29 Apr 2016

Wonder Boy
1986 - Arcade

A gauntlet of trying timed jumping challenges, made under the pressure of a dropping vitality meter. Beautiful and impossible, and overall the best platformer of the time.

Yes, many of Wonder Boy's features have parallels in Super Mario Bros. from the previous year, and, certainly, Wonder Boy lacks the multiple paths and hidden areas of that game, and also the demanding control scheme of Pac-Land. It is a more straightforward game — yet better.

Oh, the vitality meter: it makes collectibles not just kind of useful in a detached, long term sense, but also an immediate necessity. You might even have to rush at times, putting yourself at greater risk of hitting obstacles, in order to keep vitality up. This is a more natural and effective system than the timer and 100-coins-for-an-extend in Mario.

Wonder Boy is the best animated, best drawn platformer I have played up to it’s release date. All sprites are skillfully crafted and vibrant cartoons, and consistent, too. The objects are pretty big, so you don’t see too broad a view on one screen (if sprite-work repeats too often on one screen, that screen looks immediately unnatural and ugly). It is sensible in visual design, but in setting too, and I can say that despite playing as a caveman who rides a skateboard and collects floating french fries and ice cream sundaes. Sure, there are floating platforms, but no static bricks in the air, drain pipes to nowhere, or what have you. They take a step towards feeling like locations, like... places in a world, rather than a planned level. Hills under blue skies — hills with long, smooth gradients, might I add, not steps of flat ground like in other platformers — woods, and so on. Maybe not so much the the cloud/water levels, but overall. Obstacles are fires, rocks, natives, frogs, all things that should be on these primitive islands. Each has their own simple pattern, but each is animated with character: the stupid looking natives, that just run at you in a straight line, the wild men that rush at you from behind. I’d rather not mention those fucking vacant looking frogs that leap death towards you when you get too close, but those look great too.

Wonder Boy arranges these in brilliant, varied and increasingly deadly combinations. After World 2 you will be tracking the movements of 2 or 3 obstacles at a time as well as remembering what comes next. It is intense, and that makes it great. If it didn’t demolish what came before it in graphics, setting and systems, here it still takes away the prize. Super Mario Bros. is just too easy.

Other little touches I like: hit the corner of a ledge and you land on the platform but trip and lose some vitality; kill the boss and the boss of the next stage reveals himself, so you have a face to curse for the trials you will endure in the next stage.

No comments: