a rickety bridge of impossible crossing

wonder boy: not a classic

I really like Wonder Boy for the Sega Master System. It's a console I never got to experience until the age of emulation; as a kid, my only 8-bit game console was the NES, and I find the vibrant color palette of the SMS quite novel. In the old blog theme, the text colors were all chosen from the SMS palette.

Wonder Boy screenshot

It's a port of an arcade game, so it's a very straightforward action platformer: All you do is run to the right, jump, and throw hammers. You can't scroll the screen to the left, and unlike Super Mario Brothers, there are almost no secret areas to explore. That said, the jumping and hammer-throwing feel good, the music is catchy, the monsters and characters are cute, and most of the game is a pretty fun time.

There are 9 main areas of the game, each with 4 levels, and 4 numbered checkpoints in each level. You have an unlimited number of continues, and the only setback for losing all of your lives is that you have to restart at the beginning of the level, so it's quite forgiving compared to most games of the time. All you lose is your checkpoint progress. Oh, and your score resets to 0, but who cares.

Every level has a doll you can collect for bonus points. Some of the dolls are almost impossible to miss, some of them require a bit of tricky platforming, and some of them are hidden until you perform an unintuitive action to reveal them, usually tripping over a specific rock. Once you collect a doll, you never have to get it again in the current playthrough, even if you lose your lives and have to restart a level.

The exciting thing about the dolls is that collecting all 36 of them in the 9 main areas of the game unlocks a secret 10th area. This was pretty forward-thinking for 1986.1 It's not the first game to feature this kind of secret area, but it's the earliest one I can think of with a collectible that meaningfully changes the game. I was impressed enough that I made DolltrackerWB, a little Windows program for tracking the dolls you've collected.

dolltracker screenshot

The dolls for area 10 don't appear until you click all 36 dolls for areas 1-9.

I've never gotten all the dolls, though. I've never come close. Finding the hidden dolls required too much trial and error, and I always ran out of steam.

I was thinking about Wonder Boy again recently, and I decided to go for a non-completionist run. I wouldn't see the secret area, but I figured the game would still be worth finishing. I could take comfort in the fact that practically nobody has seen the secret area, especially people who played it contemporaneously, so I'd be getting the normal experience.

Well, it was really fun up until around area 8, at which point it became nail-bitingly, ball-bustingly, controller-throwingly,2 "fuck"-shoutingly3 difficult. I must've continued at least 100 times in the last quarter of the game. It starts throwing enemy patterns that are all but impossible to get through if you don't have a hammer, and it would only give you a hammer at the beginning of a level; so if I made it to checkpoint 4 and was in the final stretch of a level, but died and lost my hammer, I had might as well throw away my remaining 2 lives and start the level over, because getting to the end without the hammer was beyond my capabilities.

I did finally finish, after what felt like hours of restarts, and after that the idea of ever collecting all the dolls now seems totally preposterous. Fuck area 10. After areas 8 and 9, I don't want more levels.

victory screenshot

It's not all sewage and corpse flowers, though: finishing Wonder Boy inspired me to have another go at Wonder Boy 3: The Dragon's Trap, and so far it seems like one of the games of all time. I'm a good ways into it, and unless it totally flubs the landing, I'll have better news to report re: its status as a classic. Watch this space 🦝

  1. the SMS version came out in 1987, but the 1986 arcade version also had the collectible dolls and the secret extra area. Notably, it predates Super Mario Bros. 2 (J) with its mythical world 9 by a couple months.↩

  2. don't worry, I never actually threw the controller, I'm an adult.↩

  3. I may have shouted "fuck" a couple times. I'm an adult↩

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