When it began back in 1986, the Wonder Boy series showed little hint that it would become the cult classic franchise it is today. From its humble beginnings as a relatively straightforward action platformer, Wonder Boy evolved into something much bigger; a skilful fusion of action and RPG, influenced by creator Ryuichi Nishizawa's addiction to role-playing games during development.
After Wonder Boy in Monster Land, we'd see further refinement of this template via the peerless Master System outing Dragon's Trap (remade in 2017 to impressive effect) and – more recently – a modern-day retelling of the tale via Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom, which was designed with Nishizawa's input and guidance.
But which Wonder Boy game is the best? We recently ran a poll asking you, our readers, that very same question; the results are shown below (and remember, almost all of these games are available on Wonder Boy Anniversary Collection).
Released in arcades in 1988, Wonder Boy III: Monster Lair (not to be confused with Wonder Boy III: The Dragon's Trap on the Master System) marked something of a departure from Wonder Boy in Monster Land, and showed how willing Westone was to experiment with the series. The combination of action platforming and side-scrolling shooter isn't quite as effective as it perhaps should have been, which might account for the low placing of this title in this ranked list. Even so, it's well worth a blast – especially if you have access to the Hudson Soft-developed PC Engine / TurboGrafx-16 version, which drops the 'Wonder Boy' branding and has a fantastic soundtrack. The Mega Drive / Genesis port is less essential, however.
The first Wonder Boy game might not have the light RPG elements and sense of exploration that made the series famous, but it's still a delightful action platformer in its own right. While it may not be as deep as the titles which followed it, it's nonetheless one of Sega's most famous arcade hits of the period and was duly ported to the SG-1000, Master System and Game Gear – as well as several home computer formats. The more recent remake – entitled Wonder Boy Returns – doesn't quite capture the same magic. Because Westone (then known as Escape) owned the rights to the game code (Sega only owned the Wonder Boy name), it was free to work with Hudson Soft to create 1988's Adventure Island, which is based on the same format and would branch off in its own direction.
Inspired by the likes of The Black Onyx and Wizardry, Wonder Boy creator Ryuichi Nishizawa decided to take the series in a new direction for its second outing. Instead of taking place in a jungle, Monster Land would be set in a European-style fantasy world complete with dragons and other monsters. In this sequel, the titular Wonder Boy must once again travel through linear levels, but this time around he can use gold to purchase improved gear to make the quest easier. A Master System port was released soon after, and was a critical and commercial success; like its predecessor, Monster Land would be licenced by Hudson and released on the PC Engine as Bikkuriman World.
Originally released only in Japan, this is the first game in the series to drop the Wonder Boy name entirely – because the hero this time around isn't a boy, but a girl: Asha. Monster World IV also has a Middle Eastern setting which is a breath of fresh air compared to previous instalments. Seen by many as the ultimate refinement of the Wonder Boy template, it was eventually released in the West on the Wii Virtual Console in 2012 (sadly, this version is no longer available for download) and has since been remade as Wonder Boy: Asha In Monster World on modern platforms.
A relatively early release for the Mega Drive / Genesis, Wonder Boy in Monster World abandons the animal transformations that made Dragon's Trap so appealing and instead introduces items and gear which allow players to get past certain roadblocks (a trident allows you to swim underwater, for example). A fine action RPG, Monster World (known as Wonder Boy V: Monster World III in Japan) was ported to the Master System in 1993 and the PC Engine / TG-16 in 1994, with the latter version being rebranded as The Dynastic Hero to avoid use of the Wonder Boy trademark.
Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom is a tremendous accomplishment. It’s a gorgeous looking game with a fantastic soundtrack and does its spiritual predecessors proud by nailing the Wonder Boy mechanics while still offering something that will appeal to modern audiences. As long as you can appreciate that it’s still very much an old-school game at heart and you’re going to get some 8-bit era platforming trickiness as a result, you’re going to thoroughly enjoy playing through this adventure for the 12-15 hours it’ll take you to beat it. It may not be Wonder Boy by name, but it’s definitely wonderful by nature.
So here it is – the best Wonder Boy game, according to your votes. While you could argue that Monster World on the Mega Drive refines the action RPG template better and Monster Boy brings the whole series up to date with improved visuals and music, there's no denying that Dragon's Trap, for its time, is a stunning achievement. The animal transformations make it feel like an early 'Metroidvania', and the way in which the world is laid out is genius; there's a real sense of delight when you realise a new pathway is actually a shortcut to a previously-explored area, linking up the game world in a way that makes perfect sense. Ported to both the Game Gear and PC Engine / TG-16 back in the day (the latter being known as Dragon's Curse), this particular outing is worth seeking out in any form – but the 2017 remake is arguably the best way to experience it today.