Review: Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap

Today is a big day all devoted to polishing up cult classics, it would seem. Not only do we have Full Throttle Remastered being released, but now Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap is getting a makeover, as well (feel free to add The Disney Afternoon Collection if you’d like, though those aren’t cult classics). Originally released for the Master System back in 1989, the third Wonder Boy game (or the fourth one, if going by the Japanese releases) was not only considered to be one of the best games for the console, but also a classic of the 8-bit era, and was one of the early definers of the metroidvania sub-genre. But just as the Wonder Boy franchise disappeared from the public eye, The Dragon’s Trap has also had to settle for cult status as the years went on. But now that we have a remastered version here, ready to re-introduce the game to the public once again, it’s time to ask: Does its legendary status still hold up?

Given that this is a platformer from the ’80s, The Dragon’s Trap unsurprisingly doesn’t exactly have a deep plot. Picking up from the end of the second game, your hero has just defeated the evil Meka-Dragon, and just as it seems like victory once again, one last curse is place upon you that turns them into a (mostly) depowered lizard man. So now you set out to remove this curse by traversing across several lands to find a cure, battling various other dragons and earning the ability to transform a mouse, piranha, lion, or hawk man along the way, each with their own amazing special powers (enough to make you kind of wonder why you would actually want this supposed curse gone by the time you’ve unlocked most of them).

So let’s just jump straight into the obvious here, which you can tell from the screenshots and any footage of the game: Holy crap, this is all unbelievably gorgeous. The hand-drawn artwork for the remastered version courtesy of developers Lizardcube is an absolute feast for the eyes, filled with vibrant, detailed backgrounds and scenery and retaining the original’s classic, cartoonish style while still including their own unique touches and impressive animation in the character and enemy designs. Much like Double Fine’s remastered games, you can switch between the old and new graphics with the press of a button, and while the original still has good graphics for its time, the new art blows it away, especially in giving each world its own unique flavor and making things feel a bit less repetitive. The soundtrack has also been beefed up as well, with the newly-composed version being a absolute treat for the ears as well.

Gameplay-wise, The Dragon’s Trap uses a setup similar to your standard old-school platformer, but has a large focus on a hub world that leads off into new levels that you can access with each new power you unlock, like a modern metroidvania game. The hub world is also where you access the area that lets you switch between forms (once you unlock it as well), with each one having their own strengths and weaknesses. The starting lizard man doesn’t have any shield to block projectiles, but is the only one who can duck and has the only projectile attack. The mouse man has the shortest sword, but can climb certain walls. The piranha man is the only one that can swim, etc. Each form is quite fun to play as and explore with, and controls perfectly.

You can also come across various shops along the way that will sell you new weapons and armor to equip, beefing up your character’s attack and defense, as well as occasionally providing special abilities such as being able to walk in lava without harm. The stat changes they provide do change depending on what form you take, though, so you’ll need to pay special attention as you go along. You’ll also need to either search hard for hidden areas with treasure to afford the most powerful stuff, though, or do quite a bit of grinding, which is expected since with each death, you’re kicked back to the beginning of the game with all of your money intact, along with your upgrades, weaponry, and general progress.

In fact, the only thing you do lose by dying are consumable attack items that you can pick up, such as fireballs, boomerangs, and tornadoes. Whether this actually harms you or not, though, I couldn’t say, because you can pretty much blaze through the game without the need for any of them. Yes, The Dragon’s Trap proudly hails from the Nintendo Hard era of gaming, but looking back on it, I don’t think we need this much support. And as long as we’re talking about items, while the quasi-RPG elements provided by the new armor and swords is nifty, the game can be a bit unclear as to how much damage you and your enemies deal out, the later not helped by the fact that hearts are still used to monitor your health. The toughness level of each enemy for is color-coded for your convenience, but at times you may come across an enemy you’ve seen before that can suddenly take away entire hearts in one hit, and one foe may go down in one strike while the very next one requires two.

So yes, the difficulty level can swing wildly sometimes (it says a lot that the bosses, impressively-looking as they are, deal less damage and have a lower challenge level than a lot of regular foes), which is more of a flaw carrying over from the original version. But now that we’re on the subject, you do tend to notice some of the flaws common to games from the late ’80s at times. The jumping controls feel slightly awkward when starting out, and some of the design choices feel particularly unfair (especially the fact that, despite what the header may lead you to believe, only one shop in the whole game sells potions, which are essentially the equivalent of extra lives here).

The lack of any sort of checkpoints is also an issue, as death means having to so back to the hub town and repeat long stretches of entire lands, and you only get one life to begin with. The real kick to the nuts, though, are the cheap hits enemies can often deal out. Not just due to respawns or awkward enemy placement, but also in that they can still hit you even while you’re still invincible for a brief moment, sometimes knocking you back lengthy amounts, or even into other hazards. Not fun, to say the least.

But while those can definitely be some notable issue, when The Dragon’s Trap is firing on all cylinders, it does indeed deliver an amazing old-school experience, and you can see the foundations for future metroidvania titles to come in it. Exploration is indeed a key factor, and despite their linearity, each unique world is designed quite expertly with enough secrets to hunt for. Some solutions may seem a bit cryptic at first, but as you keep going, hunting for them becomes second nature, and most of the obstacles are indeed cleverly designed, even by some of today’s standards. When you get into the rhythm of things, leaping around, slaying monsters, and looking for elusive armor just becomes damn fun, somewhat unsurprisingly.

Closing Comments:

Despite carrying over a couple of issues from it’s early Sega days, Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap is still a stellar platformer and metroidvania game. With the enhanced version providing a completely dazzling display, the journey is more appealing than ever, allowing you to discover the classic action, experimentation, and exploration elements that helped lay the groundwork for future titles in the same vein. Just as unique and charming today as it was back in 1989, this curse actually turns out to be a blessing in disguise after all, and one that’s definitely worth playing from start to finish. Best Master System game ever, indeed.