Friday, December 9, 2011

East vs. West: (Wonder Boy III) Monster Lair (1989)

When the TurboGrafx-CD accessory was first released in the US,  I was one of the early adopters -- even though there were only a couple of titles available on this exciting, newfangled CD-ROM format.  One of those launch games was the side-scrolling arcade shoot-'em-up Monster Lair, and I have to admit to being disappointed in it at the time -- aside from high-quality background music and largeish boss graphics, the game didn't seem to be exploiting the new medium's capacity.  But a couple of decades have passed, and having sampled some of the other Wonder Boy titles in the meanwhile, I recently decided to pick up the Japanese version -- Wonder Boy III: Monster Lair -- and give it another go.

There's almost no difference between the American and Japanese versions beyond some minor title and game-over screen variations.  The original title screen bears the supertitle "WONDER BOY III", while the US version removes this and adds a "FROM NEC" credit.  This is the Japanese version:

Why the name modification?  It's a complicated story.  Suffice it to say that this was originally an arcade game created by Westone, and ported to the PC Engine by Hudson Soft and Alfa System.  While Sega distributed the original Wonder Boy arcade game in the US, and published a version for the Sega Master System, the game was also released on the 8-bit NES by Hudson Soft with new graphics, launching the popular Adventure Island series.  In the States, NEC didn't have rights to the Wonder Boy name, nor did Hudson necessarily want to dilute the established Adventure Island brand with this very different game.  And so here it was known simply as Monster Lair.

The game supports one or two players simultaneously -- player one plays as Wonder Boy, pictured on the left, while a second player can join in as the princess on the right.  Both characters play and control identically, but co-op titles were fairly rare at the time.

The straightforward, arcade-oriented gameplay sends our hero through colorful forced-scrolling 2-D levels, and as in the other Wonder Boy games we must run, jump and collect fruit to keep him healthy.  There's some platforming to do, but most of the focus is on collecting weapon powerups and shooting the various enemy creatures that attack or are simply in the way.  This conversion is very faithful to the coin-op arcade game, with the exception of the original's parallax scrolling -- here everything is confined to a single background layer.  (I captured these screenshots using the Magic Engine emulator, which picks up some extraneous visual data at the top of the screen -- the color bar above the score display doesn't show up on the PC Engine.)

The CD-Audio music still sounds great, though it's definitely a bit dated -- the instrumentation screams late 1980s, with sampled orchestra hits, hand-claps and brass sections.  But it's still a lot of fun and remains one of the game's best qualities.  The graphics are colorful, with nice, rounded shading on the cartoon creatures, and there's some good character animation as the enemies attack and react.

After each platforming section, Wonder Boy enters a foreboding boss dungeon:

Then the gameplay shifts to a more traditional shooter mode, as our hero flies dragon-borne through a scrolling temple setting, avoiding enemy creatures thrown like missiles by the boss and trying to damage the creature.  Each boss slowly (or rapidly if appropriate powerups have been picked up) turns red before exploding:

Once the boss is defeated, we progress to the next side-scrolling level.  The action is pretty challenging, and continues are limited -- while I got fairly far into the game back in the early 90s, I wasn't able to get beyond the third level on my quick return visit.  At least I was able to earn a reasonable score and find another point of differentiation in the Japanese version -- while the entire game is presented in English, a few translations leave something to be desired:

The best thing about the Japanese original, really, is that the manual is provided in the form of a foldout, full-color poster with instructions on the back.  The US version featured a standard black-and-white manual, and the cover art on NEC's early releases tended to range from utterly generic to downright ugly.  The bolder cartoon style of the original packaging is a lot more fun, and more representative of the game's simple arcade nature.

So has Monster Lair aged well?  It's still just a simple, colorful arcade shooter, and not the kind of game my aging reflexes are particularly good at handling.  Designed to suck quarters, the cyclical gameplay doesn't necessarily make for a deep home experience.  But it does look and sound pretty good.

Wonder Boy III: Monster Lair still has quite a few fans, though I don't really count myself among them.  But the CD may be worth owning for the soundtrack content alone.  You may be able to pick up a copy of the Japanese PC Engine version here.


  1. I am a massive fan of it's cousin, Wonderboy III The Dragons Trap on the Master System. I think my cousin and I were so hooked (sad) at one time we worked out how the save codes were calculated and were able to invoke cheats etc !

  2. Something that wasn't covered in here, unless I missed it, is why the sudden change from the gameplay in Wonder Boy in Monster Land, which was moving away from the "Adventure Island"-esque gameplay, to the depressingly-similar-to-Adventure-Island gameplay in Monster Lair. Apart from Wonder Boy 1, I think this was the only other entry in the series to play in that "die as you play" manner.

    I dunno, I guess cause it's designed to eat up quarters, but it sure didn't impress me a whole lot. If it'd been more like a proper lifebar, ala Joe & Mac, I think it would've done better. It would've been nice if you could choose to play as the Princess without being player 2, as well. She didn't get any other playable roles in the series, insofar as I know. Good article, though.

  3. You've hit on the only "why" I can think of -- that Monster Lair was released as an arcade game, just like the original Wonder Boy / Adventure Island, and the constantly shrinking life bar was a good way of keeping players moving forward and eating additional quarters. The shooter levels were the only real addition to the original formula.

    Wonder Boy in Monster Land was a console title and so had room for exploration and story. Monster World IV has a female protagonist, but I don't think she's related to the Princess in this game. She was just here to provide Player 2 support, and there really isn't anything different about the co-op mode other than some additional firepower, both players still have to maneuver the same way as one.

    Thanks for the comment!