Wonder Boy: Asha in Monster World – No Longer a Wonder
Nintendo Switch, PS4, PC
A decent way into Wonder Boy: Asha in Monster World, the game’s structure of a town-like overworld with magical gates to other areas whisks Asha away to a desert. This might seem appropriate considering the somewhat Arabian styling of her outfit, but – shock and horror! – it’s been frozen over, and a cutsified take on the Sphynx asks for help in reverting a land of ice to one of sand. After a slog through a couple of visually and mechanically repetitive dungeons, Asha seeks entrance for the third and final, so that she may help ‘lil Sphynx-y out and free whatever spirit is trapped there.
At this point, progress comes to a(nother) screeching halt. The giant statue has decided that Asha must, for whatever reason, answer a series of questions to proceed.
To be quite clear: the character that implored her help has decided that a pub quiz is in order before real action can be taken.
Bitch!? Who do you think I’m trying to help out here? Does a man dying of thirst in your desert insist on a round of trivial pursuit before he will accept a glass of water that some kindly passer-by slit the throats of fifty mummified bandits to acquire for him?
Granted, video games erect walls to progress that fail to pass any kind of sensible logic test all the time. Generally speaking, however, they serve to make progress more interesting; Resident Evil games are filled with multiple ornate statues and objects that cast weirdly precise shadows because, as stupid as such things are to think about, they’re also more interesting than regular household keys hidden beneath potted plants. The entire adventure game genre was built on a bedrock of finding complicated ways to do simple shit.
Here, though? Here, it shows up much of what is wrong with the era from which Asha in Monster World has been summoned, and by turn, how flawed an idea such a slavishly faithful recreation really is. The questions thrown at the player are seemingly picked at random and are a mix of things that a person may logically know and observations from the game that assumes an absurd level of engagement and observation from the audience. Sure enough, I knew that the chefs in the hub town were ducks, but not knowing shouldn’t result in a forced drop into a pit, short cut-scene and elevator ride back up to try again (evidently, there were plenty of other frivolous details that I didn’t know).
This is the act of chewing stale gum converted into 1s and 0s and presented in videogame form.
It’s also something that I had a lot of repressed memories about. My childhood, it turns out, was littered with meaningless backtracking in video games. Asha in Monster World takes sadistic joy in knowing that players will frequently miss a jump or floating platform because the requirements to complete said challenge are (almost always) unobservable before the initial failure occurs, at which point a portion of the stage must be traversed again so that player’s may now try their luck, finally armed with knowledge that they should reasonably have expected to be provided with the first time around. It is blatant and needless padding that does nothing but draw out the overall play-time.
This is manageable at first, when the level designs are more straightforward, where there are no water currents to be carried away by, icy surfaces to slip upon or flying things to fall off of. It builds as it goes, however, and soon enough Asha’s adventure goes from a straightforward-but-enjoyable-enough romp to a clunky series of ‘gotcha!’ moments, the kind of which make you wonder if the original designers were the kinds of people who take joy in pointing out that, in fact, a land blanketed by ice technically is still a desert by definition of being arid and inhospitable.
Yes, I do understand that by including a hyperlink in that above paragraph I have potentially outed myself as a party-killer. I am the girl who will bring a Switch to a roof party. But at least I’d show up with Mario Kart or something. Certainly not this.
To be fair, as hinted earlier, a lot of this was a common enough trait in games released in the mid ‘90s. In many ways, Asha has, as a kind of side-scrolling RPG-meets-platformer, aged impressively. It’s no Metroidvania, and as such while it captures a straightforward sense of adventure, it never really grants exploration, but when it works there is intentionally simple swashbuckling fun to be had.
The issue, in many ways, is with this remake itself, and just how slavishly it sticks with the original design, with how scared it is to dare find a new voice, to try and do anything better. Visually, it is stripped back, a simple and vibrant anime style that couldn’t look much more generic if it tried. It also seems to be missing one final pass of detail. Technically speaking, it is a remake, but hold it up to the sun and you may realise that everything has been drawn on tracing paper; this is the same game that was released on the Mega Drive nearly thirty years ago, only now with a couple of new features and a newer shade of lipstick.
The lipstick doesn’t even result in overall improvement. Character details and animations stick to the original sprites with religious vigilance, from the way that Asha stands like a politician standing very normally, to the cute-but-also-kinda-creepy butt wiggle that plays out whenever a treasure chest is to be opened. Technically, it’s a bit smoother (although make note that on the Switch – and especially in portable mode – Asha in Monster World hardly sticks its target frame-rate) than the original sprite work, but the polygon world not only lacks a little character; it often manages to look flatter than the original, thanks to a camera that is too often perfectly side-on being paired with a lack of exaggerated depth.
Get past this, though, and there is some fun to be had. The simplicity of going on a quest because, well, you’re an adventurer, finding a city in need of help and then tackling a series of 2D Zelda-ish dungeons has its charms. And when more-obnoxious-than-clever design decisions aren’t spreading the butter too thin, it’s sufficiently entertaining, if never quite world-beating. There is likewise a certain charm to the town that holds everything together and the way that exploring it and interacting with the locals can reap occasional bonuses and rewards.
Even here, though, quirks of the unwelcome kind leak through. Asha can move between foreground and background, something that does actually flesh out the depth of the world, but there are times where she can move in one direction but not the other for no reason other than to create convoluted world-navigation puzzles. Character movement is mercifully spot-on and responsive (and digital control – something that otherwise superior remakes of 2D platform adventures confusingly omit – is an option), and weapons and armour can be upgraded over time, but actual combat is simplistic to the point where even a three-hit combo would be an upgrade.
Asha’s primary quirk comes in the form of Asha’s Pepelogoo, a critter that looks like the unplanned result of a Sonic sharing a drunken night with Opa Opa. Pepelogoo’s are pet-like creatures, airborne by oversized ears, that play a somewhat central role in the game world. Mechanically speaking, Asha’s acts as a conduit for certain abilities often associated with side-scrollers for much of the adventure. The most obvious is the double jump, for which she needs to be holding her pet-like buddy; same again a glide-like descent.
Pepelogoo is also a sponge for elements, and if burning-cold ice or bubbling lava is in your way, then (quite literally) throwing the poor guy at the problem may well prove the solution. It’s a cute, possibly even novel, way to frame certain mechanics and give the game a slower pace, but it maybe takes things too far. At one point, it grows to the point where it is too heavy to carry, and having to call on its abilities (again, quite) literally brings progress to a standstill.
Save-(almost)-anywhere is Asha in Monster World’s saving grace. It goes a good distance in allowing players to peek behind the curtains, to reduce the amount of chewing required; at least, so long as they remember to go into the menu and actively do so. This feature alone single-handedly raises this remake, for all of it’s personality foibles, above the original game. It also, however, is but a band-aid: a handful of paracetamol in place of surgery that might fully cure the ailment, because dispensing tablets is easy but getting elbow-deep in anything is hard.
Make no mistake, Asha isn’t a terrible game; it’s just that for all of the ways that it’s aged well, there are also those in which it really hasn’t. This overall package feels like a wasted opportunity to set free potential that has been locked behind some design norms that have long since been improved on, although it is perhaps difficult to look down on this as the game seems to have been developed within not-insignificant limitations: although there is very little spoken dialogue here, there is no option to switch from Japanese to English.
The developer (which apparently included talent from the original) and publisher alike seem to know their audience and understand the limits that come with it. There are people out there who will eat this up, but they (much like everyone else) would do better to look into one of the other Wonder Boy adjacent offerings from the past few years, instead. Aesthetically and mechanically, there’s really no competition.
Wonder Boy: Asha in Monster World was reviewed on the Nintendo Switch with code kindly supplied by the publisher