Friday, 15 March 2013

Coin-Op Classics - Wonder Boy (Sega) (including Adventure Island series)

Title : Wonder Boy
Year : 1986
Developer : Escape (later known as Westone Bit Entertainment)
Publisher : SEGA
Ported to : SG-1000, Master System, NES, Game Gear, MSX, C64, CPC, ZX Spectrum, PS2, Wii

The original 1986 coin-op classic, Wonder Boy is one of my all time favourite games. I first encountered this enchanting game in my early teens. It was in a hotel bar in my local seaside town, and I was immediately drawn to it due to the usual levels of excitement that occurred whenever I found an arcade machine. This was especially heightened by the fact that it was somewhere I wasn't expecting one. In those days, stumbling across a brightly lit coin-op with merry bleeps and bloops emanating from it was like finding the holy grail itself, and this time was no different. The game was, of course, Sega's Wonder Boy. The colourful cartoon world, cutesy characters, and catchy high speed music immediately appealed to me. Once the first coin clunked into the machine and I pressed start I was greeted by the adorable protagonist – a young cave boy with a large blonde mop of hair and a grass skirt – running excitedly on the spot, and I was almost doing the same. Little did I realise I was about to become enamoured with the game so much so that I would still be playing it, and writing about it, over 2 decades later.

The graphics are exceptionally colourful and eye catching

A straight up platform game, Wonder Boy sees you guide the hero, Tom Tom, through 8 worlds on the most generic of quests – to rescue his kidnapped girlfriend. However, as with most classic platform games, the story is irrelevant. Once you start running through the lush green forests of the first stage, hurling tomahawks at the local animal populace and jumping over fires, snakes, rolling boulders and pitfalls you will be hooked. As you make your way through the stages, you collect juicy exotic (and not so exotic) fruits which replenish your ever depleting energy bar. Should this bar hit zero then you lose a life. Likewise, touching anything – from the cute snails and octopuses, to glowing skulls, boulders or fire – will kill you instantly. Holding down button 1 makes Tom Tom run faster and jump higher, essential for getting enough speed up to clear obstacles or reach platforms. Help is also at hand in the form of large eggs. These can be broken open to reveal several useful items, from his trust tomahawks (you restart unarmed after dying) and a fairy who grants you temporary invincibility to, best of all, a skateboard. Yes, you heard that right. Tom Tom dons his helmet (safety first!) and takes to the board, hurtling along at a hefty pace. It makes avoiding enemies and obstacles harder, but it also allows you to clear larger gaps and awards you an extra hit – instead of dying you lose the board and carry on on-foot. Some eggs contain a not-so-helpful item in the form of the grim reaper, albeit in tiny form. Mini-Death hovers above you, draining your energy at a faster rate. He is scum and must be avoided.

Skateboarding uphill with a fairy above your head, jumping 
over snakes. Classic Wonder Boy action

An interesting fact about Wonder Boy is that the original creator, Ryuichi Nishizawa, originally intended Wonder Boy to be a forced scrolling game. Meaning you would be constantly moving to the right. This would have made it the first infinite runner game – a genre popularised today by games such as Temple Run, Canabalt and Bit.Trip Runner 1 & 2. But it was not to be as Ryuichi found that the game was far too difficult to play in the form, and redesigned it into the more standard, yet brilliant, platformer we know and love. The skateboard power-up is a remnant from this original idea.

Trying to avoid the hula critters on the sea stage

The 7 worlds comprise of 4 stage backdrops that repeat throughout the game. The first is the beautiful and extremely vibrant forest, complete with snails, wasps, snakes and frogs. Next is the seaside stage where you must navigate cloud platforms while avoiding octopi and strange swirling blue things in hula skirts – it is a brave soul that attempts these ocean levels with the skateboard! Third up is a cave, often containing an icy section – watch out for swooping bats here, and lastly is a darker version of the forest, complete with spiders. At the end of stage 4 awaits a boss. He is a bulbous character with a strange animal head, which must be pelted with tomahawks until it falls off. His body makes a hasty retreat – regenerating a fresh animal noggin for your next encounter.

As with every platform game ever, the caves are full of bats

It is a very challenging game due to the quick natured pace of the gameplay – due, in part, to the constant need to top up your energy bar with fruit. There are also a lot of enemies to deal with, as well as the boulders and other environmental hazards. Dying makes life difficult as you come back sans tomahawks, meaning you must navigate a (usually short) distance to obtain a weapon from an egg. Tom Tom also has a lot of momentum to his movement, meaning he takes a while to stop, and is hard to control in mid-air. This weightiness takes a few goes to get used to, but once it clicks it becomes second nature, and you will be able to take the appropriate run ups for tricky jumps. An additional challenge comes in the form of the wooden dolls located on each stage. Collecting them all opens up an 8th world at the end which will put your platforming skills to the test.

This sneaky critter tries to run up behind you, watch out for the 
red flower that signals his approach

Wonder Boy is not only a fantastic example of 2D platforming but also a stone cold classic that is just as appealing today as it ever was, both in terms of eye-catching visuals, charming and quirky characters, and exciting and downright fun gameplay. I urge you to play it and experience some of the joy contained in this loveable title.

The first Boss you encounter. Aim for the head

The Ports

Wonder Boy was ported to several systems at the time. It was ported to Sega's own SG-1000 console (the Master System's predecessor), but the results are pretty weak. The game looks drab and stutters along at a fairly miserable pace, there is no variable jump heights and they have removed the excellent skateboard. The game is also so brutally difficult as to make it borderline unplayable.

The SG-1000 port looks reasonable, until it starts moving

The 8-bit home computers of the time - the Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64 - all received ports that, while reasonable to play, were unsurprisingly unable to replicate the coin-op's wonderful visuals. The C64 version is the best by far, offering smooth scrolling and reasonably fast gameplay. The CPC looks nice but is spoilt by an extremely sluggish pace. The Spectrum's monochrome graphics and slow gameplay are especially depressing.

The C64 has chunky spites and smooth scrolling, making it
 the best home computer port by far

The Amstrad CPC version looks nice but moves incredibly slowly

The Spectrum's colour scheme saps the life out of the game, 
and the scrolling is pretty jerky too

By far the best port was on Sega's Master System (and Mark III in Japan). It looks gorgeous and even improves on the coin-op in some areas. Gone is the info box at the top of the screen, replaced with a simple and unassuming energy bar. It also adds new bonus stages that take place in the sky, the desert, or in a waterfall, and an extra 2 worlds to the main game. The Game Gear also received this tweaked version, with zoomed in visuals that keep the sprites a decent size for the hand held's small screen – quite why they changed the title to the hideous 'Revenge of Drancon' is anyone's guess.

The Master System port did away with the large status bar at 
the top, as well as offering some new stages to explore

The Game Gear did a great job of providing portable 
Wonder Boy action

Hudson Soft's Adventure Island

Wonder Boy also received a port on Sega's competitor, the Nintendo NES. However, this was produced by Hudson Soft and renamed Takahashi Meijin no Boukenjima, or Adventure Island in the West. It is exactly the same game – the layout is identical – only here Tom Tom is replaced with the Takahashi Meijin character and the enemies sprites are changed slightly. The game also looks rather washed out and far less visually appealing than Sega's version. It still plays well though so is worth checking out. The MSX port was based on the NES version, but retained the original arcade music (the NES games have a completely different soundtrack). It is an average port let down by its slow scrolling speed.

Adventure Island on NES is an identical game to Wonder Boy, 
bar the changed sprites.

 Adventure Island 2 added dinosaurs that you could ride,
 as well as swimming stages

Adventure Island 3 was basically more of the same, but when
 it's this much fun, who cares?

While Sega went a drastically different route with the sequels (another story for anther day), Hudson Soft would stick to the classic Wonder Boy formula for 2 more NES titles (Adventure Island 2 & 3) and a SNES game (Super Adventure Island). The NES sequels are absolutely brilliant and really capture the spirit of the original coin-op that inspired them, adding dinosaurs you could ride and different weapons for more depth. It is such a shame that Sega decided to go down the Monster World path that would never again see Tom Tom don his skateboard helmet. 

PC Engine owners had reason to celebrate as it was the only platform to receive New Adventure Island. This is the closest game to original Wonder Boy and, as such, is an absolute classic. It returns to the simplistic but exceptionally playable roots of the 1986 game, while adding gorgeous visuals and an even greater emphasis on speed.

While it looks decent, Super Adventure Island on 
SNES is not much fun to play

The absolutely brilliant New Adventure Island on 
PC Engine - Play this now!

In 2003 Hudson Soft released a remake of Adventure Island on the PS2 and Gamecube in Japan under the title Hudson Selection Volume 4: Adventure Island. Unfortunately the visuals were changed to 3D models and look completely charmless in comparison to the colourful 2D originals. The game is still quite fun to play if you can look past the ugly visuals. Even worse was the 2009 Wiiware title, Adventure Island : The Beginning, which included even less appealing 3d models, irritating music, and pointless new abilities such as tapping the button to 'fly' for a short period. It is best avoided.

The 2003 Gamecube Remake is quite fun, though
 the updated look isn't great

2009, and the Wiiware release of Adventure Island : The Beginning 
manages to make the 3D visuals even less appealing 

Enjoy the arcade original on the ever dependable MAME emulator. Or you can find it on the PS2 Japan only release, Monster World Collection, which not only features this game, but many of its home ports as well as the entire set of (barely related) sequels. It is also available on the Wii's Virtual Console.

Our hero, ready for adventure. Maybe he should pay more 
attention to his girlfriend so she won't get kidnapped

Check out part 1 of my new feature - Box Art From Hell - where I look at the cover art for Wonder Boy, focusing on the abominable European packaging.