Review: Wonder Boy Anniversary Collection
Finally, a near-complete compilation of a underappreciated series
Well, they said it could never happen, but here it is. Having happened. Even I said it could never happen, probably, somewhere. But no, as usual I was bang wrong. Here we have Wonder Boy Anniversary Collection, a reasonably definitive compilation of the many and varied adventures of the Wonderful Boy himself, who is sometimes a girl. And sometimes a mouse. Look, it doesn't matter.
Packed into this plump proffering are 21 games, many of which are different versions of one another. That's not meant to be any kind of shade, or faint praise - this is a bloody remarkable set. It's not completely exhaustive - there are no PC Engine versions - but arcade, SG-1000, Master System, Mega Drive and Game Gear are all represented. It's a Sega-tastic experience, then, with the major titles on offer being Wonder Boy, Wonder Boy in Monster Land, Wonder Boy III: The Dragon's Trap, Wonder Boy III: Monster Lair, Wonder Boy in Monster World and Monster World IV. Six bigguns, then, though their many alternate versions do at times offer significantly different experiences.
Frankly, I can't bring myself to pretend this is anything other than a tremendous piece of software. Naturally I'm drawn to critique the emulation on offer, but in my experience it seemed indistinguishable from my experience of real hardware. Frankly, it was a pleasure to play the re-balanced Master System version of Monster Land again after all these years; a nostalgic treat, yes, but also a tightly-designed and very playable game. Everything else is essentially gravy, but what gravy it is. Rich, oniony Bisto. The original Wonder Boy, of course, is the enjoyable action game that went on to power a million Adventure Islands, but outside of Monster Lair the games on offer here all fall into a similar "side-scroller with mild RPG elements" archetype, and a tremendously fun archetype it is too.
Dragon's Trap (also available from Lizardcube in remake form) is one of the first great Metroidvanias, and - at the risk of inviting ire from purists - its rougher edges are nicely smoothed over by the Collection's addition of save states and the ability to rewind... not features I would typically advocate, but useful when some of the more archaic titles here do present what I'd personally consider an unfair challenge. The original Monster Land, for example, would be nearly impossible to complete on a first attempt due to the less-than-reasonable maze section towards the end. Forgivable in the early nineties, less so now.
There's an extensive gallery feature, with a ton of high-res artwork covering each of the games. You've got the option for customisable controls, shaders, filters... it's a comprehensive offering and one that will be familiar to purchasers of other Ratalaika retro productions. You don't get any interviews or cheats or unlockables that I could determine, but that's okay - it's quite refreshing to see the multiple versions of each game stacked up the way they have been. It's the kind of collection that feels more like preservation than re-evaluation, but there's nothing wrong with that.
If I can fault anything here, it'd be pretty disingenuous. Some of the games aren't great, but you don't have to play those at all. My weirdo pick is the oddly-compelling SG-1000 take on Wonder Boy, but the fact is that this is the most exhaustive compilation ever produced for this series. It does lack the soul of M2's Monster World Complete Collection but that was on the bleedin' PS2, for flip's sake. All you really need to know is that you can play the entire Wonder Boy series on the Switch, with all the options you could reasonably want outside of overt cheat modes. These are wonderful games and it's only a shame that the waters were muddied by the prior release of the less impressive four-game Wonder Boy Collection, which is now basically totally redundant thanks to this much better, much more complete package.