The Wonder Boy/Monster World series has seen quite the return in recent years. Now, the titular “boy” has been replaced by Asha, an excited and brave young woman who is eager to explore and save the world from impending doom. Along the way, she befriends a mysterious flying creature known as Pepelogoo and ultimately saves the kingdom.
Being a remake of a Sega Genesis game from 1994, one could imagine that plenty of time, effort, and care was put into fleshing out what must have been a fairly bland world (by modern standards). Unfortunately, some remnants of the original experience are left mostly intact, leaving us with a title that shines with writing and graphics but struggles with a largely empty experience.
STORY – STRETCHED THIN
The basic premise of Asha is that the titular character, a warrior from a local village, is given the task of rescuing four spirits that protect the kingdom. Along the way, she’s joined by Pepelogoo, a mysterious flying creature that helps to augment and complete various platforming challenges.
This remake doesn’t do much to expand upon the original story laid out in Monster Boy IV, to the detriment of the overall package. Asha doesn’t have any personality beyond having big eyes, green hair, and an excited smile on her face. The city street that serves as the hub world is small, but NPCs are repeated every few buildings, even repeating the same dialogue.
I’m reminded of the villages from Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, which were all just a long platform filled with the same people. However, design challenges that caused these situations in 1987 (or, in this case, 1994) should be prime fodder for a team to tackle in a remake, right?
To be clear, not all of the story is bad and bland. Some individual dialogue lines are very funny and caught me off-guard. I loved the duck chefs and the increasing despair that falls over the town led to some entertaining one-liners. But individual world-building can’t fill an empty world. Asha might not be an attempt at the next great narrative-driven title, and in the end, that ends up being largely fine.
The lack of story work is just something disappointing when revisiting a title in the form of a remake. We have another chance at experiencing what was ostensibly a well-received Sega Genesis title, and it would have been wonderful to have seen some deeper character development instead of wooden, one-note personalities. Instead, only one character experiences any development, and the rest of the game is riddled with spelling errors.
Enjoying and exploring even a marginally more fleshed-out world would have done wonders in terms of the experience, especially when you factor in how bland the actual gameplay ends up being. Without a solid narrative to lean on, the mechanics (which we’ll get into in a moment), crumble from the very start. This leaves us with a game that’s little more than pretty nostalgia for a niche audience.
GAMEPLAY – FAST AND FLUFFY
The general dynamics of this game are built upon slightly floaty platforming and close-quarters combat. There’s a real expression of the original title that this remake leans upon, in much the way that the other recent Monster Boy updates are faithfully built upon the series’ forerunners. Like before, Asha feels like you’re playing a really pretty Genesis game, to the detriment of the entire package.
Even my own one-line description is giving the title more credit than it deserves. “Close-quarters combat” simply means that you have a sword and you swing it. Different swords with increased attack power become available quickly, allowing for little to no resistance from enemies throughout the game. The most move variety we get to perform is merely a stronger charge attack. Well, surely this must mean that the focus is on interesting level traversal and puzzle-solving, right?
Alas, no. Levels are primarily made up of long hallways with little to no vertical maneuvering. Maguffins are scattered through later levels, requiring backtracking and lengthy traveling to obtain them all to unlock the door/portal/bridge that is hindering progress. But unlike more detailed titles that have players going to every corner of the level, the “map” rarely has any discernable elements to let you know where items are, where you’ve been, etc.
It’s actually possible to completely miss a necessary item just because you jumped down the left side of a shaft, instead of the right. There aren’t many clear ways that players are guided towards their next objective, which can make progress slow and frustrating, particularly when considering the relatively small scale of the game.
Asha isn’t completely without ideas. Pepelogoo, the blue creature that joins your adventure allows you to double jump, blocks lava vents, can pick up faraway coins, etc. But of course, there’s a caveat. You have to whistle for Pepelogoo to fly into your hands before executing an action. The sheer frequency of times that you’ll need the creature’s abilities to progress is so massive that, as we’ll talk about in a moment, I had to mute the game so I didn’t have to hear the needlessly overused whistling.
There are also some well-thought-out quality of life upgrades, like the new ability to save whenever you want. Players can also return to previous levels as they wish, unlike in the original where you had one shot to get everything. These are good improvements, but applying modern conveniences to retro titles doesn’t automatically improve the overall package.
As with the story, this entry is light on the gameplay itself, leaving little for the entire project to stand on. Good games generally require at least two of the three-pronged approach (story/gameplay/graphics) to be fleshed out and satisfying, but at this point, I’m not sure if even the graphics could save the day.
GRAPHICS/AUDIO – STUNNINGLY BRIGHT
No, the graphical quality nor the art style of Asha can save the project from the depths of middling reviews. That’s not for lack of trying! The characters are extremely cute, brightly colored, and animated. Aside from the weird wiggle dance Asha performs whenever she opens a treasure chest, everything looks great!
There are, naturally, plenty of Shantae comparisons to make due to the Aladdin-style Arabian aesthetic, and female warrior protagonist. Asha and the rest of the characters are well-modeled and the level backgrounds invoke a more full world than we actually receive. Nothing looks as good as, say, Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap, but that’s like comparing apples to oranges. The development team at Artdink is going for something completely different here, and that’s okay!
Like I mentioned earlier, I ended up having to mute the game. It’s a shame because overall, the music isn’t half bad and the sound design appears to be well executed. Except for the whistling. Every single time you need to use Pepelogoo, Asha unleashes an incredibly annoying whistle. This can happen as frequently as every second and remains a consistently grating aspect of the game throughout the entire process.
After processing the audio/visual component, it seems as though Asha has failed the third strike in its attempt to be a great game. The entire package ends up being just fine, but unless you’re already a fan of the series, “just fine” isn’t a very compelling reason to open up your wallet.
Wonder Boy: Asha in Monster World was reviewed for Nintendo Switch. A key was provided by PR Hound.