Genre: Run-‘N-Gun Developer: Sega of Japan Publisher: Sega of Japan/Europe Players: 1-2 Released: 1990
To open bluntly, Monster Lair is the worst Wonder Boy game ever made. For a gamer that has played many or all of the other Wonder Boy games though, this won’t seem necessarily a bad thing. Short of the name about the only other thing the average Wonder Boy games have had in common is the platforming and while Monster Lair is no different there it is certainly the most different to all the others.
Monster Lair was originally released in the arcades before being ported to both the Turbografx-16 and the Mega Drive in PAL regions. It also has the distinction of being the first Wonder Boy game I owned (though not the first played). I was excited when I originally received it years ago as I had loved the original Wonder Boy and the original Monster Land. The added bonus of a two-player mode and a funky front cover had me even more interested. The different direction the game took and what I found then and still find now to be major flaws had me disappointed.
You play as either a boy named Leo or the princess Purapril. The default single player character is Leo who fits the bill of your typical Wonder Boy with a sword and some funny headwear. After starting you will immediately be thrown into the action. It is here fans of the series will see a funny hybrid of Monster Land and the original. One hit from enemies will kill you but you still have a life bar. The life bar depletes as you go and must be replenished by collecting fruit. Tripping on rocks or getting hit by projectiles that look similar to beach balls will also lower your health. The opening level and many of the later levels have the style of the Monster Land series. There are also a lot of familiar enemies such as the mushrooms and giant snails.
Each level is split into two sections, one being the standard Wonder Boy style platform level which constantly scrolls, making continuous movement a necessity. The second part starts after entering the dragon’s mouth at the end of the first. Here the characters ride on pink dragons and continue fighting enemies before encountering the level boss. This is exactly the same for each stage in the game.
The most significant departure from the Wonder Boy formula is the shooter element which also happens to be the most important element in the game. Both characters shoot default spherical projectiles to destroy enemies but there are also a range of other weapons collected by destroying enemies (often several in succession). The weapon set is quite varied and includes an “o” shaped spread fire, twin-direction fireballs, a massive spinning flame ball and rail-gun like forward projectile. This coupled with massive amounts of enemies, a scrolling screen and a lowering health bar make the action on-screen almost non-stop and more importantly: fun.
The two-player mode is the main strength of the game. Both players are on screen at once and are unable to harm each other. Due to the constant scrolling, players cannot slow each other down and the simple controls mean a beginner can keep up with an experienced player. There are player specific power-ups that add variety to the game but they are unfortunately quite uncommon. Just playing it by yourself makes it clear that this is meant to be enjoyed with a second player.
While the game is fun, there are some elements that really hurt it. Ignoring the sub-standard sound and graphics, Monster Lair has some inexplicable and downright lazy flaws. A major one is the massive difficulty differences with each stage. Rather than progressively getting hard the game is a complete mix mash. The fist two stages are scaled and rather straight forward and no gamer should have trouble getting through these. The third level however ramps right up with sneaky, cheap enemies and giant boulders rolling on screen, often with little room to manoeuvre around. The unsuspecting gamer will likely find themselves staring at the continue option before getting halfway through this stage.
All the bosses and enemies vary greatly in difficulty. Each stage has a unique enemy that appears frequently and the level boss is usually a gigantic version of one of these monsters. Like the levels, the bosses and enemies fluctuate wildly in difficulty. A desert stage has birds that pull very sharp angle turns, right into you, leaving very little room to escape or engagement and making it one of the most difficult (and bland for that matter) levels in the game. However the level boss (a cactus) follows a very simple pattern and is easily overcome. Another example is the fifth stage where some simple bees during the first stage are a mere annoyance. The queen bee boss however is very aggressive and quite difficult, at least on the first encounter. If the difficulty had been somewhat scaled the game would be a whole lot less frustrating.
Along with the fluctuating difficulty is the inexcusable slowdown. Monster Lair is a far cry from pushing the hardware yet if too many enemies are on the screen or sometimes for no reason at all, the game slows right down. This often at very hard times resulting in the character falling in a bottomless pit or being skittled by an enemy. It is especially frustrating in the later tropical level that has long spring jumps with no room for error. No matter how well you do in the previous levels, too many mistakes with the unwieldy jump and random slow-down will see you through to a game over screen before you know it.
The graphics are weaker than the arcade version and very weak for the system. Generally speaking, they are slightly better than your average Master System game. The characters and enemies are definitely the low points. Leo and Purapril are simply drawn in a barely noticeable anime style and have very few animations. Some of the enemies are actually more detailed but none are impressive, and though some of the levels look good (especially the fourth and final stages) most are very bland, lacking detail and even backgrounds. They are also very typical: ice, desert, tropical, etc. – town types that are only made more generic with age.
Some music in the game is catchy, but it is all poorly done and has aged terribly. Possibly the worst tune in the game is recycled for the second section of every level. Each platform level has its own tune in the first section and there are also a few jingles for stage completion. The sound effects are mostly terrible, conforming to the overall mediocre presentation. This is definitely the type of game where you want to have the television turned down and the stereo up.
So, overall? Despite the overtly negative tone of this review, I do have a soft spot for Monster Lair. It is particularly good in two-player mode, and I recommend you play it with a friend should you desire to play it at all. The presentation is terrible, and it has some unforgivable flaws, but much of the game is fun if you’re into shooters, platformers or even just Wonder Boy. As I began, it is indeed the worst Wonder Boy game ever made but it is very far from the worst Mega Drive game ever made and that makes it alright.