Friday 14 December 2018

Mega Drive Review - Wonder Boy III - Monster Lair (Game 174)

‘Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap’ is often described as one of the best Master System games, but there’s another third ‘Wonder Boy’ game that many chose to forget. 

Developed by Westone Entertainment 
Published by Sega
Released in 1991

The recent remake of ‘Wonder Boy : The Dragon’s Trap’ is simultaneously a lovingly faithful tribute and a complete overhaul. It’s a remarkable juxtaposition that tugs at the nostalgia strings of those who have played the original Master System gem, while also proving to be a wonderful entry into a series for those entirely new. It’s been embraced by fans of the original and those who had no idea that it was based on a thirty year old game since it plays and looks like a modern indie classic. IGN called it "one of the best retro remakes yet", while Eurogamer claimed that it sets the bar for updating classics.

While my 8 year old daughter loved the recent ‘Wonder Boy : The Dragon Trap’ remake, I was drawn to it because of my appreciation for ‘Wonder Boy in Monster World’. In the past I have confused myself by trying to work out which games are part of the main ‘Wonder Boy’ series, which are remakes and which are actually just other games with a new sprites to avoid legal disputes. However this didn’t stop me being totally confused when I purchased ‘Wonder Boy III’ for the Mega Drive. 

I had always (correctly) through that the prequel to ‘Wonder Boy in Monster World’ was the aforementioned Master System game ‘Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap’. However, the Mega Drive ‘Wonder Boy III’ I had in my hand had a different subtitle; “Wonder Boy III: Monster Lair’. Of the two games, the Master Systems’ ‘Wonder Boy III’ clearly has more in common with the Mega Drive’s ‘Wonder Boy in Monster World’ and should be acknowledged as the true predecessor. However, ‘ Wonder Boy III: Monster Lair’ echoes the original ‘Wonder Boy’ arcade game so theoretically it’s a more authentic follow up.

First appearing in Japanese arcades in 1988, the first half of ‘Monster Lair’s levels feature side-scrolling platforming action. Playing almost like modern endless runner game, your goal is to reach the end of a stage before your continually depleting health runs out. Collecting fruit earns you energy, thereby giving you more time to reach a goal and hitting obstacles of the way delays you. To deal with enemies our protagonist Leo has the ability to shoot a variety of projectiles from his sword. The sword and the projectiles it produces can be powered up by collecting specific items, producing firepower that would be far more appropriate in a shoot-em-up than a platform game. This isn’t a coincidence as it’s is the genre ‘Monster Lair’ changes into for the second half of each stage. As such Leo spends half the game riding a flying pink dragon, battling oncoming flying monsters and a large boss at the end of each stage. 

The paper thin story says that Princess Purapril (who later appears in ‘Monster World’) has tasked Leo with slaying all the beasts that have invaded their home world. Given it’s was originally an arcade game, you’re not offered any more plot than this. But the game does include a simultaneous two-player mode with one person controlling Leo and another the princess. Given that the Royal Highness is just as capable as the enlisted Hero, you can’t help but wonder why Purapril didn’t just kill all the monsters herself, without the need for hired help. 

According to the short lived Raze magazine “the graphics are very colourful, although they slow down a bit when there's too much going on.” Visually it’s unmistakably a ‘WonderBoy’ game, even if it’s much less ambitious than ‘Monster World’. 
‘Monster Lair’ offers varied environments inhabited by creative enemies many of which are call-backs to foes met in the first two games in the series. The end of stage impressive bosses are detailed, well animated and so absurd they would fit neatly in a ‘Parodius’ game. Alongside vampires that clone themselves and angry giant snowmen, One particularly creative boss is actually a a giant mushroom fruit-machine.
As the battle progresses you are rewarded or published based on the outcome of reel spins. Another appears to be a disembodied heart wearing a hat and sunglasses, who’s floating hands reach out for you during the battle. Most bosses are overly strong bullet sponges but they by change in appearance to show how much damage has been done. Some even have to defeated in two forms, with each requiring a different attack process.

As is often the case, despite its adorable and surreal character designs, the game can prove brutally difficult as most stage enemies can kill you in a single hit. This is no doubt down to the game being based on an arcade title, which by it’s very nature, was designed to end games as quickly as possible.

The difficult is certainly exasperated by some unfair enemy placement in the shooting sections; where specific waves offer very few safe areas. Like a bullet-hell shooter, it's really beneficial to attempt to memorise the attack patterns of your enemies so you can perform better in subsequent retries. Alternatively the impatient can just adjust the numbers of continues and the difficulty in the options. In fact it seems that seeing the game’s end is hard to avoid on the easiest mode.

With 13 rather than 14 stages, the Mega Drive version of ‘Monster Lair’ is shorter than the arcade original but it still takes over an hour for a knowledgeable player to finish. For CVG magazine this is too long. “Wonder Boy 3 is initially quite enjoyable, but the action is quite monotonous so it all gets pretty tedious after a while. “ the lunacy of some of the bosses may encourage you to come back for more. You certainly won’t be staying for the plot, especially when at the end it’s revealed that the monsters are actually aliens, a twist that makes no sense within the ‘Wonder Boy’ universe.

It’s two gameplay components, while enjoyable together, are both done better individually elsewhere. It’s a game that is part mediocre playformer, part mediocre shooter and combining the two enhances neither. The shooter segments may include creative bosses and adorable graphics, but these can also be found in ‘Pop N Twinbee’ or ‘Cotton 100%’. Alternatively, if it’s fantasy platforing adventure you’re after, you my as well just play ‘Wonder Boy in Monster World’ which builds on everything that’s here. 

Despite its inclusion in many recent Mega Drive collections (including one released this year on the Switch and PS4) the ‘Monster Lair’ version of ‘Wonder Boy III’ is certainly less well known than ‘The Dragon’s Trap’. Maybe this is because the game never saw a Genesis release, but for modern gamers it’s probably because the recent remake of ‘Dragon’s Trap’ was so widely adored that its eclipsed any other version of ‘Wonder Boy III’. To be honest, if only one game is destined to be remember it’s right that ‘Monster Lair’ is to become the forgotten entry in the ‘Wonder Boy’ series.

Where did I get this game?
Events like the Play Expo in London give you chance to browse dozens of Retro Stockists, many of which offer rarer games. I found this on Sore Thumbs stall, in great condition and complete. Given how much I enjoyed 'Wonder Boy in Monster Land' I thought a £20 punt was worth it for this game. The price was great even if the game wasn't. 

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