Holy crap, Asha is ugly.[“Might Have Been” is a bi-weekly column by Todd Ciolek that explores the ways in which promising games, characters, and concepts failed. This week’s edition looks at Sega and Westone's Monster World IV, released for the Mega Drive in 1994.]

The Monster World series is often recalled as one collective gem that went unappreciated in its time, but that isn't quite true: not only were there mediocre installments, but the series also had plenty of exposure.

If the original Wonder Boy was quickly overshadowed by Hudson’s fully licensed Adventure Island rip-off of it, Westone quickly developed the Monster World/Wonder Boy/Monster Lair/Whatever line into a succession of fairly popular action-RPGs, and nearly all of them came out in American and Europe. The only truly underrated, only-in-Japan Monster World was, sadly enough, the last and best of them.

There, that's better.Wonder Girl in Monster Land

Monster World IV is perhaps the only part of the series that can’t be mislabeled a “Wonder Boy” game; instead of an armored (or diapered) young swordsman, the lead is a silent, green-haired girl named Asha (“Arsha” shows up in some halfway official materials, but I don’t like it as much ), who pluckily departs her parents’ caravan to see the world.

And instead of a rudimentary Western fantasy realm, Monster World IV’s world is the stuff of 16-bit Arabian myth, full of ornate palaces, turban-sporting shopkeepers and bustling, sandy bazaars. The only things truly out of place are a breed of round flying creatures called Pepelogoo ("Peperogu" is another possible spelling, but it's not as aptly cute).

Shortly after arriving in the kingdom of Rapadagna, Asha hatches a rare blue “Pepe,” and it follows her throughout the game. A floating, dutiful little blob resembling both the title creature of My Neighbor Totoro and the Gundam franchise’s Haro robots (essentially the R2-D2 of Japanese pop culture), Pepe seems a highly marketable mascot that Sega never really tapped.

Asha is a very common name in India.Stuffed Pepes should've lined toy store shelves

Compared to other 16-bit action-RPGs, Monster World IV is spare. Asha doesn’t have the massive arsenal of Link or the special moves of Terranigma’s Ark, and though she’s able to pull off some graceful stabbing, her options feel particularly anemic after the shape-shifting of Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap (which was technically Monster World II). Her quest sees her rescuing the helper spirits from Wonder Boy in Monster World (again, that was actually Monster World III), but Asha doesn’t get to use them in combat. Even a sour-faced genie, freed from a lamp in the first level, is merely a means to a warp zone.

In place of varied weapons or supernatural allies, Asha has her loyal Pepe, and the ear-flapping little bugger is remarkably versatile. Asha throws him around, uses him as a parachute, stuffs him into volcano geysers, freezes him in blocks of ice, employs him for boat propulsion and has him indignantly fish her from a soggy grave, all to navigate Monster World IV’s levels. Pet abuse is rarely quite so adorable.

Cornershop's 'Brimful of Asha' is the worst song ever written.High above the Mucky-Muck

Those levels are nothing original: a volcano, an ice pyramid, a water temple, a floating castle, and the subterranean lair of the game’s last-minute boss. Yet they’re all well-designed, if sometimes needlessly long, and using Pepe to solve puzzles and squeak by traps never grows dull. The enemies follow predictable routes, but the game’s overall layout punishes careless players harshly, and making it through any stage but the first demands patience.

Monster World IV isn’t terribly long or challenging. It's merely a charmer. The prior Monster Worlds had fairly generic character designs, but Westone took some welcome chances in the series finale. Asha never says a word until the end of the game, and she doesn’t need to. She's a remarkably well-animated heroine, whether she’s wiggling into a water pipe or straining to lift an overweight Pepe. Her pet grows several times throughout the game, and so do his mannerisms; it’s worth tossing him in the water just to see him blink in surprise and shake himself dry.

Asha is a bitchy and generally awesome character in George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire.Yes, go outside. Asha would.

In other words, it’s the sort of game that's out to make you happy. The soundtrack’s full of upbeat remixes of the main title theme, and the colorful surroundings of Asha’s world host all sorts of little details: books reference previous Monster Worlds, merchants rattle off their personal issues, and yellow Pepelogoos crowd the skies all over the kingdom.

Yes, it's a happy game. Mostly. The fluttering little puffballs are actually part of Monster World IV’s story, and while it’s primarily a thin, kid-level motivator to get Asha from one dungeon to the next, there’s a twist later on, and an unexpectedly depressing sacrifice. Rest assured that there’s also a happy ending, but as in all stories with childlike appeal, it’s the tragedy we remember most.

And in that ending, there’s a strange sense of finality. Seven years before Metal Gear Solid 2 adroitly told players to TURN OFF THE GAME CONSOLE NOW, Monster World IV’s genie popped up in an epilogue to announce that the Monster World series was indeed over, and that all those watching should “go outside and play.” Westone apparently took that advice to heart and didn’t bother coming back inside, because they’ve never made anything to equal Monster World IV.

Uh, there was an Asha in Blue Breaker, a mediocre RPG for the Saturn and PC-FX. That's all I got.We don't need no Wonder Boy

Monster World IV’s only real misstep was its timing: it was a cute action-RPG when no Western company wanted one. In 1994, Sega of America preferred abortive experiments with full-motion video and pricey console expansions, and a bright, appealing game like Asha’s would just have taken attention away from the latest Sonic title. Even Westone wasn’t satisfied with the game’s reception. On the recent Monster World Collection for PlayStation, IV's creators mention that some devoted fans of the series actually disliked Asha. Those people were morons.

If there was a minor backlash over the lack of an actual Wonder Boy, it seems even more petty now. Monster World IV’s generally regarded as the highlight of the series, as evidenced by Asha and Pepe showing up front and center on Monster World Collection’s cover.

It’s unfortunate that an official English release eludes the game; it’s available in Japanese on GameTap and in the aforementioned import-only Collection, yet the sole translated version is a fan-worked ROM. There’s but a slim chance that Sega will localize Monster World IV for the Wii’s Virtual Console, but with other games from the series showing up there, it'll be a shame if we never see what was the best of the line, and, indeed, one of the best action-RPGs of its day.