Dragons and Mermen and Mice, Oh My!
Based on my observations, there are essentially three types of remakes. The first is often called a reimagining, in which the original property is taken as a jumping off point into a completely new, yet familiar experience. The second is known as an enhanced remake. These take the original material and alter it in an attempt to improve it and fix the rough spots without drastically changing the original. The third type is a remaster, wherein the source is taken more-or-less verbatim, and only has aesthetic alterations to modernize it.
Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap is of the third kind.
Originally released for the Sega Master System in 1989, The Dragon’s Trap is the fourth in a series of Westone-developed, Sega-published games that began in the arcade. (Though, oddly, it was originally released as Wonder Boy III, following another game entitled Wonder Boy III: Monster Lair, but I digress.) In this entry, the player controls the titular Wonder Boy (or Wonder Girl, if one so chooses) as he (or she) explores his home (or her home) of Monster Land to rid himself (or herself) of a curse put on him (or her) by the Mecha-Dragon which, ironically, turned Wonder Boy (or Wonder Girl) himself (or herself) into a dragon — referred to in-game as Lizard-Man (or -Woman).
(That’s enough, Loretta.*)
Wonder Boy’s Lizard-Man form finds him without his sword or shield, but with the ability to breathe fireballs at enemies. He must use this ability to find and defeat another dragon, which places another curse on him, turning him into another creature with unique special abilities and vulnerabilities. This process repeats itself through various regions of Monster Land and five different animal forms, culminating with a final showdown with Vampire-Dragon and a return to Wonder Boy’s human — or Hu-Man — form. (Story is characteristically light for an 8-bit era action-adventure game.)
The game seems to play a lot like Zelda II for the NES. Armed with a sword and shield, you storm a castle that is reminiscent of one of Hyrule’s palaces, but with looping paths like Super Mario Bros.’s world 7-4. After defeating the first dragon and being transformed, you are sent to Alsedo, a town that bears more than a passing resemblance to any of the towns in The Adventure of Link. There is a pig fortune teller who gives you hints (and retro passwords), another pig who sells you gear, a human nurse who restores your health for a price (decidedly not in the same way as Hyrule’s ladies in red), and a few other doors and pathways that are either mysteriously empty or unavailable to you now.
It is at this point that the game turns into more of a Metroidvania game than a Zelda. With your current abilities, there is only one path you can take, and that leads you to a beach with underwater segments… but Lizard-Man can’t swim, so navigating the underwater section is difficult — for now. As you progress, you will be transformed into Mouse-Man, who can attach himself to certain walls and ceilings; Pirahna-Man, who can swim freely; Lion-Man, who slashes a full half-circle with his sword instead of stabbing forward like the other forms; and Hawk-Man, who can fly. For a time, you will be unable to change forms until you acquire a certain ability that unlocks a secret door in Alsedo.
You also collect money and useful offensive and defensive items from defeated enemies and opened treasure chests. Learning how and when to use these items can go a long way towards making frustrating enemies a minor inconvenience, and blue potions will restore your health on the spot if you run out of hearts. The money you collect can be used to buy specialized and more powerful weapons and armor, some of which are necessary to complete the game, and most of which have different stats depending on which animal form is using it.
Over the course of the game, you will travel through a forest, a desert, a volcano, and various labyrinthine interior locations. You will find hidden shops and nurses, and eventually rooms where you can transform Wonder Boy into whatever animal-Man he needs to be to accomplish his next goal.
Unfortunately, where to go and what to do next are not always clear. There is no map or waypoint, and no text to give you clues as to where to go next. The only hints you get are the vague and cryptic statements of the fortune teller pig in the village — and if you’re not actually in the village, that doesn’t help at all. On a few occasions I had to look up a walkthrough, only to find out that I had missed an essential item or possessed a new ability that the game hadn’t properly explained to me.
Which brings me to one of the only major issues I have with Wonder Boy, and that’s because this is simply a remaster and not a true remake, it retains all of the trappings of an 8-bit adventure game: occasionally obtuse design, obnoxious enemies that are more like obstacles than worthy opponents, and a complete lack of explanation of anything. (Presumably, the included instruction manual would have had detailed descriptions of the necessary equipment, but those don’t exist anymore.)
The game works within the 8-bit limitations, however, even though it is running on far superior hardware. For example, Lizard-Man can only blow one fireball at a time, which travels the full length of the screen. If he tries to blow another, the first one will disappear. This causes the player to be more methodical with attack frequency and not just spam the ? button or use turbo. These archaic sprite limitations also affect enemies, meaning you rarely encounter more than you can handle at a time.
Old school anomalies aside, the game plays incredibly well. Controls are tight, intuitive, and responsive. I never felt like a death was the game’s fault, and I rarely died more than once in the same place, because a little patience the next time through made the journey more manageable. While sometimes this slow-and-steady method made the game tedious, none of the areas are big enough to make retreading them more than an inconvenience.
Incidentally, if you happen to have an 8Bitdo FC30 or NES30 Pro controller (which Steve and I reviewed here), this is one of the best Switch games to use it with.
As I’ve mentioned several times before, this game is essentially identical to its original Master System release, save for graphics and sound, both of which are gorgeous in this remaster. The field of view has been expanded to fill a 16:9 television. All the sprites are colorful, hand-drawn, and animated as fluidly as a Disney movie. The soundtrack has been recorded with a variety of real (or at least realistic) acoustic instruments. The sound effects are a mix of foley and vocal samples. Everything looks and sounds like a brand new game.
If you want to play the game as it was originally released, that’s an option too. Within the “options” section of the pause menu is a “retro” tab that lets you play with 8-bit graphics, music, and/or sound, or any mix of retro and modern you prefer. You can even add filters to the graphics to make it look more or less like an old CRT, hi-res or RF quality output. The 8-bit music can be reproduced with or without the Japanese Master System’s FM sound channel (I recommend with, as it adds quite a bit of punch to the bass). At any point during gameplay, you can press the ZR button to immediately swap between modern and retro graphics — though this only affects the graphics, not the sound. This turns out to have a practical use, as hit boxes and certain key elements are more discernible with the chunky pixels turned on.
What started out to me as a beautiful old-school slog turned into a fun and cleverly designed and unceasingly charming adventure after I learned how to play it properly. Once I did, my feelings changed from indifference to pure enjoyment. Playing on easy mode took about six hours and provided sufficient challenge for me, but if you’re looking for difficulty, there are two higher settings to test your skills. There are also cheats and bonuses you can unlock by starting the game with certain passwords, and post-game activities I’m only just beginning to dip my toe into.
If you missed the Infendo Radio 419 live stream, and didn’t pick the game up based on my review during Change the System, then you missed the sale they were having on the Switch eShop. But even at $19.99, you’re still getting a great value. Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap is also available on PS4, Xbox One, and both Windows and Mac via Steam, but of course, they lack the convenience of Switching between big screen and portable playability. And if you would rather save some money, or don’t have a Switch, the original Master System game is available on the Wii Shop Channel’s Virtual Console.
All things considered, I give Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap for Nintendo Switch a 4 out of 5.