While the name Wonder Boy will mean little to nothing to a lot of younger gamers these days, to those like me who came to the hobby in the 8- and 16-bit days, it can bring back a lot of memories. Crafted by Japanese developer Escape (who later became Westone Bit Entertainment), the Wonder Boy franchise grew from its arcade roots into a deeper, more complex adventure series whose challenges were only topped by trying to keep track of which games were which (thanks to confusing name conventions and ports that at times changed graphical elements or even the main character).
The game to come in that transition from quarter munchers to password-powered adventures was Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap. In an interesting twist, it kicks off during the ending segment of the previous chapter—Wonder Boy in Monster Land—as our hero is battling its predecessor’s end boss, the Meka Dragon. Killing him, however, results in an unexpected side effect: you’re placed under a curse, turning you into the reptilian Lizard Man. In order to break the curse, you’ll need to defeat the other dragons ruling over the land to obtain a holy relic called the Salamander Cross. Of course, doing so isn’t going to be easy—and to get to each successive dragon, you’ll have to master other animal forms and their special abilities: Mouse Man with his small size and wall-walking powers; Piranha Man, who can move around much more easily in water: Lion Man, with his more powerful attacks; and Hawk Man, who can fly to previously-unreachable areas.
To be honest, I’m not sure I’ve touched Wonder Boy III much since I first played it back on the Master System in 1989, and I was honestly surprised when LizardCube announced that they’d be doing a remake of the game. I remembered enjoying it for what it was, but couldn’t help wondering why they hadn’t instead picked one of the later games in the series (specifically Wonder Boy in Monster World or Monster World IV). After playing this updated version of Wonder Boy III, however, I now understand why: because trying to put this amount of work into a bigger game might have been overwhelming for a team this size.
Simply put, the amount of love and attention that’s gone into this remake is staggering, and that starts with its gorgeous art style. We’ve seen plenty of attempts to HD-ify older sprite-based games at this point—all to varying degrees of success—but I’m being honest when I say that Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap (the Roman numeral is dropped from this version for clarification) is easily one of the best efforts I’ve ever seen released. Below, you can see a visual comparison between the 8-bit original and LizardCube’s version, but it’s not simply a case of “more” in terms of the graphics here. It’s the choices that were made, the imagining of what these areas would look like had the hardware been more capable, and the artistry of filling in the blank spaces or replacing the pixels that previously existed. Studio MDHR’s upcoming Cuphead has shown us how beautiful and full of life 2D gaming can still seem in an era of cheaply-produced and poorly-animated offerings, and I think Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap deserves to stand right beside it. (By the way, while I reviewed the game on PlayStation 4, I also tried the Switch version—and it looks fantastic on that smaller screen.)
Audio-wise, the game’s soundtrack has been reworked wonderfully, with orchestrated pieces that pay homage to what came before while raising those tracks to another level. Of course, should you want to remember how things were in the good old days, both the visuals and audio can be independently swapped to their original versions at any time. While much of the game remains exactly how my brain remembered it, the team at LizardCube did make a few slight tweaks for the better. I don’t want to spoil things too much for returning players; just know that what was kind of a cumbersome element in the original has been swapped out for a more interesting set of new content. Plus, while it doesn’t affect gameplay in any way, the team added a Wonder Girl that players can choose instead of the default Wonder Boy, which was a really nice (and appreciated) touch. I also can’t forget to mention that—in a crazy twist—Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap was coded so that it could not only accept passwords from the 1989 version of the game, but even generate passwords in the new game that can be used in the original. (Not every consumable item will transfer over in the same quantities, but all major unlockables will be there, which is just so ridiculously cool.)
What’s interesting is that, in the end, it’s the original game that at times fails the team updating it for a new generation of players, and not the other way around. There’s no two ways about it: Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap is very much a game from 1989, warts and all. While it remains an extremely playable game—to the point that I was legitimately surprised by how fun it still is—it’s also not as friendly as projects made in the modern era. So, those who didn’t grow up on this kind of stuff may feel that it’s at times unfair in its difficulty or expectations of skill.
There’s a nice diversity in the places you’ll be exploring (especially with their fresh coat of paint), but the game is also relatively short and small in scope. (I beat it in seven hours, but I’m expecting it’ll be more around four to five unless you fall into the completionist mentality like I did). One of the best parts of the game—the animal forms—continues to be a nice twist, and I’d swear most of them feel better gameplay-wise thanks to the game’s updated character sprites and animations. Unfortunately, though, Mouse Man and his near-worthless attack range continues to be rage-inducing garbage.
Even if I didn’t understand LizardCube’s desire to bring back this middle chapter of the Wonder Boy saga at first, I came to really appreciate their decision, even beyond the “it was actually doable” part of the equation. While Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap does feel like a relic of a bygone era more than I wish it did, more often than not, it’s an adventure that’s held up far better over the years than it had any right to. With the effort that LizardCube has put into freshening the game up, you could even at times believe that it was actually an indie project conceived at some point in the last few years as a tribute to similar classic platformers. While it isn’t always perfect, and it may not be a good fit to younger players who have now come to expect certain luxuries, Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap is not only proof that a nearly 30-year-old game can still be worth going back to play, but how special and worthwhile games like those can feel when put into the hands of people who care.
1989’s Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap could have felt way out of its league here in 2017, but the impressive job that LizardCube has done updating it for our modern era has really given it a second life. It’s a great retro-meets-future gaming experience marred occasionally by elements that just don’t work as well all these years later.
|Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap is available on Xbox One, PS4, Switch, and PC. Primary version played was for PS4. Product was provided by DotEmu for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.|
Mollie got her start in games media via the crazy world of gaming fanzines, and now works at EGM with the goal of covering all of the weird Japanese and niche releases that nobody else on staff cares about. She’s active in the gaming community on a personal level, and an outspoken voice on topics such as equality in gaming, consumer rights, and good UI. Check her out on Twitter and Mastodon.