Article updated June 7, 2016.
It’s kind of amazing that one simple little arcade game could have such an impressive legacy, yet still be relatively unknown. Westone’s Wonder Boy was a modestly successful Japanese arcade game in 1986, and ended up spawning three different series, the most well-known of which is Hudson’s Adventure Island. Despite this, the original Wonder Boy remains fairly obscure, only to be occasionally mentioned among other forgotten pre-Sonic Sega mascots.
Wonder Boy was the first game developed by Westone (then known as Escape), and was the brainchild of Ryuichi Nishizawa and Michishito Ishizuka. Nishizawa acted as the designer and director for all but one of the games in the series.
If you’ve played any of the Adventure Island games, then you probably know what the original Wonder Boy is like. You play as a young caveboy named Tom-Tom (Bocke in the Japanese version), running left-to-right through obstacle-course-like levels, and collecting fruit to keep your vitality meter from depleting. It’s very simple and straightforward, yet oddly addicting.
It’s this addiction-factor that stands out most about the game. Maybe it has something to do with the constant need to collect things, or the hypnotic rhythm you seem to achieve in order to maintain momentum. Whatever it is, it makes it easy to “zone out” while playing, and reach a zen-like state of relaxed concentration. That is, until you come to the final few levels, which get almost unfairly difficult.
Interestingly, none of the game’s direct sequels followed this style of gameplay, opting instead to become more like action-adventures. At the time, the staff at Westone had become addicted to the Wizardry series, and they decided to add RPG elements to their next arcade game. The result was Wonder Boy in Monster Land, which had a little more in common with other popular Japanese arcade games, like Dragon Buster, than with the pure platforming of the original.
Wonder Boy in Monster Land was also the first in an overlapping sub-series known as Monster World, which continued the action-RPG style. Nearly all of the Monster World games double as Wonder Boy titles, with the exception of Monster World IV. Monster World would, itself, lay the groundwork for more recent games, like WayForward’s Shantae series and DreamRift’s Monster Tale. Meanwhile, the only standalone Wonder Boy sequel would be the arcade game Wonder Boy III: Monster Lair, which played more like a scrolling shooter.
Rather, it was the Adventure Island series that carried on the gameplay style of the original Wonder Boy. Adventure Island originally came about as an NES port of the original arcade game, but with the characters and story changed. It’s unclear why this was done. The popular belief is that Sega owned the rights to the Wonder Boy characters, although according to Ryuichi Nishizawa in an interview with Hardcore Gaming 101, Sega only owned the trademark for the name, and all other rights belonged to Westone.
In any case, Adventure Island was popular enough to expand into its own franchise, lasting even longer than Wonder Boy or Monster World. Nishizawa had little to do with Adventure Island, however, outside of being the supervisor for Super Adventure Island on the SNES.
Actually, there’s a fourth series of games that spun-off from Wonder Boy called Saiyūki World, developed and published by Jaleco. The first Saiyūki World was basically just a Famicom port of Wonder Boy in Monster Land, but with the setting changed to ancient China and the theme based on the novel Journey to the West. A unique sequel, not derived from any Wonder Boy game, was later developed called Saiyūki World 2: Tenjoukai no Majin. Oddly enough, while the original game was never released outside of the Japan, Saiyūki World 2 was localized for the NES in North America. However, its theme was changed again to feature a Native American protagonist, and the game was renamed Whomp ‘Em.
Confusing, isn’t it? No doubt the naming and licensing spaghetti all contribute to the obscurity of Wonder Boy. Still, one can’t deny the ripples it created that continue to resonate even today. It’s pretty fascinating that one game’s influence could spread so far, yet still be relatively unknown. Wonder Boy is a true unsung hero.
The franchise has managed to maintain a loyal cult following over the decades, and it’s gained a little more recognition over the years due to its availability on digital platforms. All of the games in the series are on the original Wii Virtual Console (often in multiple incarnations), and a few of them are also on Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network and PC via Steam. They’re definitely worth looking into.
Amazingly, more than two decades after the release of the last game in the series (not to mention the unfortunate closing of developer Westone), there are not one, but two new games bringing it back into the limelight. One is a remake of Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap, developed by Lizardcube, and the other is a proper sequel titled Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom, developed by Game Atelier. Both games are being overseen by Nishizawa. At the time of this posting, it’s too early to know how they will turn out, but perhaps Wonder Boy will finally get some long-overdue recognition.
- Hardcore Gaming 101 – A comprehensive retrospective of Wonder Boy and Monster World, including and interview with Ryuichi Nishizawa.
- Happy Console Gamer – Johnny Millennium’s own retrospective of the series.
- Outcast – Another interview with Nishizawa-san, available in Italian, English and Japanese!
- Sega-16 – Another good, but slightly older, retrospective.
- IGN – Yet another comprehensive look at the series.
- Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom – Official site for Monster Boy.
- Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap – Official site of the Dragon’s Trap remake.