Long ago, back in the late 1980’s, there was a pretty cool series known as Wonder Boy that existed on several platforms for the company. The series had a pretty good eight-year run with six games to its name, the most acclaimed to the series (aside from the original) was Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap which was released in 1989 on the Master System. (For you younger readers, that was the Sega console they had before they released the Genesis.) Nearly 30 years later, Lizardcube and DotEmu came together to take the original version of the game and put in on modern consoles for gamers to play with the same title, but just knocking off the “III” at the end.
The game put you in charge of either a Wonder Boy or Wonder Girl, and the title screen will change appropriately. I went with girl, because if the option is there, let’s play as a woman for a change. The action-adventure platformer is the exact same game from 1989, which takes place after the events of Wonder Boy in Monster Land. You come across a castle and defeat a boss called Mecca Dragon, only to be transformed into a giant lizard (known as Lizard-Man/Woman) by an evil being who likes to curse his enemies. Your quest moving forward is to explore the realms in which you now inhabit and find a way to break the curse and return to your human form while defeating all your enemies along the way.
The primary mechanic in Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap that makes a lot of the adventuring cool is that you can change into different creatures along the way, each with their own abilities and strengths. These include a mouse, a lion, a parahna, and a hawk. The game plays like a lot of older platformers from the era, the closest I would put it to is the Castlevania series as you constantly have a weapon on standby as your primary, and then a selection of others for your secondary that can do more damage but go away quickly. Everything in the world is connected by a primary area that you go to for armor and information as you make your way around to different areas looking for treasure and bosses.
The bosses you seek out are dragons who have little sense of style or originality in their choices (like a Pirate Dragon who commands the underwater area), but pack a punch when it comes to their abilities and can become a challenge to defeat. Some of them are super cheap in their pattern of offensive weapons and where they walk as you try to hit, but others are easily defeated if you know how to bait them into attacking you. Each one you beat will unlock a new animal for you to turn into, which will then help you get to other areas to explore and bosses to beat. Some abilities can help you beat the dragons faster, but this isn’t like Mega Man where one specific animal will defeat a boss instantly, you’ll need a little more wits to bring them down.
Along the way you’ll collect coins and other random items dropped by enemies, which you’ll take back into town to purchase better armor and weapons to do battle with. However, the coins are not plentiful and you’ll be doing a lot of grinding to earn enough for what you need. This becomes tedious and is one of the drawbacks a lot of retro games suffer from, because this is the kind of thing developers used to do to extend the life of a game from a few hours to a few days worth of gaming. It’s extremely unnecessary in modern gaming, especially when there are other ways to go about it. For example, instead of dropping me one coin, drop three, just to speed the process up.
The design is gorgeous as the original game’s display was taken by designers and animated over to create a cartoon-like style with moving backgrounds to add depth and animations to make the enemies and heroes come alive. It feels like your playing a modern Saturday morning cartoon show or a Disney film, with every enemy having a personality that fits well into who they are and what they do. You can also switch back-and-forth between the game’s current art and a retro-style, which shows you the game’s original look, complete with old-school soundtrack and sound effect. It’s a nice callback to the Master System design and shows you that it wasn’t too far off from being a Nintendo competitor. If only they marketed it better…
Overall, I really enjoyed Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap. There’s some hiccups here and there with the gameplay, and a lot of your questing involves going back-and-forth over the same old ground you’ve already covered to get items, but this is a charming love letter to an era gone by in platform gaming with a couple modern touches to make it feel new again. It is definitely worth playing through once just to say you beat it. It also makes me wonder if they’ll get around to doing this treatment for all the arcade and Mega Drive games and create a complete collection, but one can dream.
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