Check out #GollumGame on Twitter for more information.
What should a remake be? Between high budget reimaginings like Final Fantasy VII Remake, more tightly focused, minute touch-up efforts like the recent Mass Effect Legendary Collection, or even more disastrous examples like 2012’s Silent Hill HD Collection, it feels like every developer has a different idea of what should (and shouldn’t) be done. It can be a balancing act; how much should be changed, what’s the difference between creative intent and hardware limitations, and even just figuring out just what made the original succeed. While Wonder Boy: Asha in Monster World has a clear dedication and understanding of what the original Monster World IV was and tries to translate the game’s design to a more modern format, it often left me wondering if it really needed to be made.
Wonder Boy: Asha in Monster World is a remake of the Japanese exclusive 1994 Mega Drive game Monster World IV, the fourth in the Wonder Boy series of 2D platformers. While never a barn burner, the series was still popular with Sega fans looking for something less Sonic and more Metroid. The story revolves around a girl named Asha, who travels to the Kingdom of Rapadagna to rescue four guardian spirits and fight back against the prophesied return of darkness. While there is some lineage with a few members of the cast and the concepts at play, Asha largely divorces itself from the traditional fantasy aesthetics of previous Wonder Boy games and gives everything more of a One Thousand and One Nights theme.
Gameplay-wise, Asha translates the 2D perspective of the original game into more of a 2.5D style of presentation. Monster World IV designed a lot of its environments in a sort of layered way. For example, the player could go through doors that lead to the interior of a house, and then they could exit to another area behind that house, all occupying the same space. It was fairly interesting for the time; most games had more of a hard cut or loading screen approach to their worlds, and while Monster World IV definitely still had that in places, this layering helps make the areas feel a lot bigger than they actually are.
In Asha, almost everything has evolved into a near-seamless interconnection. Instead of being separated across various screens, each of these layered environments are continuous and cohesive, with the core hub of Rapadanga being the most noticeably improved. Where the original had dozens of loading screens cordoning off each resident’s home and the various treasures hidden in and around buildings, Asha can gradually move from the foreground to different stages of the background without any meaningful interruption. For the four different main dungeons of the game, this effect is less noticeable, but not having to load every few doors is still a welcome change.
Controlling Asha is not too dissimilar from the design of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, with Monster World IV’s iteration on the series design being the addition of an upward and downward thrust (albeit much floatier and imprecise than their infamous Zelda counterpart). The major difference, and the absolute best part of the game, is the Pepelogoo animal companion that’s unlocked after the first dungeon. Pepelogoo is a little blue spherical flying orb-like creature that functions as the means of interacting with pretty much every aspect of the game world. Wanna get up higher? Pepelogoo will help you double jump. Wanna activate a switch on the wall? Pepelogoo will poke it with its cute little tongue before scurrying on back. Pepelogoo can even be used as a shield from certain hazards at points, and even frozen to solve block puzzles later on (the game reassures you that your Pepelogoo is having fun being frozen, and treats it like a sort of game lest you be worried).
Indeed, much of the game is defined by the Pepelogoo, which often can be for better but unfortunately at times is annoyingly worse. Every interaction with Pepelogoo is preceded by the pressing of R1, which will start to call them over to where you are. This can sometimes take a while: the larger and more connected a world is means there is more space for your Pepelogoo to get lost in, which all too often slows things to a crawl. I can appreciate having the Pepelogoo floating around and getting caught on part of the environments as an endearing trait, but having to wait and hold down R1 everytime you want to do something as simple as double jumping (something most games designate to a single button press) can be tiring. This becomes all the more apparent as the game goes on and your Pepelogoo becomes bigger, preventing you from moving while holding them, and making everything go a whole lot slower.
This wouldn’t be that big of an issue in the end, something easily ignored for the trade off of how cute the Pepelogoo is, but the nature of the game’s various dungeons doesn’t exactly help matters. While not fully on the level of a Metroidvania, Asha requires a lot of backtracking to solve its various puzzles, in ways that waver between outright unnecessary to just sheer tedium. Each dungeon has you collecting specific items to function as a sort of key to continue moving forward, but the blocked off paths don’t always immediately stop you from traveling down them first. I understand the nature of a video game dungeon. You gotta have traps and secret keys to open doors, but traveling all the way down a hallway with various jumping puzzles along the way only to discover that you have to go all the way back and repeat those puzzles (calling over Pepelogoo every single time), just to go down a short path to the right to grab a bomb out of a chest that will let me go forward is tiring to say the least.
It’s here that I question the nature of Asha as a remake to Monster World IV. Certainly, the technological improvements and some other quality of life features such as the ability to replay levels and find collectables you missed are more than welcome, but could more not have been done? Asha is a game that’s easily completable within a few hours, and much of that time is spent needlessly backtracking and waiting for the Pepelogoo. Could these aspects not have been improved when remaking the entire game from scratch? I can get wanting to maintain the simplistic spirit of the original and the desire to maintain a consistent analogue, but a degree of creative liberty could have been taken to improve or expand upon the source material that already exists.
Monster World IV saw its first English release back on the Wii Virtual Console, but since then it’s been released across various systems, even recently on the Sega Genesis Mini. Was it really necessary to make a faithful complete remake for a game that had already been re-released so many times? While there is an undeniable level of passion and reverence for the source material being put into Asha, without any meaningful additions or changes it’s hard not to feel it could have been put towards something completely different.
It’s not like Asha is a bad game—in terms of 2D platformers, it’s pretty enjoyable and approachable, especially for the time of its original release. Since then, however, there have been countless innovations and successors to what Monster World IV was trying to do all those years ago. Games like Shantae or even Shovel Knight clearly learned and adapted from what the Wonder Boy series and others of its kind pioneered, so it’s a shame to watch it given a second chance, only to retread its own path.