To our jaded, seen-it-all 21st century eyes, Wonder Boy looks like the product of a more innocent time. This is, after all, a game about a lad in a loin cloth who rides a skateboard and throws hammers at snails. In terms of scale and sophistication, it isn’t exactly Fallout 4.
But there’s something charming about Wonder Boy’s simplicity: the way it forces you to relentlessly press forward, balancing carefully-timed jumps with the need to get to the end of the level as quickly as possible. Its bold, chunky graphics. Its tinny music, which sounds like Schroeder out of Peanuts playing the same few bars on his little piano over and over again.
Wonder Boy followed the usual pattern of Japanese games in the 1980s. It first appeared in Japanese arcades courtesy of Sega circa 1986, before migrating to home computers and consoles later in the decade. Thereafter, things got really complicated, but we’ll return to that topic later.
At any rate, Wonder Boy follows the platformer format that made Super Mario Bros. a system-selling phenomenon for Nintendo. Indeed, designer Ryuichi Nishizawa recently said that Wonder Boy was born out of his frustration with Nintendo’s seminal game.
“[Super Mario Bros] was a huge hit in Japan at the time, but I just didn’t like it,” Nishizawa reveals in Read Only Memory’s superb book, Sega Mega Drive/Genesis: The Collected Works. “The game had a very bad control system. Some people say that was its strength, but I still hate it, even to this day…”
Crikey. That’s the kind of opinion that could send comments sections into meltdown. But while Nishizawa didn’t like the way Super Mario Bros. handled, it’s easy to see how Nintendo’s game influenced Wonder Boy: the whimsical enemies, platforms and collectible items all look strikingly familiar. But Wonder Boy is also a much more stripped down, fast-moving game than Super Mario Bros. – it offers the kind of short, sharp challenge that is ideal for the bustling atmosphere of an arcade.
For one thing, collecting fruit is far more pivotal to the game than merely boosting your high score. Lead character Tom Tom is a relentlessly hungry chap, with his energy bar requiring a constant boost as he dashes from level to level. In order to get to the end of a stage without losing a life, it’s vital to collect as much fruit and other morsels of food as possible. The problem is, said fruit often hangs high up, over a yawning chasm or in some other awkward place, which means you’re constantly having to keep an eye on Tom Tom’s energy bar while carefully timing your jumps from platform to platform. In every moment, you’re weighing up the pros and cons of each piece of fruit: is it worth risking your life for a bunch of bananas, or is it better to wait and hope you can grab another sliver of energy in a few seconds’ time?
The urgency’s compounded by one of the handful of items you’ll find hidden in eggs on occasion: a skateboard. With it, you can speed far more quickly through each level, which takes a bit of pressure off you in terms of collecting fruit, but means you’re more prone to bumping into an enemy or falling down a hole. Again, the game dangles a reward in front of you to see if you’ll take the risk.
In terms of design, Wonder Boy’s levels are short and sparse, each containing only a few handfuls of platforms or chunky enemy sprites – snails, squids, bats, bizarre little blue people. The hidden areas, multiple paths, and all-round refinement of Super Mario Bros. are nowhere to be seen. Instead, Wonder Boy feels more akin to a scrolling shooter, with Tom Tom’s axe-throwing ability giving it the button-tapping feel of a run-and-gun game.
Admittedly, Wonder Boy’s a bit of a bewildering grab-bag visually. The caves of area one, stage three suddenly give way to man-made bricks and then a strange ice cavern with no real flow from one part to the next. In fact, it’s not clear what the overarching theme in Wonder Boy really is. Tom Tom’s apparently a cave boy whose belle has been kidnapped by a villain named Drancon. But if he’s a cave boy, where’s the rest of the prehistoric theme? Okay, Tom Tom throws little stone axes and there’s the odd campfire to jump over, but this isn’t exactly BC Kid or Chuck Rock – instead of dinosaurs, sabre-tooth tigers or other fanciful creatures, we get hamburgers, milkshakes, and other curious anachronisms. And that end of area baddie, who keeps reappearing with different masks like something out of a Robert E. Howard novel – what’s he all about?
No matter. Wonder Boy isn’t a game that stands up to much scrutiny, and it isn’t exactly the best platformer of the 80s, either. But nevertheless, there’s something about it: the relentless pace. The racing game-like thrill of getting a morsel of food just in the nick of time, or getting to the end of a stage just before your energy runs out. The pleasing rate at which Tom Tom can throw his seemingly inexhaustible supply of hammers. (Thinking about it, where is he pulling those hammers from? Probably best if we don’t linger on that detail too long, either.)
In terms of fame, Wonder Boy obviously can’t hold a candle (or a hammer) to Super Mario. But the game has managed to build up its own video game lineage – perhaps one of the most convoluted in the medium’s history. After Sega put the game in arcades and ported it to the company’s own consoles, the SG-1000 and Master System (a Game Gear port appearing later under the anonymous title Revenge of Drancon), Wonder Boy wound up on the Nintendo Entertainment System under an entirely different name.
The name change came about because Wonder Boy was developed by a company called Escape, later called Westone. Sega owned the rights to the Wonder Boy name but not for the game itself, so it was rechristened Adventure Island when Hudson Soft developed it for the NES. The company also altered the central character to look like Takahashi Meijin, Hudson Soft’s spokesman who emerged something of an industry celeb in 80s Japan. In that country, Adventure Island was originally called Takahashi Meijin’s Big Adventure. Since nobody knew who Takahashi was in the rest of the world, it was called Adventure Island elsewhere.
Thereafter, the Wonder Boy series branched off in two different and unexpected directions. Nishizawa took the series down a more sophisticated path with the side-scrolling RPG Wonder Boy in Monster Land, first released in 1987. Subsequent games went back to a slightly more straightforward platforming action mode, whether it was Wonder Boy III: Monster Lair in the arcades, or Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap on the Master System. The series arguably reached its peak just as it finished. 1994’s Monster World IV, which introduced a new, female lead named Asha, was a thoroughly satisfying RPG-platformer hybrid for the Sega Mega Drive.
Meanwhile, the Adventure Island series carried on over at Hudson, with numerous sequels appearing on the NES and SNES. The SNES game Super Adventure Island, just to confuse things a bit further, was actually a port of Wonder Boy in Monster Land with overhauled graphics. Even more bewilderingly, the same game was also ported to the PC Engine under yet another title: Bikkuri Man World.
Anyway, Wonder Boy got a lot of sequels, some of them very good, others rather less so. But while it continued to evolve over its lifetime, the original still holds a simple, cheerful appeal. The Sega Master System version was certainly among the best platformers available for the underrated little console, at least until Sonic the Hedgehog came along in the early 90s and made Tom Tom and Alex Kidd unemployed…
Running, jumping, throwing hammers at snails. Wonder Boy offers simple pleasures, but therein lies its enduring appeal.