Monday, May 4, 2020

PC-Engine Review: Wonderboy III: Monster Lair (1989)


The PC-Engine and PC-Engine CD are home to a lot of shoot 'em up games - over one hundred. These systems are a must-have for anyone that loves vertical or horizontal scrollers, and there are a staggering number of excellent games in this genre for the system. 

However, hiding in the shuffle of the numerous intense, adrenaline productive shmups on the consoles, there are a few that I will not forget due to their uniqueness. 

Wonder Boy III: Monster Lair is one such game.


Before I get into the utterly superb gameplay of Monster Lair, an introduction to the Wonder Boy series:

The first game in the series (simply titled "Wonder Boy") was released in 1986 by Sega for the arcades. You play as Wonder Boy, a caveman caveboy(?) on a mission to save your cavegirlfriend from some super evil badman, hurtling your hammer at foes as you speedwalk and skateboard through stages.

The game was a remarkably solid, responsive platformer with a pleasantly fast pace.

Wonder Boy (1986)

Wonder Boy was a success and subsequently ported to a slew of other consoles, including the Sega Master System, Commodore 64, and the Sega Game Gear. The game even got an HD remake on the modern gaming platform Steam.

Soon thereafter, the sequel Wonder Boy in Monster Land landed in Japanese arcades in 1987 and on the Master System in 1988. Instead of abiding by the "don't mess with success" principle, Monster Land was not a typical platformer like its predecessor but essentially a sidescrolling RPG, much like Zelda II: The Adventure of Link or Castlevania II: Simon's Quest (coincidentally all the second game in their respective series).

Once again, Wonder Boy was a critical success with its second entry: a fully realized, sword-slinging RPG with a hefty dose of strategy and replay value.

After two notes in Wonder Boy's belt, where would he go next? Ah yes, to the Monster Land Lair.

Wonder Boy III: Monster Lair (released for the arcades and PC-Engine CD) is as to the point as its blunt, in-your-face titling. The series makes its transformation to the horizontal shooter or shoot 'em up genre excellently. You still play as Wonder Boy (unless you're playing the second player, in which case you play as some lady named Princess Purapril), but the screen pushes you forward in a sense of urgency (though not too quickly). 

Like any platformer, you need to employ well-timed jumps to get through the levels. Like a shoot 'em up, you need to use the projectiles and weapons you acquire to kill enemies. This game is more akin to a simple shmup; your current weapon is dictated by the powerup you last picked up.

Wonderboy III: Monster Lair

While you progress through a given level, your health steadily drops. The only way to replenish your health is to pick up the fruit scattered around the level. Because of this, you're managing the speed of your progression through the level, the enemies that appear in front of you, and your ever-dwindling health bar. The diverse set of patterns that the different projectiles create is perfect and gives you plenty to think about, but it's often hard (as it tends to be with this kind of game) to make the "right" decision in time before picking one up.

If this seems like too much to handle, Wonder Boy III lacks the breakneck speed of many shooters. The levels do alternate between running on foot and levels in which you ride a flying dragon and dodge enemies, the latter levels generally being more difficult (especially because they include a boss fight with a big fish, a giant serpent, etc.), but the game is a slow, pleasant ramp in difficulty. 

The game looks fantastic on the PC-Engine with bright, playful colors and endearing character and boss designs. The music is catchy but nothing to write home about, but the sounds are satisfyingly appropriate for the action. There's nothing mind-blowing about the visuals or sound here, but they fit well and allow the gameplay to take the spotlight.

While playing Monster Lair solo is fun enough (though this would honestly not even be close to my go-to solo shoot 'em up game), the game is excellent as a two-player game. 

Two players (simultaneous play) are forced to cooperate against the same slew of enemies and bosses, but the players will probably feel compelled to compete when it comes to the fruit on the screen and the power-ups. This is really the perfect amount of chaos for the game like this... You're not hurtling through the levels at an unreasonable pace, but shuffling quickly through each round trying to maximize your score and not die.

If that's not a compelling picture, this is one of the few shoot 'em ups on the PC-Engine (CD or otherwise) that has two-player simultaneous play, so it's a must-have if you like playing retro games with friends and don't dislike shoot 'em ups.


Wonderboy III: Monster Lair is a departure from the two previous games in the series, a departure from platformers, and a departure from shoot 'em ups. It's unique, fun, and colorful. It won't frustrate you or torture you. In my opinion, it's an essential purchase for the PC-Engine CD or Turbografx CD.

Retrodrunk Rating:
(8/10 dirty martinis)


  1. I loved the original wonderboy. I don't think I even knew there were others in the series. Multiplayer shmups are definitely the best shmups.

    1. I need to play the first two - they're on my list!