Having gone through Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap and Wonder Boy in Monster World, it’s about time to wrap up this makeshift trilogy with the somewhat perplexingly named Monster World IV, a title that served as the almost abrupt end to a somewhat prolific series and, bizarrely, was never localized into English until its 2012 re-release on the Wii Virtual Console and a downloadable Monster World collection… that itself only contained half the series for some reason.
Monster World IV Review
Platforms: Genesis(Emulated), Wii, Xbox 360, Playstation 3
Once again flipping the protagonist, Monster World IV follows Asha, a young woman who is called away from her humble hometown to pursue the path of a warrior, and protect the world from an encroaching wave of darkness that once again threatens all of its non-monstrous denizens. Ultimately, it’s a fairly basic and light hero’s journey that is peppered with somewhat sparse yet charming dialog and at least one plot point that, while not particularly surprising given genre conventions, does manage to make the end of the game feel like a more personal journey than it otherwise would.
Though such a light approach to story is nothing new for this series, which has routinely focused its efforts into being a proto-metroidvania RPG-lite action platformer roots, but Monster World IV shifts up the genre considerably. Despite commonly being dubbed a metroidvania among… people who classify game genres, Monster World IV is a linear stage-based action collectathon platformer that actively disallows the player from backtracking to earlier areas. A move that prevents players from finding health increasing Life Drops, which are incredibly easy to miss without a walkthrough, or grind for gold needed to buy equipment, which despite being such a common and well established system, it’s handled… bizarrely here. Effectively, if players want to get every iterative upgrade as they appear, it will tac on several hours of grinding onto their playthrough, but if they get to the sixth dungeon they’ll be rewarded with enough gold to buy the legendary equipment with ease, so I guess the best approach to upgrades is to ignore about half of them.
Anyways, the justification for this linear approach can largely be seen in Asha’s partner, a blue Pepelogoo, who grows and changes throughout the game, and their skillset steadily becomes incompatible with earlier levels. So for instance, once reaching the ice world, the Pepelogoo becomes very large and Asha can no longer carry him on top of her head and run, meaning it would be impossible to go through certain sections of the fire level. It is an odd design decision based on the lineage of games that came before this, but I wouldn’t say it is game ruining or anything so extreme. In fact, one could easily argue that Monster World IV has the best underlying gameplay of any title in the series.
Asha is a more fluent character than Shion could ever hope to be with the ability to dash, an easier to read sword range, and a far greater degree of areal movement control thanks to the double and flutter jumps provided by the Pepelogoo. Meanwhile the dungeons mostly follow a simple theme, but their unique puzzles, mechanics, and layouts do make them all stand out from one another, and are easily the most elaborate stages seen throughout this series, while never becoming overbearing, except for the cloud level. That one kinda sucks.
However… it’s far from the most polished or well rounded affair, and for a lot for reasons. To start, while Asha can accumulate a lot of health throughout her journey, giving the player a high tolerance for combat and traversal errors, health drops are once again relegated to certain enemies and locations for reasons I simply cannot understand. Dying naturally sends Asha back to the lack save point, and while these, along with health refilling gachapon machines, are present throughout dungeons, their distribution is erratic, and I often wondered if I was simply missing them, only to realize that, no, the last save point really was a six minute trek before the boss.
That being said, bosses themselves are all fairly easy, following simple patterns and if the player doesn’t want to bother memorizing them, the brute force strategy works quite well. This is due to how Asha has a generous amount of invincibility frames, can bump into most enemies without taking damage, and only ever loses one pip of health at a time, all of which go to make the game a lot more lenient than it would be otherwise, and I appreciate that. But Monster World IV still houses quite a few difficulty spikes between perilous platforming sections and select puzzle based challenges. The fact that health is such a commodity in this game really did sour me on these sections, and made me glad that I decided to save scum as much as I did. Because while I have no problem with performing challenges like this, I’d rather do them just once than need to keep repeating long stretches of the same level over and over until I get things perfectly.
Moving onto something more positive, Monster World IV is an absolutely beautiful game. Its vibrant colors, detailed environments, distinct art direction, abundant use of 16-bit-era visual effects such as parallax scrolling, and enemy sprite work all make this one of the best looking titles released for the Genesis/Mega Drive. However, something about Asha’s sprite just looks… off. To elaborate, Asha’s design in the packaging and promotional material depicts her with dark green hair, a predominantly blue top, and baggy white pants. Yet her in-game sprite is predominantly light green and white, forgoing any blue coloring, and showing the green bleed into her pants, which also happen to look like a dress a lot of the time due to how it covers her chest. Plus, she is drawn with her hands outstretched in a pose that just looks unnatural. I got used to her sprite over time, but it still strikes me as a bizarre decision, or some sort of developmental oversight, when contrasted with the level of detail seen elsewhere in this title.
As for the music, it represents a dramatic step-up in audio quality over what was offered in the prior entry, while continuing to deliver a series of catchy and enjoyable melodies that I do believe deserve more love than they have been afforded over the years. However, the soundtrack itself can grow repetitive due both to the short looping tracks and the tendency to recycle themes and melodies across numerous tracks. While I do appreciate the motif, it’s application here didn’t quite do it for me, likely due to the sound limitations inherent to the Genesis. Oh, and again there exist surprisingly few covers or remixes that I could find of the soundtrack, and which is a damn shame.
After reconciling my thoughts on the title, I cannot say that I feel too strongly about Monster World IV one way or another. I can admire it for a number of things, from its general aesthetic and visuals, to a number of its gameplay concepts, from the improved level designs to its numerous applications for Asha’s Pepelogoo. But like a number of games from its era, it engages in some questionable design decisions and while the title is quite fun at spots, I find it to be more of a rough curiosity than some forgotten classic that demands attention. I mean, that probably could be changed with a remaster that fine-tunes things, like was the case with Dragon’s Trap, but the same is true for a lot of games from the 16-bit generation, and in general.
That about covers it for this series, or at least it would if not for 2018’s Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom, a title I initially assumed to simply be a spiritual successor, but it’s actually part of the Monster World and Wonder Boy series. As such, I’ll talk about it… eventually.