WonderBoy Sprite History

by NFG - 5th April 2013 in Games

This is one of a series of articles about sprite histories (see: Mario, Sonic, Castlevania, Bonk, and MegaMan). Unlike the other histories, this one is going to require a little bit of back-story, because there are games in the series that are not actually Wonder Boy games, but must still be included. Let me try to explain:

There are six Wonder Boy games, numbered one to five. There are two number threes. There is no number four, or six. …And it gets a little weird from there.

Originally created by Westone (previously called escape) who retained the rights to the game content (graphics, etc), Sega published the games and owned the rights to the Wonder Boy name. When the popular arcade game was brought to Sega’s home consoles, it was Wonder Boy. When it was brought to a computer system it retained the Wonder Boy name. When it was ported to any other console, it was renamed. Most of the time. And the naming conventions were, to put it mildly, somewhat convoluted.

Hudson was responsible for all the non-Sega releases (well, most of them), but couldn’t settle on one name, and so released Takahashi Meijin no Bouken Jima (Takahashi Meijin’s Adventure Island), which was called Adventure Island outside Japan, for Nintendo’s consoles. Eight games were released in this series, and all of them were based, sometimes loosely, on the first Wonder Boy.

But not Adventure Island for NEC’s PC Engine in Japan. It was actually titled in English, in Japan, which was sort of odd, and worse, this Adventure Island was was based on one of the two Wonder Boy 3 games, called Wonder Boy III: Dragon’s Trap on Sega’s Master System, but called Dragon’s Curse (not Wonder Boy) on the TurboGrafx outside Japan. And this Adventure Island was totally unlike the Takahashi Meijin no Bouken Jima games, which you remember were known as Adventure Island outside Japan :crosseyed.gif:

You see how it all makes perfect sense?

Let’s summarize:
1. If it was released by Sega, it was a Wonder Boy game. Except the last one.  And the Game Gear one (except in Japan).
2. There are two number threes, and that’s odd, but let’s accept it and move on.
3. If it was released by Hudson, it could have any of three hundred different names, numbers, or themes.
4. There was also Saiyuuki World by NMK/Jaleco.
5. And some Wonder Boy games were released by TecToy in Brazil, with new character sprites, based on the popular Monica’s Gang comic there.

OK, let’s try this another way.

The first Wonder Boy game was a tropical-themed exercise in fruit gathering, and from here the two series’ diverged: Wonder Boy innovated and changed its theme as often as it could, while Adventure Island took the proven fruity speed-running concept and gussied it up a little with every release. As you can see below, the first Wonder Boy and Adventure Island games are nearly identical.

Arcade (left) and NES versions of Wonder Boy and Adventure Island.

The first game in the series had the same Wonder Boy name on Sega’s consoles: the SG-1000, and the Master System, and the GameGear. Actually, the GameGear version was called Drancon’s Revenge outside Japan. I mean, of course it was, right? Geez.

From left to right: Arcade, Master System (and GameGear), and SG-1000.

You can see how the Master System sprite was surprisingly faithful to the arcade version. While the Master System was a capable but under-appreciated console, the primitive hardware in the SG-1000 system required a significant rework of the sprites. The resulting low-res, low-colour sprite barely resembles the original.

At about the same time Hudson’s Adventure Island series (not the renamed Wonder Boy III: Dragon’s Trap Adventure Island for NEC’s PC Engine, but the Takahashi Meijin no Bouken Jima Adventure Island for the NES and SNES) saw its release, and solid sales. So, the first Wonder Boy was also Adventure Island. That’s easy, right? Sega made the former, Hudson made the latter, and they’re very similar. All of the Adventure Island games (not the Japanese Adventure Island, of course) were basically the same. Tropical, run, jump, collect fruit.

From left to right: NES, PC Engine, SNES.

Specifically, the first in the respective series for NES (four games) and SNES (two). The PC Engine only had one release, which is unfortunate because it was probably the best of the three consoles. It’s interesting to note how the increasing graphics capabilities of each system gave the artists more room and colours to play with. They are 32, 38 and 48 pixels high, with 4, 13 and 15 colours respectively.

Left to right: NES, NES 2 & 3, NES 4

Four Adventure Island games were released for the Famicom/NES, but 2 and 3 used the same sprites. There was a significant improvement in clarity in the second two games, but the last game had a smaller sprite. Probably a case of changing things up because things were getting stale, the player weapon was also changed.

Left to right: PC Engine, Super NES, Super NES 2

The PC Engine game featured sprites that were a marked improvement over the NES versions, but it was soon overshadowed by the larger, more detailed Super NES sprites. Hudson’s artists were freed from most practical limits by the SNES hardware, and combined with their years of practice, the new SNES sprites were big, colourful and detailed enough for players to realize just how unattractive an avatar Takahashi Meijin (Master Higgins in the West) actually was. Weirdly, for the second SNES outing, the player’s starting weapon is a punch, not an axe (or even a bone).

Left to right: MSX, GameBoy, GameBoy 2

And that leaves us with the sprites at the bottom of the bin. The rather execrable MSX version was mostly sunburn-red, didn’t feature a throw animation, and the weapon was an all-white boomerang thing. The GameBoy fared rather better, but it’s a testament to the skill of the artists, and not the hardware: both the MSX and GameBoy sprites have only three colours.

Left to right: Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64, Sinclair ZX Spectrum

There were also three ports to three home computers, and the results were somewhat… interesting. The primitive hardware of the time required a lot of creative interpretation, and it’s very interesting to see how the artists coped with the hardware peculiarities. The ZX Spectrum sprite is particularly interesting, as the hardware limitations forced a severe re-imagining of the sprites.

The second Wonder Boy game caused quite a stir in arcades, as it was one of the first (and still one of the very few) arcade games to include RPG elements. In the arcades games were meant for short-time play, three minutes being the golden rule for operators trying to eke out a profit. A game with weapon upgrades and a plot was very out of place, but the players loved it. It was ported by Sega to their Mark III console as Super Wonder Boy: Monster World (but renamed to Wonder Boy in Monster Land for the Master System release); by Hudson to the PC Engine as Bikkuriman World (featuring characters from an anime series); by TecToy to the Brazilian Master System as Mônica: No Castelo do Dragão (Monica in the Dragon’s Castle); and by Jaleco to Nintendo’s NES as Saiyuuki World.

So that’s four console ports, only one featuring WonderBoy, and none featuring Takahashi Meijin.

Left to right: Arcade, Master System, PC Engine, Master System, NES

It becomes difficult to compare the sprites directly when only two of the five are the same game, and even then the arcade Wonder Boy started off with nought but his underwear, and the Master System Wonder Boy came outfitted with armour instead. It’s easy to see how the first three sprites are not significantly tweaked, with the same poses, but the Monica and Saiyuuki games received wholly new sprites. The latter was the only game to feature levels that were significantly different as well, the other four games didn’t stray as far from the formula.

And the game received ports to the same computers as the first game, plus two more:

Left to right: Atari ST & Amiga, Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64

This was sort of a rubbish era for Wonder Boy. Both the Atari ST and Amiga sprites were identical, as were the Amstrad CPC and Sinclair ZX Spectrum sprites (though at least the latter two used different colours…) The Spectrum and Commodore 64 sprites were both vastly improved over the previous games, both taking advantage of different graphics modes offered by the hardware.

The first Wonder Boy 3 was as different from the RPG-lite second game as the second was from the skateboard-riding tropical romp of the first game. This time the fruit collecting was back, but the game was a platforming shooter where the player was forced, by non-stop level scrolling, to keep moving and complete the stage. The second half of every stage was a slightly more traditional shooter where the player rode a flying dragon and was tasked with destroying a level boss and his minions.

Wonder Boy was no longer the popular game it once was, and the third title received only two ports: one miserable looking cartridge release on Sega’s MegaDrive/Genesis console, and a surprisingly authentic CD ROM release for the PC Engine. Interestingly, the PC Engine version was the only non-Sega console release called Wonder Boy. In Japan at least – it was released in North America for the TurboGrafx CD without the Wonder Boy prefix, and was called simply Monster Lair.

Left to right: Arcade, PC Engine, MegaDrive

The MegaDrive/Genesis version is so weedy looking I can’t help but think the artist drew it from memory, where the PC Engine version is pixel-perfect.

As if it wasn’t confusing enough already, the second third game was first released for Sega’s Master System. Called Wonder Boy III: Dragon’s Trap, because it was the third Wonder Boy game on Sega’s Master System, it was in fact the fourth game in the series. TecToy released it in Brazil as the second game in the Monica series, called Turma da Mônica em O Resgate (Monica’s Gang: The Rescue), and Hudson released it on the PC Engine, called Adventure Island in Japan and on the TurboGrafx as Dragon’s Curse in North America.

Left to right: Master System, PC Engine, Master System

The sprites here are very interesting. The Master System (left) and PC Engine (center) sprites are the same size, but the PCE sprite has a 3D appearance which didn’t seem to require the extra colours available. Whoever ported the game was clearly good at their job. And Monica looks better than the original game, as well as better than the previous Master System port, with more colours and character despite the smaller sprite size.

Because there was absolutely no reason to pretend the naming conventions made any sense at all, the game that followed the two threes was called Wonder Boy V: Monster World III. Wonder Boy four was skipped entirely, and despite the previous games being called Monster Land and Monster Lair, this new game was called Monster World 3. Someone somewhere decided that a pretense of sanity wouldn’t go amiss, and it was released without numbers outside Japan, as Wonder Boy in Monster World.

It was successful enough to receive a port to the PC Engine and TurboGrafx, called The Dynastic Hero, and was the third and final Monica game in Brazil, titled Turma da Mônica na Terra dos Monstros (Monica’s Gang in Monster Land). In an unusual move, Sega back-ported the game to the older Master System for a European release (where the console was oddly popular).

Left to right: MegaDrive, PC Engine, Master System, MegaDrive

There was no Wonder Boy six. Giving up on the whole Wonder Boy thing entirely, Westone’s final release in the series featured a female protagonist, and the game was called simply Monster World IV. It is without doubt one of the finest looking games for the MegaDrive, and though a very linear experience, it is one of the best platform games available on any platform.

And this is where the series ended. A vast, sprawling collection of adventures where most of the games didn’t even feature Wonder Boy; a series where names meant little and numbers even less. The passion and talent that went into these games is staggering, and every single one is worth playing. Except maybe Wonder Boy III: Monster Lair on the MegaDrive. I mean, ew.


[updated: fixed a bad caption, and fixed a number. Thanks BenoitRen!]

by Elvis - April 5,2013 | 01:17 AM | Link

“oddly popular” my hairy ample ass!

by Kurt - May 1,2013 | 17:55 PM | Link

There actually is a version of Wonder Boy in Monster Land with Master Higgins as the main character, believe it or not. It’s pretty recent and was only made for cellphones though. I’ve been unable to get it working through emulators unfortunately.

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