this year, and not just one, but two shiny new games are coming out – with the support of series creator Ryuichi Nishizawa – to continue the legacy of this long-dormant series.
Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom, from French studio Game Atelier, is a passion project and spiritual successor that grew out of the company’s Kickstarter pitch for Flying Hamster II: Knight of the Golden Seed. With the backing of publishers FDG Entertainment, Flying Hamster II eventually grew into Monster Boy and the Wizard of Booze in early 2015, before being eventually retitled.
Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap – Sega Master System, 1989
The primary influence on both of the new games in the series, The Dragon’s Trap is quite possibly the finest game on the Master System and an under-appreciated 8-bit classic. The open-ended level design, animal transformations that unlock new abilities and gorgeous graphics make for a true winner. It’s Zelda II done right, basically.
Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap from Lizardcube, meanwhile, is a full-bore remake of the 1989 Master System classic Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap. It has Sega’s blessing, and will be published by DotEmu, a company notable for re-releases of emulated classics.
Not only are both developers based in Paris, but Game Atelier lead programmer David Bellanco and Lizardcube founder Omar Cornut know each other personally, having become friends on a computer course at university years earlier. Omar, an ex-Media Molecule dev who worked on Tearaway and Dreams, grew up with the Wonder Boy series as a child, while David was introduced to it by Omar through one of their classes.
“Around the year 2000 I enrolled in computer school and played a lot of Dreamcast at that time. That's when I met Omar, he was my senior by one year,” explains David. “He founded the 'Console Lab' there; it was a place where we could program on video game systems for fun or for credit on our second year course. We ended up bringing our own systems there to play after university hours; I would play the Dreamcast and as Omar was a Sega fan we would play Sega systems together in the lab. One day, he came back from Japan with the Wonder Boy in Monster Land arcade board and I became hooked.”
Monster World IV – Sega Mega Drive, 1994
My personal favourite in the series, Monster World IV is a bit of a departure, featuring a female protagonist, Asha, and an ‘Arabian Nights’-inspired art design, a refreshing change from the medieval fantasy of its predecessors. It’s less sprawling than other games in the series, but looks beautiful, and the gameplay is refined to a polished sheen. Monster World IV is sometimes cited as an influence on WayForward’s Shantae series due to its main character and setting. It is available via digital download for PS3, Xbox 360, Xbox One (BC) and Wii Virtual Console.
Omar also recalls this time with fondness: “that class is where I managed to 1-coin clear the game in hard mode, my biggest life achievement so far.”
Omar had wanted to work on a Wonder Boy project as far back as his college days, but says the timing of his and David’s current projects is a complete coincidence. “We saw each other from time to time,” Omar explains, “but for a while I was working in Kyoto and then in the UK, so I wasn’t often in Paris. We started working on The Dragon’s Trap in late 2013, when I was still in London. In mid-2014, [Game Atelier] announced Flying Hamster II, which was a surprise to me and evidently a loving homage to the Wonder Boy series, and then they stepped it up and pivoted it full-on into what is now Monster Boy.”
Game Atelier director Fabien Demeulenaere believes that it was only a matter of time before someone picked up the series again. “Monster World is a fascinating franchise and it’s been too long since a new episode was released,” he explains. “I don’t see any coincidence when so many people are craving to play or create a new game in the series. We’re all on board the same nostalgia train here.”
David had played Wonder Boy games a little bit at friends’ houses as a kid (it was a popular series in France), but did not discover a true passion for it until he was an adult: “During my childhood, I only had Nintendo systems,” he admits. For Omar, however, the Master System was a childhood fixture. He cites some of his early favourites for the system as Fantasy Zone, Psycho Fox, Alex Kidd, Zillion, and of course, the Wonder Boy series, particularly its third iteration, which he fell in love with instantly.
“I was one of the early subscribers to the French Sega Club – I think my member card said #201 – and one of the newsletters had covered The Dragon’s Trap,” he says. “My best friend then bought a copy, which I ended up borrowing for months. It was a major game for us at the time. The large scope, the password system, the six playable characters, the ‘Metroidvania’ structure... People coined that term, Metroidvania, but Wonder Boy was doing it before Castlevania! It was also sort of a weird game. It had characters selling you alcohol, eye-patched smoking pigs, a sphinx asking questions about his breakfast, and animal transformations.”
Wonder Boy in Monster World – Sega Mega Drive, 1992
Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom is definitely taking some visual cues from this title, the second Wonder Boy game to be released on the Mega Drive. It is considered one of the finest in the series, and both Fabien and David count it as their joint favourite alongside The Dragon’s Trap. It is available for Xbox 360, Xbox One (BC), Steam and Wii Virtual Console.
In the footage released of the new games so far, the passion is clearly on display. Both teams have eschewed the en vogue pixelated look a la Mega Man 10 or the upcoming Sonic Mania, instead choosing a cartoon art style that is faithful to the old games without being too deferential. The animation in these new projects looks particularly smooth, replicating the cadence of the originals but with an increased fluidity afforded by modern technology. David explains that most of the sprite animation in Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom is “classic 2D frames drawn by our animators”, which is then processed using Game Atelier’s in-house animation tool.
In Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap, lead animator Ben Fiquet uses Photoshop to animate the game’s characters. Like Omar, Ben has strong childhood memories of Wonder Boy: “I used to draw the characters on my school books,” he says.
Ben’s inspirations for the game’s hand-drawn, cartoon style are varied, extending beyond the original to include, he explains, a “kid’s anime vibe from the 80s”, as well as the feel of French comics, and old Dave Perry’s ‘Digicel’ games such as Aladdin, Cool Spot and Earthworm Jim – “I was so thrilled to watch those characters feel so alive.” Ben also studied Wario Land: The Shake Dimension (aka Shake It!) as an animation reference.
Wonder Boy III: Monster Lair – Arcade, Sega Mega Drive, TurboGrafx 16 as ‘Monster Lair’, 1988-1990
Something of a curio, Monster Lair is a side-scrolling shmup that harks back to the original Wonder Boy, since the series started life as a side-scrolling action game before becoming better known as an action-adventure with the release of sequel Monster Land. It’s still a lot of fun though, like Fantasy Zone with dragons. It is currently unavailable for modern formats.
“I’ve always loved that magical thing that makes a few little lines suddenly appear so full of life. So naturally, the first idea that popped into my mind when thinking about making a 2D game was traditional hand-drawn animation,” Ben says. “Usually a main character has between 50 and 60 unique frames, an enemy roughly 30. The good thing with a remake is that you are constrained to the timings of the original game. For example, I know exactly how many frames I can use for an attack animation.”
While Lizardcube’s game shows devotion to the Master System original, Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom serves as more of a tribute to the series as a whole (hence the melding of the franchise’s two names, Wonder Boy and Monster World). There are still some direct influences, though. According to Fabien, the game’s structure is primarily inspired by The Dragon’s Trap, featuring similar animal transformations and open-ended levels, but the enemy designs, modular equipment and environments take more from the later Mega Drive game Wonder Boy in Monster World. “And of course,” he adds, “As shmup fans we couldn’t miss the occasion to add a little bit of Wonder Boy III: Monster Lair in there as well.”
Both projects have received the approval of series creator Ryuichi Nishizawa, who acts as consultant, but Monster Boy’s musical pedigree is particularly impressive; its list of composers reads as a veritable ‘who’s who’ of Japanese talent.
“At the very beginning of the project we contacted Motoi Sakuraba and Yamane Michiru and they were very open to work with us from the start,” explains David. “Then FDG Entertainment got involved in the project and brought four other outstanding music composers: Yuzo Koshiro, Keiki Kobayashi, Takeshi Yanagawa and Haruka Shimotsuki. All of them have teamed up to re-arrange some themes from the classic Monster World games, but also to compose new music especially made for Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom."
Wonder Boy in Monster Land – Various formats, including arcade, Sega Master System and TurboGrafx 16, 1987
A marked change of pace from its frantic predecessor, Wonder Boy in Monster Land is the game that set the series on the action-adventure path it is known for today. The game is only slightly hampered when compared with its sequels due to its arcade origins; its levels featured an annoying time limit that would thereafter be scrapped. Omar from Lizardcube cites the arcade version of Monster Land as his favourite in the series apart from The Dragon’s Trap. It is available via digital download for Xbox 360, Xbox One (BC), PS3 and Wii Virtual Console.
Both games are set for tentative release early next year on consoles and PC. With any luck, they will not only complement each other, but spark a long overdue reappraisal of a fantastic gaming series.
For both David and Omar, Game Atelier and Lizardcube are just working hard to deliver a pair of great games. According to David, “Mr Nishizawa has been a real source of motivation for our team; we hope that he’ll enjoy the final version of Monster Boy, as it wouldn’t exist without his legacy.”
“Our first target is to get a faithful remake done, in term of playability, controls and the general feeling – we don’t want to mess it up”, explains Omar. “After all, if you were to do a remake of The Legend of Zelda and messed up the gameplay, there would be a riot outside, right?”