And now the third of our Sega sequels from the summer of 1988, though this one fares better than the Alex Kidd and Fantasy Zone follow-ups we previous covered. Many remember the original Wonderboy arcade title starred an island-hopping kid who tossed axes at foes and often rode a skateboard, and was ported to the Master System while also spawning cousin on the NES in the form of Adventure Island. While Adventure Island continued the island-hopping gameplay for the NES sequels, Sega decided to take its series in a completely different direction, starting with plucking their hero out of the primitive tropical paradise and dropping him into a medieval fantasy world, making him a valiant knight in the process. Sega also decided to spice up the standard platforming formula by throwing in some RPG-like elements like shops and upgradable equipment. After first appearing in the arcades in Japan Sega ported Wonderboy II to the Master System worldwide (while disguised ports appeared on some other systems) and while the attempt to marry arcade action with RPG customization doesn’t quite go as smooth as Sega hoped, the results are still surprisingly decent.
The story is simple; you control the hero (who the game claims is Tom-Tom, trying to tie it to the previous title) and you’re on a mission to save the land from an evil dragon and its minions. As mentioned earlier Monster Land is structured like a standard arcade platformer as the game consists of 12 levels and each one is crawling with creepies. You’re given a sword at the beginning of your quest to serve as your main weapon and every baddie you slay earns you points as well as gold coins. You’re also given five hearts in your life meter and reaching certain point totals will increase it. Along the path are shops you can visit which lets you purchase shields, armor and clothing to boost your stats as well as other helpful items such as magic spells that function as secondary weapons. Certain shops also sell ale or mead, which restores some health and comes with some helpful information, and there’s even some secret shops you can find that contain some extra-special equipment and items. (The game does often give you hints when you’re near their locations). A boss is waiting at the end of each level and it’ll yield the key to the next level once you best it, though some stages have optional side bosses which you can defeat to upgrade your sword. However each level is timed as indicated by the hourglass at the top of the screen, and once it’s emptied you’re penalized some health. Once your health meter is exhausted the game ends, though you can purchase a revival potion that functions as an extra life. The last stage is a castle containing a labyrinth that you must solve to reach the final boss, the Meka Dragon.
For the most part Wonderboy II is nicely done with plenty of hack ‘n slash action and even some personality and charm sprinkled all around it, such as the animals that function as shopkeepers and the reactions from enemies that you strike. In fact in one boss encounter you can avoid fighting it entirely if you can answer its questions correctly. The controls are pretty responsive and easy to use (even using the NES-style button layout), plus any new weapons and armor you purchase are automatically equipped and well organized on the pause screen. All the stages have quaint, colorful designs while the characters sport some good details and animation, though much of your enemies are just palette swaps of earlier foes. In addition Tom-Tom’s sprite will change colors as you gain new equipment in a nice touch. The music consists of several background tunes that are used repeatedly, but all of them are decent and don’t really get repetitive.
However a few flaws quickly present themselves, some of which even cause the difficulty level to be on the high side. For starters your sword has too short of range, forcing you to get in close to your enemies and most likely taking damage in the process unless you use your magic spells. The bosses will give you a challenge but have patterns that are easy to figure out. Also the game is peppered with some tricky and often frustrating platforming sequences that require precise jumps to navigate, which will give you problems if you don’t have decent boots equipped since Tom-Tom is a little slippery at the outset. A jumping sequence in the final level, right before the end of the game, will especially test your patience.
But Monster Land’s biggest issue is that it wants to be an action/RPG a’la Zelda II, yet is unwilling to shed its arcade roots. While all the hidden secrets should encourage you to explore every nook and cranny, the hourglass constantly forces you to keep moving along. Also the game often makes it hard to earn the necessary funds to purchase the necessary equipment since enemies only give up coins once, even after they respawn (killing them a second time only nets you a item to boost your score), so forget about staying in one section grinding for money. Journeying farther into the level to fight more foes and doubling back to the shops won’t work either since once you leave a section of the level you can’t go back. Finally there’s no way to save your progress and once the game ends you can’t continue either, forcing you to begin back at the beginning every time.
Overall Wonderboy in Monster Land is a good solid title for the Master System even though it doesn’t quite get the arcade/RPG mixture perfect. Plus the high difficulty, rough edges and the arcade-ness overwhelming the exploration do make you wish Sega had taken the time to the game more console-friendly. In fact the following year Sega would release Wonderboy III, which fixes much of the flaws of this entry and proves to be a more refined action/RPG, making it hard to give Monster Land a definite recommendation. Still Wonderboy II contains enough uniqueness and enjoyment to make it a cart worth firing up on occasion.