Monster World IV was originally released in 1994 in Japan on the Sega Mega Drive (aka the Genesis in North America), and it has finally made its Western debut earlier this year due to the Wii Virtual Console, a full 18 years after the Japanese release. To be totally honest, this game wasn’t even on my radar until we did our retro game club on it, at which point I downloaded it nearly blind, knowing nothing about the game other than the fact that it was loosely connected to the Wonder Boy series, and I had enjoyed Wonder Boy in an earlier retro game club. (Good luck making sense of how the games all connect to each other, it’s a bit convoluted.) What I expected to find was, perhaps, another decent retro game to play through. What I found instead was an undeniable gem, which I can now proudly place alongside my favorite 2D games of the 16-bit era. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Whatever you do, don’t look down!
Monster World IV begins by introducing you to a young girl named Asha, the protagonist of the story, as she prepares to leave her village (named “Estafan” village... after Gloria?!) and embark upon her quest to become a warrior. She senses that someone “needs” her, and you won’t get much more narrative than this before you are thrust right into the game. Fairly early on you will stumble upon a tiny blue creature which Asha names Pepe’ (yes, spelled with a ‘ for some reason), whom will become not just a companion in your quest, but a helper which you will depend upon heavily. Pepe’ has various powers to call upon, which are continually added and upgraded throughout the game, and a significant portion of the gameplay revolves around utilizing Pepe’s unique powers.
The progression of Monster World IV is similar to something like a Zelda game, where you have a hub area, as well as distinct, self-contained stages to explore, but completely in 2D. For much of the game the hub area is a place called Rapadagna City, which is just big enough to contain some nooks and crannies to dig into without ever feeling overwhelming. For the most part, the hub acts as a bit of a break in between the self-contained stages, as well as a place to buy and sell items and upgrade your sword, shield, and armor, although you do generally have to complete some small tasks in the hub before moving on, including an occasional boss fight. However, the meat of the game is within the self-contained stages, which involve both platforming challenges and combat, as well as some lite non-linear exploration. These self-contained stages are where the true creativity of Monster World IV resides, and throughout your quest you will explore the inside of a volcano, navigate a maze of water and pipes, slip your way through icy caverns and... well, there is plenty more to see, although I will let you discover the rest on your own. The themes of the environments themselves are not necessarily new to platforming fans, but Monster World IV makes them its own, mixing a bunch of platforming staples, including pits, spikes, lava, conveyor belts and more, with elements that are somewhat less common, such as platforms in the midst of high winds, or hidden trampolines that bounce you all over the place. Barring the earliest sections of the game (which act almost more like a tutorial), pretty much every area has its own unique gameplay hook, which makes Monster World IV feel constantly fresh.
Not just another ice world.
Whenever I go back to a classic game for the first time, I try to prepare myself to deal with certain elements that were perhaps acceptable upon release, yet have not quite passed the test of time, and more often than not the controls fall under this heading. However, I am pleased to say that the controls in Monster World IV are not just good, but actually excel in many ways. At the core of the game is both platforming and combat, and Monster World IV blends these elements together in a smooth package, with both clean jumping and a tight melee combat system. One thing I particularly liked about the combat is that you are generally not penalized just for bumping into an enemy (unless it is made of fire, spikes, etc.), so unless either you or the enemy connects with an attack, you will bounce off harmlessly and get another chance. This is particularly helpful when enemies are located on the other edge of a gap that you have to jump across, something that often made platforming in games of this era more excruciating than it had to be. My only real complaint with the controls is that the (acquired) double jump is only possible with the help of Pepe', which means that you need to select him first if you want to use it, an unnecessary added step which breaks the flow of the platforming a bit.
Monster World IV looks and sounds great as well. The world is lush and colorful, with multiple scrolling backgrounds, and there are a variety of environments to explore. There is a subtle Middle Eastern style mixed into the game (which, along with the young female lead, gives off a hint of “Shantae”), although the environments themselves aren’t necessarily based on the type of environments generally found in the Middle East. Also impressive are the bosses, which are often huge and well-animated. The music is a mix of moody music, and upbeat, snappy tunes, all of it fitting very nicely with the area that it represents. It actually reminds me a bit of 16-bit era RPG music, and that is never a bad thing.
A flying carpet ride! That sure sounds like fun...
Monster World IV contains a fairly robust upgrade system that includes collecting tears (both in plain sight and hidden) to add hearts to your life bar, as well as using money that you collect to buy better weapons, armor and shields. This, combined with the aforementioned evolution of Pepe’ over the course of the game, takes what could have been a straightforward platformer and gives it a bit more of a dynamic, ever-changing feel, culminating in a final product that feels more like an adventure than a mere set of obstacles to overcome.
There are a couple things about the game that I would have perhaps liked to see done differently. At times the save points feel a bit inconsistently spaced out, and there is one particularly long stretch right before the end boss of the game without any save points at all. Not that Monster World IV is ever over-the-top difficult, but it can definitely be nerve-wracking slowly working your way through a stretch that involves some non-linear mazelike elements and wondering where the next save point will be found. These is also a flying carpet section that, while brief, can feel a bit cheap and infuriating, and most likely you will play it at least a handful of times before passing through. Finally, the boss fights themselves are generally short and not as interesting as they could be, and often my strategy boiled down to “jump and slash over and over”, which, provided that you have the health, will work on the bosses more often than not.
I have played a lot of 2D games in my life, both back in the 8-bit and 16-bit eras, as well as games that fall under the umbrella of the modern 2D revival, and I can honestly say that Monster World IV is something special. Few games of the 16-bit era even attempted to combine platforming, action, and adventure elements into one coherent whole, let alone merge them nearly seamlessly in such a wonderful fashion. In some respects I would say that Monster World IV is a game that becomes more than the sum of its parts, and yet, each of its parts can stand pretty well on its own. It doesn’t hurt that it looks and sounds nice either. If, like myself, you are a fan of both 2D gaming and classic games on the virtual console, you won’t find much better than Monster World IV. And besides, just look at Pepe’... he’s so darn cute! Can you really say no to that face?
Sadly I fear that this will be my least read / commented review, based on how the Retro Game Club for this game went. But hey, I had to write it. This game owns! If it can get at least one more person to try it out...
What were your guys favorite areas? I think mine was the wind area although it's weird, most games have like one or two areas that really stand out out from the rest (even if the rest are still pretty awesome) but in Monster World IV I'm not sure if there is a clear standout.
...which I guess is part of why it'd be interesting to see what you guys think.
Is it funny to you how many Pepe'esque characters pop up in games? We don't really have anything like that in the States, but I know that I've seen Secret of Mana rabites, a certain caddy in Super Swing Golf, Kirby (kinda), Cupil from Skies of Arcadia (to a degree..)..alright, there are some stretches in there, but is there a set source material for these guys? They're all too similar to just be created by someone, and then bit off of by others.
Bumping into enemies without losing energy / a life sounds excellent. 8-3 in Adventure Island is a certified beach because of that. I'm sorry if I may've missed it; do you only have a sword to do attacks? Do you have any projectiles?
I know, I just wanted to clarify for anyone who was reading in case they were like "what is this Monster World stuff I don't kn... oh, there is an Adventure Island game that does the same thing? I'll just stick with what I know!"