Wonder Boy is one of those odd yet forgotten game franchise that never had the biggest penetration in North America, and had a fairly confusing development history as well. With complete genre shifts, games being converted into other franchises that got their own sequels, most notably the entire Adventure Island series, a litany of ports after the series began on the Master System and arcades, two completely different titles named Wonder Boy III, and a subseries known as Monster World that certain games were and were not a part of.
Things even got more confusing given the current landscape, where the rights have gone completely bonkers after the original developer, Westone, went bankrupt in 2014. The first game was recently remade and released on Steam as Wonder Boy Returns by Korean publisher CFK. There is also Wonder Boy and the Cursed Kingdom, a spiritual successor that saw involvement from one of the original creators of the series, Ryuichi Nishizawa, which is now being distributed by Sega, who at least partially own this series. And then there is Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap, a reversed engineered remake of the Master System version of Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap with new music, hand drawn graphics, and some minor gameplay updates.
Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap Review
Platforms: PC(reviewed), Mac, Linux, PS4, Xbox One, Switch
Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap actually begins with a recreation of the final level of the prior game, Wonder Boy in Monster Land. But instead of being greeted with a vague happy ending like in the original game after defeating the final boss, the Gigan-esque MEKA Dragon, defeating the dragon ends up cursing the titular hero, depowering and transforming them into a Lizard-Man. As such they venture across Monster World in search of a way of returning to normal, searching for various dragons to kill in the hope that one of them can undo their curse, but instead they just seem to keep acquiring new ones.
I actually really like how the story starts off, as it makes this journey feel like a natural continuation of the ongoing story of the protagonist. However, there is little story to speak of beyond that, as it mostly consists of Wonder Boy/Girl traveling around the world, killing bosses at the end of areas, and then being transformed into another creature that conveniently can explore additional areas. I could criticize this further, but the game is already going above and beyond what most would expect from a 1989 Master System game.
Anyways, the game is a sort of proto-metroidvania action RPG set in an interconnected world with a large variety of secrets to uncover, all driven by the protagonist’s various monster forms, which come with inherent strengths and weaknesses, and can eventually be switched between with ease. Now, based on that simple description, it is easy to draw upon a number of titles that assuredly influenced Dragon’s Trap, though most notably 1987’s Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, which established this 2D action RPG structure, but it only follows some of the mechanics introduced here, coming off as something more original, albeit rather familiar.
It took me a while before I connected the pieces in my mind, but with the interconnected world, focus on transformations, short range melee attack, and use of versatile magical items really reminded me of the Shantae series. With the comparisons becoming even more apparent considering the arabic inspired setting of this game’s eventual sequel, Monster World IV. Heck, even the protagonist looks like an early concept for Shantae herself.
Inspirations aside though, the game is actually a very surprisingly competent and quality little title that comes off as far less dated or archaic than I would have expected from a more or less direct translation of a nearly 30-year-old game. Its core gameplay is a bit loose and slippery due to the momentum based controls and limited attack range, but things are responsive, intuitive, and easy to acclimate to after playing for a short while. The level designs continue to introduce new obstacles, ideas, gimmicks, and enemies, keeping the gameplay consistently fresh. The monster forms, while similar in their ability to dispatch enemies and perform basic platforming, each have a unique gimmick that works well within the confines of the game and are not over utilized.
Everything is a bit simple, but it remains intuitive, and all amounts to a modestly lengthed, well paced, and ultimately rock solid adventure with a handful of highlights that help the game feel unique and stand the test of time better than I was honestly expecting. It is nothing mind blowing, but I can easily understand why this game earned the fan following it developed, most notably in Europe and Brazil, and could see an argument to be made for this game to be up there with the widely praised NES classics, of which this game probably holds up better than most. That being said, it still has some notable signs of its age.
The biggest example of this being how the numerous secrets of this game can be a little too cryptic or unclear at times, being the sort of thing I would have possibly never found without a guide, while the ability to navigate through this world and find everything requires a sort of mental notetaking due to the lack of any in-game map to reference. This does make it easy to get lost in this game, but this was a common practice to elongate playtime back in the 1980s, and is not overly confusing or detrimental to the experience. It should also be said that the game does not abide by the other common practice of elongating playtime through rigorous difficulty, with the journey being relatively easy all things considered. Between health upgrades, stat boosting equipment, a variety of magical attack items, and potions that automatically heal the protagonist, of which three can be carried at a time.
With that in mind, the game can be a bit unforgiving if the player dies, which is not too difficult in the early game due to how limited the player’s health and health drops are. Upon death, the player’s progress is maintained, but their items are reset to 0, and they effectively need to get more potions in order to safely reattempt whatever challenge killed them. This can thankfully be reprimanded through a secret area in the desert that is accessible about halfway through the game, and can be gone to repeatedly to get extra gold, which is necessary to purchase all the items, magic items, and even potions. Simply grab a chest, exit, go back in to get the other seven, return to the title screen, reload to return to the centralized town hub, and repeat.
The only parts of the game that I found to be particularly hard were the challenge areas called The Unknown. There is one of these for every form taken on by the protagonist, and they are easily the most aggressive areas in the game, presenting the player with a far more relentless challenge than anything else the main game has to offer, and may take a few tries to overcome, especially if you are not going in with the best equipment possible. The Mouse-Man challenge is a particular gripe of mine, as it requires very deliberate precision single block platforming that easily took me 40+ minutes to overcome. Oh, and even finding these areas is the sort of thing that gaming magazines were made for. Or at least that’s what I thought at first, but apparently these were added in the remake.
Although the gameplay has not been updated by in large, the game’s world, character designs, and really any visual aspect about it were thoroughly reimagined through the introduction of hand drawn visuals. The characters move smoothly and feature some endearingly adorable designs while the environments feature just enough uniqueness despite the rather plain themes they explore to come across as memorable and imaginative. It is clear that some creative liberties were taken in recreating this game’s visuals, and I think it wound up all the better for it. But if players are purists, or just want to see how these areas were reimagined, they can toggle back to the original art and music by pressing the trigger buttons.
While the Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap does has some telltale signs of being a direct reverse engineering of a 1989 title, I wound up enjoying the game more than I anticipated. It is a well crafted well paced experience that aged gracefully, and avoids some of the pitfalls that many games of this era expressed. Yet even when viewing the game by modern standards, it holds up quite nicely, and, with the lovely hand drawn visuals that reimagine this game’s world into something more diverse and captivating, amounts to a great little adventure.