Wonder Boy: Asha in Monster World review: welcome return of a 16-bit classic

The Wonder Boy/Monster World series is an eclectic, convoluted and beloved set of games that practically require a dissertation to explain their history, but they’re easy to parse from a gameplay perspective. They fill an interesting gap between traditional platformers and the more open-natured exploratory games that are all the rage today. Or, if you want to be reductive, they’re something of a proto-Metroidvania. While the series’ earliest outings were more of an auto-scrolling left-to-right affair, the games eventually branched out with interconnected levels, an inventory system and a depth that would gradually build as the series went on.

Some say the pinnacle of this was Monster World IV, a culmination of all that had come before it in a beautiful Genesis/Mega Drive release that has become nothing short of a cult classic. Through the powers that be it has been remastered and rebranded as Wonder Boy: Asha in Monster World. Naming conventions aside, this game stars a plucky heroine named Asha who leaves her village (in what serves as a clever tutorial, especially for its time) to save the world from impending doom. She finds her way to a desert oasis city that serves as the hub for the game.

Rather than being an open world, Asha strings together its stages in a specific order like a traditional platformer, but the player needs to earn access to the next level by milling about town to find a McGuffin that lets you move on. These parts are also where you can spend the coins you’ve picked up along the way to upgrade your health, weaponry and shields, as well as fulfill rudimentary side quests. The structure definitely feels disjointed in a way, but charmingly so because you can tell that the original developers (who helped with this release) were scratching the surface of giving players more freedom.

The levels proper, and the dungeons you reach after playing them, are quaint in design, but still fun to explore even if they aren’t particularly complex. Controlling Asha feels great; her move set is instantly comfortable, and through her floating companion you get a sense of progression, as the more fruit you feed it, the more abilities it gains. Unfortunately a lot of what Pepelogoo is able to do isn’t always spelled out for you, which has you running into some obtuse design. Still, once you figure it out, it gives each new stage a gimmick that is well implemented. Even though the stage design doesn’t feel cohesive, it’s still fun to explore, not only because it scratches a particular retro platforming itch, but also because the remade visuals and sound design are wonderful.

Asha in Monster World adds some much-needed quality-of-life improvement, most important of which is the ability to save anywhere. The sage who you used to have to find in order to save your progress makes light of his lessened role, but still dispenses wisdom to help you out. During certain moments when you need a specific item, the game doesn’t force you to open your inventory, instead just allowing you to use it with the press of the button. The one exception to this is the map you use in the game’s third area, which desperately needs its own dedicated button. I ended up just using rote memory to make my way through because it was such a nuisance.

Wonder Boy: Asha in Monster World stays faithful enough to the 16-bit game that those who play it will get the original experience, just with a shinier coat of paint. And as a bonus, anyone who picks up a physical copy will get the original version as well for comparison. Asha is a lovingly crafted throwback – and that’s something you’ll need to remember going in. It’s not as clever as the latest and greatest in the genre we now call Metroidvania, but it still holds up, even though it’s relatively rudimentary in its exploration by today’s standards. In short, Asha in Monster World is proof that the past is worth mining, because you can still discover gems.

Wonder Boy: Asha in Monster World was developed by Studioartdink and Inin Games, and it’s available on Switch and PS4. We reviewed the Switch version.

Disclosure statement: review code for Wonder Boy: Asha in Monster World was provided by PR Hound. A Most Agreeable Pastime operates as an independent site, and all opinions expressed are those of the author.

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