Most retro game enthusiasts who play Saiyuuki World will quickly realize the game is just Wonder Boy in Monster Land dressed up in Journey to the West references and motifs. On its own, this fact isn’t likely to arouse much interest. Much like Dragon Ball before it, Saiyuuki World is more interested in using those motifs to lend the game a distinctive character than it is in perfectly translating the original Journey to the West into video game form or even letting its motifs inform the plot in any meaningful way. Still, the game’s existence and the history behind it both point to a much larger trend that does around interest.
While game adaptations weren’t uncommon at the time of the game’s release (see: Super Mario Bros., Yo! Noid, M.C. Kids, and the Game Boy version of We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story), Wonder Boy in Monster Land stands out as a game that was especially prone to adaptation. Not counting ports and keeping Saiyuuki World in mind, the game became Bikkuriman World when it moved to the PC Engine and later a Monica’s Gang-based game when it came to Brazil. In addition, Saiyuuki World 2 would itself undergo a similar process when it was released in America as Whomp ‘em. It’s all enough to make you wonder what about this game specifically lends itself well to such continued adaptation.
No doubt part of the reason lies in the very general way Saiyuuki World conveys narrative. It’s abstract and theatrical in nature, representing its story in broad terms through what its mechanics and scenarios imply. Thus it wouldn’t be hard for somebody else to replace/tweak the terms the game uses to achieve some other desired effect. Yet I believe this only partially explains the game’s adaptability. To answer that question, we have to look at the game on a mechanical/technical level, and beyond that, on an emotional and thematic one. What we find is a humorous and lighthearted game, but also one with a genuine belief in the idea that unlikely heroes can change the world for the better. With that established, it’s simply a matter of designing all the game’s systems around those feelings.
This is something that Saiyuuki World has a particular talent for. Its gameplay is relatively simple: as Son Goku, you advance through caves and castles and other such areas, slashing away at whatever evils stand between you and the various Buddhist priests you’re tasked with rescuing. While you occasionally stop by towns (and maybe a hidden shop here and there) to buy whatever swords, armor, and supplementary weapons you’ll need to achieve that goal, there’s never any real break from the action, as you’ll often still fight monsters in these areas. That said, the action is broken up into very distinct parts: you’re not so much exploring one continuous world as you are advancing ever forward from zone to zone.
In one sense, this approach makes Saiyuuki World a more accessible game: the concise zone-to-zone format helps avert the risk of overloading the player with too much information at once, and whatever action the player needs to take is either spelled out clearly enough already or limited in such a way that it won’t take long to find out what it is. Yet building off that logic, the linear action and sparse mechanical composition lend themselves well to immediate and direct action in a way that other game formats may struggle with. For example, the world we’re presented with precludes any real exploration of it. This is because a world that’s free for us to explore would connote a world at peace, or at least a world at a decent enough level of peace to allow the player to advance the game on their own schedule. Consequently, the character through which players would access that world wouldn’t so much be a hero as they would be somebody so divorced from the world around them, so unaffected by it, that it’s unlikely anything they do would be significant enough to change the world for the better. Or maybe that character both sees the worlds as existing only for their gratification and has the power to enforce that vision.
Saiyuuki World doesn’t want any of this. Thus it compels us ever forward and quickly unveils whatever secrets the world might have been hiding. We immediately understand how dire the situation is and that we can’t simply put this off at our own convenience. Likewise, we understand what sort of character is charged with righting this wrong: a hero with considerable resolve and determination. Somebody who’s so focused on the goal at hand that he won’t allow himself to be distracted from it even in the slightest.
Indeed, the game goes to great pains elaborating on Goku’s character at every possible opportunity. Look at his movement. There’s a light yet firm touch behind the way he jumps, later accentuated by power-ups that let him control the speed of his descent. Not only does this lend Goku’s character a comedic edge while preserving his resolute nature, it’s also a clever way of incorporating some of the powers that Son Goku was known for. Likewise, as humorous as it may be to see an esteemed mythological hero fight monsters with a sword only as large as his head, the short reach of Goku’s sword has a significant influence on the game’s mood. This isn’t limited to the immediate, personal feeling behind the battles, either, although that is a factor worth considering.
Rather, Goku’s disadvantage in combat is vital to ensuring the game’s underdog story is a well-realized one; that we (the player) want to root for Goku’s success in the face of overwhelming odds. It creates high risk situations for the player to navigate, not just because Goku’s in close proximity to something that could easily do him harm, but also because his sword’s small range deprives him of whatever power he might have hoped to have. However, the responsive controls and quick attack animations help draw his his more admirable qualities to the surface, like his lack of hesitation or his willingness to fight for what’s good. This is especially apparent during the boss battles: each one towers over Goku’s diminutive stature, and their attacks dominate the small arena you fight in. You’ve little time or room to react, but through sheer force of will, you can count on Goku coming out on top at the end of each fight. Needless to say, Saiyuuki World knows how to craft impressive narrative moments (even if they never coalesce into narrative arcs).
Now I’ll admit that what the game does is by no means unique. Hero arcs are just about the default mode of expression for many video games, and it’s not hard to find counterparts to the game’s abstracted mode of expression both within its own era and across others. It’s not even hard to find both of them represented in the same experience. What sets this game apart from others, then, is its level of sincerity. Saiyuuki World’s (I guess Wonder Boy in Monster Land’s) carefree origins in the world of platformers clearly shine through, but they’ve been tempered by things like its ardor for genuine heroes (over comedic protagonists), its slight romantic edge, and a great deal of clarity. Perhaps those are the ingredients that have made this game as enduring/ubiquitous as it is.