The Sega Master System did not sell very well in North America. As such, the primary exposure western gamers had to the Wonder Boy series was via Hudson’s Adventure Island on the NES, which was quite thoroughly a Wonder Boy ripoff. However, while Master Higgins stuck to his mostly linear, skateboard-and-fruit routine throughout the NES years, Wonder Boy pushed out in a different direction, and, by the third game in the series, had adopted many of the hallmarks of what would later be dubbed the Metroidvania genre.
That third game, subtitled The Dragon’s Trap, has recently been remade by French developer Lizardcube, and it is this new version over which I cast my baleful gaze today. Does it live up to the original? Does it also succeed as a modern game?
To get the shortest, quickest part of the review out of the way upfront: there is no story. This is every bit a game from 1989, and Lizardcube has not seen fit to weigh it down with mopey anime cutscenes. I’m hard pressed to say this is a bad thing; the game certainly doesn’t need anything it doesn’t already have. Wonder Boy has been turned into a creature! Are you a bad enough dude to save the Wonder Boy? That’s it, but it’s enough; that hook spurs us on in our quest to explore a bunch of fantasy regions, slay a lot of monsters, and get turned into yet more creatures, all in the hopes of breaking the dragon’s evil curse.
The game is an action-platformer at heart, and most of our playtime is spent jumping on and over things and slashing at monsters with our substantial array of swords. Wonder Boy assumes five different creature forms over the course of the game, and each one is different from the others in surprisingly thorough ways; it’s expected that they have different special abilities, and perhaps even that they have different attack patterns and different base stats, but The Dragon’s Trap goes farther even than that. Each form interacts with different pieces of gear in different ways, meaning that a weapon that’s exceptionally powerful in one form may be trash in another. This means that there’s an unexpected degree of depth to the player progression; since Wonder Boy neither gains experience nor levels up, his gear and base stats are everything. Changing forms thus has a much bigger impact on Wonder Boy’s combat ability than it may seem to at first blush.
None of the forms is truly useless, though they’re certainly nothing resembling balanced. Overall, Wonder Boy enjoys a fairly steady power progression as he changes from one form to the next, which helps to avoid the feeling of frustration that can result from accomplishing a major progression milestone and suddenly becoming weak and useless (E.V.O.: the Search for Eden, I’m looking straight at you). Gear acquisition is also almost completely nonlinear, as almost all of Monster Boy’s weapons and armor (and every shield) are purchased from vendors scattered throughout the world. Each vendor has specific stock, so it’s important to remember where to go to buy certain items, but the number of vendors is not so vast as to make it especially difficult. In addition to raising Wonder Boy’s attack and defense, some pieces of gear have different special effects, mostly impacting the drop rate of various types of loot. They’re all useful, but the game often fails to tell the player what they do, which is a very 1989 design choice that seems pretty badly out of place in 2017. If you can figure out what the Tasmanian Sword does without looking it up, my friend, I salute you.
The core of the game is unchanged from its original form, which means that there are occasional elements that seem like shockingly bad design to modern sensibilities. The game’s secrets, for example, consist mostly of invisible doors; finding them is a matter of trying around at random and seeing where the game lets you enter a door you can’t see. To make this even more complex, entering a door is not a simple matter of pressing up, but involves holding up for a second or so, which makes it less likely that the player will stumble into a secret door by accident. Still and all, most of these secret doors are profoundly unnecessary, generally containing just money and consumables. The only major exceptions to this rule are the aforementioned Tasmanian Sword (which isn’t really that hard to find), and the game’s secret challenge levels; billed as "The Unknown," these are special levels not found in the 1989 release, each of which is designed to challenge your mastery of one of the game’s forms. They’re fairly short, but often quite difficult, and completing them awards a charm stone. Collecting all the charm stones… well, I won’t spoil that here, but suffice to say it’s worth your while. The challenge levels themselves range from "pretty easy" to "infuriating;" if you can complete the Mouse-man challenge level without attempting suicide at least once, you are a better man than I.
The Dragon’s Trap looks absolutely phenomenal. Every sprite, every texture, and every background is a treat to behold; they’re brightly colored, smoothly animated, and full of life and fun. The game manages to eschew both conventional anime and Disney-alike stylings and develop a look-and-feel all its own; really, the closest parallel I can come up with is WayForward’s Shantae series, which is perhaps fitting, since I was reminded of Shantae by the gameplay as well.
The soundtrack is every bit as good as the graphics, featuring quite a range of jazzy reimaginings of the original themes. The only complaint I can come up with about the music is that it is, on occasion, a bit too hyper; this is fundamentally a Japanese game from 1989, though, so some allowances have to be made. The sound effects are mostly just "there;" they’re not especially interesting, but they get the job done and don’t grate on the ears. There is no voice acting whatsoever, which is nice.
In terms of retro features, The Dragon’s Trap contains all the original 1989 sprites and tiles for those who’d like to play that way, and also contains quite a thorough set of image-mangling filters if for some bizarre reason you’d like your game to look like it’s running on the cheapest, nastiest CRT screen 1974 could provide. Retro graphics can be toggled with a tap of the ZR button, which is aces; they flick on and off with a clever "wipe" effect, which also comes complete with a charming bug; if you toggle the retro graphics rapidly enough, you can get them stuck halfway on, and the screen will be split between a modern left side and a retro right side. That’s fun to play with. Retro sound is also available with a press of the right stick (not ZL for some odd reason), and immediately switches to the old chiptune soundtrack, once again with audio manglers available for those who want the lowest fi possible. To my mind, only those with serious Wonder Boy nostalgia will find much of value in these retro features; unlike a lot of rubbish HD conversions — like, for example, Square Enix’s half-assed remakes of classic Final Fantasy games — The Dragon’s Trap isn’t just cynically aping the original graphics and sound in high-res, but is actually very thoughtfully designed. I often turn on retro graphics and sound in games like this, but not this time; the modern versions are simply too nice to look at and listen to.
In terms of gripes, honestly, I don’t have much. The controls are a bit stiff and weird, and I got hit a lot in the beginning while I tried to adjust to that, but it’s not really that steep a learning curve. Other than that, really, my only complaint is that it’s a short game without much in the way of extras; realistically speaking, if you’ve never played the original, you’re looking at six to eight hours of playtime for 100% completion. Once you’re done, you’ll have a gallery of concept art and a few videos of the soundtrack recording sessions, which is cool, but that’s about all there is in terms of extra content. In short, it’s still basically a game from 1989; it gets much of its challenge from being unclear about what to do and how to do it, and once you’ve figured that out, you can blow through it pretty quickly. There is a hard mode that gives the mobs more health and adds a timer that counts Wonder Boy’s health down, just like in the old school Wonder Boy days. You can also exploit the game’s password system for fun and profit if you want to — like most modern games, The Dragon’s Trap saves player progress, but it also features a password system just like the original game’s, with full compatibility with original passwords. That’s dedication! It also bears mentioning that the game contains the obligatory kowtow to the gods of political correctness, and adds a female player character; given that Wonder Boy isn’t really a character so much as a jumping sprite, and that literally the entire game is played in creature forms, this seems even more pointless than usual.
In the end, Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap is everything an HD remake should be. It gracefully preserves the original game, makes a few adjustments for playability where necessary, and has lovingly-crafted graphics and sound. The original Wonder Boy 3 was a fantastic game, and its remake does it justice. I gladly award it the generous sum of four-and-one-half politically-correct gender-neutral hairdos!