Review: “Wonder Boy: Asha in Monster World” (PS4, Nintendo Switch)

My first gaming console was a SEGA Master System. That meant that while most kids were playing Mario and Zelda on their NES, I was in the minority who found my own gaming bliss in Alex Kidd and Wonder Boy games. That means the adventures of Tom-Tom and Shion were as foundational to my gaming upbringing as Link’s were to so many others. That said, my experience ended with Wonder Boy in Monster World (aka Wonder Boy V: Monster World III), as the brainiacs at SEGA never localized the final game, Monster World IV, for a western release.

Fast forward a quarter of a century, and Monster World IV is getting a second lease on life thanks to the developers at STUDIOARTDINK. Fully remade from the ground up, the confusingly titled Wonder Boy: Asha in Monster World is now available for both Nintendo Switch and Playstation 4. I have a lot of fond memories of the Wonder Boy/Monster World series, but I have very little nostalgia for this particular game, having never really played it. That makes this review a bit tricky – but I’ll try to cover Asha in Monster World’s merits as a sequel in a beloved series, as well as a remake of the original game.

12 save slots!? Jackpot!

Welcome to Monster World

Developed by STUDIOARTDINK, Wonder Boy: Asha in Monster World is a modern remake of Monster World IV, a side-scrolling adventure game originally released on the SEGA Mega Drive in 1994. The story follows a young heroine named Asha, who is tasked by the queen to rescue four guardian spirits and save the land from the increasing number of monsters who are threatening it.

As Asha, you traverse four major worlds which are connected via a single “hub”, which is the kingdom’s capital city. Each of the four stages are rather expansive, and require quite a bit of backtracking and problem solving to advance. The main challenge comes from the monsters and other enemies. Asha uses her scimitar to slice and dice gelatinous blobs, ghosts, gargoyles, and of course, skeletons. Asha’s attacks are pretty straightforward, though she can perform upward and downward thrusts when jumping, her swords charge up for stronger “magical attacks” after attacking enough enemies, and she also has a shield to block enemy attacks. Controlling Asha is very responsive, and she has a very generous reach with her sword.

The blob with eyes is a retro RPG staple

Besides the monstrous swordplay, the worlds also house a number of dangerous hazards to avoid. Sometimes simple platforming isn’t enough to avoid them, so thankfully Asha is accompanied by a Pepelogoo, a flying creature familiar that helps Asha float, double jump, solve puzzles, and grab items. It will also resurrect you with a potion when you die (you must have one in your inventory, of course).

Other than potions, Asha can pick up hearts and medicinal herbs, both which restore health, and blue life drops, ten of which will extend your life bar. The most common item drop, though, is cash in the form of gold coins. Your gold can be spent in vending machines scattered throughout the action stages, but mostly you’ll be spending them in the town on gear upgrades.

There are a variety of places to make purchases in the town, whether in the armory shop, a merchant on the far side of town, or a few other places if you explore. However, there aren’t nearly as many weapon and armor options as there are in previous Monster World games. It’s in the town where the plot really progresses, as you will get cinematic-style updates from citizens, the Queen, and sometimes even the game’s villains themselves.

The genie of the lamp will return you to the city, if you wish

Will you need to maximize all of your hearts and collect the very best of equipment to triumph? Probably not. Asha in Monster World isn’t particularly difficult, especially by retro game standards. There is also a game journalist easy mode, which starts you off with five hearts instead of three, and coins will gravitate toward you before they disappear. Given that you can replay past stages to collect more coins and the anytime-anywhere save system can be exploited, I found that the standard difficulty is easy enough on its own.

I suppose there were some tricky platforming moments in the sky stage…

“Queen a’ da’ harpies! Queen a’ da’ harpies!”

Asha the Tom-Tomboy

For Asha in Monster World, STUDIOARTDINK has applied a clean, cell-shaded look to the characters coupled with bright, vibrant environments, all with an Arab/Persian flavor. Asha herself has a lot of character, and her animations are cute and expressive. From her facial expression when she runs from a lit bomb to her booty-wiggle before she opens a treasure chest, clearly a lot of attention was put into making Asha feel endearing.

While all of the enemies animate rather well, there are some fun, subtle touches that make them feel more alive. For instance, there are sword-wielding skeletons whose turbans will slip slightly when they attack, and they occasionally reach up to adjust them. It’s very quick, and you might miss it if you’re not paying attention, but it’s a nice touch.

Asha’s booty wiggle makes the transition to HD! It’s so cute! (Not in a sexual way, you weirdos)

The stages have a good variety of gameplay, and each has its own unique visual flare. There is a volcano, water works, a frozen pyramid (because the sun spirit is captured, naturally), and a floating casino palace in the sky. There are unique enemies designed for each stage, and you won’t get bored with any of the backgrounds, though the pink color scheme of the sky casino stage may be a bit too bright or overwhelming for some tastes. There are some unique flourishes scattered through the stages, too, such as Asha leaving footstep splashes in the puddles of the water stage. And yes, you will get a chance to fly on a magic carpet.

The visuals of the sky casino are… bold

From an audio standpoint, Asha in Monster World is perfectly serviceable, but not remarkable. The music is a good rearrangement of the original 16-bit tunes, but none will stick in your head the same way as some of the music from earlier installments in the series. There is a bit of the older themes remixed into an arabesque track at the end, which is nice from a fan’s standpoint.

The sound effects are all clean and crisp, and there are also some character voices added to this updated version. It all combines for a very complete audio-visual experience.

For those so inclined, there is a code to unlock the 16-bit version of the soundtrack:

At the title screen, press UP, DOWN, UP, DOWN, LEFT, LEFT, RIGHT, RIGHT.

A nice nod to Shion, hero of the previous game

Why not Wonder Girl or Wonder Woman- oh, er, Wonder Lady?

As much as I enjoyed Asha in Monster World, there are a few minor issues. Sometimes the vertical scrolling doesn’t quite keep up with you, and you’ll find yourself jumping into a hazard you couldn’t otherwise see. There was one moment of minor screen tearing in the town late in the game, which only happened once, but is still pretty inexcusable for a lower fidelity game running on a PS4 Pro.

The only other moment I felt was an “issue” was a giant blob boss battle in the sky castle. You can’t hurt him in the first stage of the fight, but you need him to back up, allowing access to a door. The problem is, I have no idea how to actually make him move. It just eventually “happened,” so I either got lucky somehow or it happens automatically.

Yes, there’s an ice stage, but the slipping is more like skating

To get deep into nitpicks, it would have been nice if there was either a new game plus or a hard mode added once you complete the game. As it is, starting the same 5-hour adventure from scratch may not be particularly appealing for some players. Also, the major boss fights feature a large enemy created by connecting individual sprites. While this effect was necessary to create larger characters on the Mega Drive, it fails to impress in a modern game, and I’d like to see what these large bosses would look like if they were more fully rendered and animated.

For those longtime Wonder Boy fans who are just now coming to Asha in Monster World (like me), I did find it unfortunate that the gameplay was more linear this time around, and that there were so few options for equipping your character with different equipment and weapon types. There’s not much that STUDIOARTDINK could have done to change this and have Asha in Monster World remain true to its Monster World IV roots, but it will still be a disappointment if you were hoping for your action/RPG to lean more to the RPG side.

Clouds. Your arms are just clouds.

Mega Drive Memories

So how does Asha in Monster World improve on the original Monster World IV? If you purchase a physical copy of Asha in Monster World, you’ll get to find out for yourself. The physical copies also come with the original Mega Drive game as a bonus, and it still holds up. It also may be the best way to go if you are up for an increased challenge.

First off, unlike the remake, you can’t save anytime, anywhere in the original Monster World IV. Instead, you have to find the Save Sage who is at set locations in each stage. You will also have to pause the game to use certain items such as door keys, and Asha’s weapon reach and hitbox don’t seem to be nearly as forgiving. This all makes for a more authentic, yet slightly more difficult experience than the remake.

Poke her in the belly button, Asha!

Monster World IV was always a slick looking game for the 16-bit Mega Drive, and the 2D pixel art style stills looks good by today’s standards. If you are a retro purist, there are also multiple visual options to adjust to your liking. Whether you prefer scanlines or no, sharp or smooth edges, there are plenty of filters to cycle through.

Sure, only the staunchest of retro gaming fans will really feel the need to play though the original game, but even the more casual customers will probably enjoy checking out Monster World IV as a retro curio. The multiple physical editions also come with a plethora of bonus collectible goodies, so they’re definitely worth checking out here.

Does Asha become a real “Wonder Boy?”

If it seemed like I was really having to reach to find negative things to say about Wonder Boy: Asha in Monster World, you’re absolutely correct. I very much enjoyed this game, and found it a fitting entry to what I consider an under-appreciated franchise. Sure, the music isn’t terribly memorable and there are aspects of the earlier games in the franchise that I miss, but that doesn’t take away from the stellar effort that STUDIOARTDINK has made updating Monster World IV for modern audiences.

Asha in Monster World is exactly the kind of game my early 90s self wished the games of the future would be (before they became overproduced interactive movies). It’s a beautiful, approachable, and engaging adventure with a lot of charm, and I highly recommend it for retro gaming fans, SEGA aficionados, or anyone looking for a fun, forgiving adventure game that won’t eat up weeks of your life. Try it on normal difficulty first, though.

You’re probably going to see this sequence a few times…

The digital version of Wonder Boy: Asha in Monster World can be purchased from the Nintendo and Sony stores and is published by STUDIOARTDINK.

The boxed retail version of Wonder Boy: Asha in Monster World comes exclusively with the original Monster World IV published by ININ Games.

A copy of both Wonder Boy: Asha in Monster World and Monster World IV for PS4 were provided to The Splintering for the purpose of this review. Both games were played using a PS4 Pro console.

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