The convoluted history of Westone’s Wonder Boy series could fill volumes. But let’s begin with the basics here.
Wonder Boy began life with the simple aim, like that of so many platformers dating from 1986, of totally ripping off Super Mario Bros. Unlike the near-sum-total of its peers, however, Wonder Boy held tight to a special kernel of distinction to make it endure well beyond the initial flash in the pan of the Super Mario gold rush: It was pretty darned good.
Sure, the structure shamelessly mimics that of Mario’s adventure. The hero, Tom-Tom, sees his beloved captured and rushes off (running from left to right) to rescue her through eight worlds divided into four levels apiece—just like Mario’s 32-stage structure! At the end of each world, a large boss awaits at the end of a cave—just like Bowser in his fortresses! While the boss, Drancon, always possesses the same body across encounters, his head always takes the form of a differing mask—not unlike the way Bowser was mimicked by an underling up until World 8-4!
But it’s meaningless to simply point out the similarities between Wonder Boy and Mario. Of course they were similar. The arcade industry fostered copycats from inception, and through imitation did we eventually experience innovation. Wonder Boy didn’t simply exist as a try-hard Mario wannabe, and beyond its structural similarities Westone’s adventure offered some rather significant differences to Nintendo’s seminal work.
Wonder Boy possessed a far more cartoonish tone; not only was its hero a young caveman (which technically would be a caveboy?), its visuals seemed more rounded and buoyant. Secrets popped up more directly than in Mario’s world; Tom-Tom didn’t need to go searching for hidden blocks by smacking his head against every brick in sight plumbing for coins. While his quest contained no shortage of hidden bonus items, they tended to show up simply by the player attacking or jumping in the right spot.
In fact, the lack of coin-collecting was the key to Wonder Boy’s most salient difference from Mario. A future echo of Sega breakout Sonic, Wonder Boy emphasized momentum and progression. He collected fruit rather than money, and those pick-ups served the invaluable purpose of replenishing his ever-dwindling stamina meter. Wonder Boy didn’t simply obviate the need to trawl slowly for secrets, it actively discouraged it. To further cement the point, the most iconic power-up in the game came in the form of a skateboard that transformed Wonder Boy into an auto-scroller. Speed and reflexes were of the essence here, not the strategic consideration of Mario.
Of course, Nintendo fans had the opportunity to experience Wonder Boy themselves when Hudson licensed the game (minus Tom-Tom) from Westone as Hudson’s Adventure Island. But that didn’t arrive in the U.S. until 1988, when it felt badly dated. For the Sega faithful in Japan, however, Wonder Boy more than justified the purchase of a Mark III. (Let’s not talk about the SG-1000 version, pictured here; not only did it look terrible, it used flip scrolling for a speedy action game. Atrocious!)
Article by Jeremy Parish
GameSpite Journal 12: Wonder Boy