Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap is a return to a classic series that many gamers today have never had the opportunity to experience. Lizardcube has invested a lot of time and love into giving this hidden gem a complete overhaul, making it a must play for new and returning players alike.
As a child, I did not have a Nintendo Entertainment System. It would be many years before I would experience classic games like Metroid and Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, so my formative “metroidvania” experience was Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap on the Sega Master System. Having loved the largely linear predecessor, Wonder Boy in Monster Land, I was pleasantly surprised when Wonder Boy III turned out to be an entirely new and interesting experience. It would be a game that I would return to again and again over the years. Now after almost 30 years, Lizardcube and DotEmu have taken one of my favorite games of all time, and given it a remaster that shows obvious reverence for the original game and its creators.
Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap is a metroidvania style platformer with some light RPG elements thrown in for good measure. Right away I should mention that just because this is technically the third in the Wonder Boy series, knowledge of the previous games is completely unnecessary, as The Dragon’s Trap stands on its own incredibly well. Particularly now that it’s gotten such an amazing visual overhaul. For those fans of the original game however, Lizardcube has not forgotten you either, providing a legacy password entry system that allows you to use your original codes from 1989 (they really work!) plus the Retro mode which instantly swaps to the original game’s graphics and/or music at the touch of a button. It quickly demonstrates just how far the game has come under Lizardcube’s stewardship.
Wonder Boy himself (or herself, as there is also the option to play as Wonder Girl!) opens the game by exploring a simplified version of the last level from Wonder Boy in Monster Land, providing a nice bit of continuity for fans. After defeating the Meka Dragon, it curses him as its spirit departs its body. With a flash of lightning Wonder Boy is transformed into a scaly firebreathing monster, his human form gone Wonder Boy is now Lizard-Man! Escaping from the collapsing castle, Lizard-Man must scour Monster World for the Salamander Cross in the hopes of returning to his human form.
On your quest, you will need to take advantage of the aforementioned “light RPG” elements that come in the form of healing potions, attack consumables, weapons, shields and armor, giving you plenty of things to spend the gold that fountains out of your defeated enemies. You will need a lot of it too, as the quest will take Lizard-Man through many areas and many enemies, each leading to a boss dragon who’s defeat will imbue Lizard-Man with a new form and new abilities. Unlike other metroidvania games where you gain new tools to reach previously inaccessible areas, you must instead transform yourself to gain the abilities of your form to explore the far reaches of each level. Eventually you will transform into Mouse-Man, Piranha-Man, Lion-Man, and Hawk-Man before ultimately achieving your goal.
While Lizard-Man’s fire breath provides a ranged attack, he cannot use a shield. Some missile attacks are destroyed by your breath though, so you can balance attack and defense, or duck under attacks to allow them to pass over your head entirely. Mouse-Man’s tiny form can fit through small openings, but can also stick to certain blocks allowing him to walk up walls or use the ceiling to cross certain gaps. Piranha-Man (predictably) can swim, allowing easy access to out of reach areas beneath the waves. Lion-Man has a powerful swing, which in addition to being the best fighting forms in the game, can also allow the breaking of certain destructible bricks both above and below you to reveal hidden passages. Finally Hawk-Man can fly, passing easily over enemies and obstacles alike, but is damaged by water.
Each form has its strengths and weaknesses, which is also reflected in the armor and weapon values for each form. When eventually you gain the ability to shift back and forth between your forms, one of the first things you will do is check to see if the equipment you had previously been using is still effective in your new body. For example, the Heavenly Shield is the best shield in the game for Hawk-Man giving +120 defense to his bird bones, yet it is only worth a mere +50 defense in the hands of Lion-Man. Some armor and weapons can also give certain special abilities when you wear them as well. Like Dragon Mail, which confers immunity to the damage caused by lava, or the Lucky Sword which causes more money to drop from defeated enemies, sometimes the attack or defense values aren’t the only consideration so you have to plan accordingly.
As you progress through the game and explore the world, you will also obtain heart cases to provide a permanent improvement to your life meter. Not only is this critical for your survivability against enemy attack, but Lizardcube has also added a hard difficulty where an hourglass timer damages you every time it drains making even time your enemy. While familiar to those who played Wonder Boy in Monster Land, this addition dramatically changes up your approach to the game. No longer can you wait for the right moment to attack, instead forcing you to make your own opportunities in combat.
The first thing that anyone playing Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap will comment on, is how beautiful the game looks. Lizardcube have done an amazing job modernizing the graphics of The Dragon’s Trap, giving it a polished visual style that not only looks incredible, but still captures the essence of the original monsters and stages and dials them up to 11. Every screen in the game looks like it has been hand drawn and painted, giving it a visually unique style and making the updated graphics extremely eye-catching. Ben Fiquet’s wonderful artwork shows that he holds the source material in high regard, interpreting the tiny sprites as fully animated creatures, filling in background details on stages and giving them a life of their own. All of the enemies and all of your forms are fully animated, making even maneuvering through the world a joy to behold. The fantastic part is that even though the game has been given an exceedingly well applied coat of paint, all of that visual polish doesn’t impact the game mechanically at all, running smoothly throughout my entire playthrough.
Thirty years old or not, Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap has always had solid gameplay. So much so that Lizardcube’s one button retro feature can instantly take you back to the original game and show you how little has changed. The platformer looks like a modern game, but Omar Cornut has gone to great lengths to preserve the mechanics of the original game intact. So much so that as someone who was extremely familiar with the source game, I was able to pick up the controller and be immediately hit with a wave of nostalgic memories as boss patterns and enemy tactics came flooding back. There are a ton of hidden doors and areas, rewarding exploration of each level, particularly once you start bouncing back and forth between forms and visiting old areas. In addition to the ones that carried over from the original game, Lizardcube has cleverly extended the game with new secret challenge levels that can be quite difficult even for a seasoned veteran of the game. I have thus far only encountered two of the six rooms after completing the game, so they’re certainly well hidden in a game that already has a number of secret doors for you to find.
It isn’t only the graphics that have been updated, but also the music. Replacing the 8-bit chiptune soundtrack (which is still available at the touch of a button), Lizardcube has arranged and recorded brand new versions of the classic themes of the game. Again showing their love for the source material, they have opted to record real instrumental performances rather than synthesized music, making each tune a love letter to the original game. Each region’s theme has been arranged with thematically appropriate instruments as well, further improving the experience. The tracks, already catchy in their original form, are now basically weaponized. You’ll find yourself whistling them when you least expect it, long after putting the controller down.
Its hard to find something to criticize about a game that has been given so much attention. Unfortunately the worst things I can say about Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap are somewhat unfair, since they stem from the nature of its very existence: it is very much an old-school game. On the hardest difficulty, the difficulty which best approximated my experience with the original game, The Dragon’s Trap can be decently challenging. This is particularly onerous in the early game where you only have two heart containers and a timer continuously ticking down. Depending on how aggressive you are, damage can bounce you around like a storm-tossed boat, especially in the boss fights. If you die, you’ll restart back at the home town hub, and must progress through the level again from the beginning. Death wipes out all of your consumable items and potions, but leaves you with any gold you may have picked up in the stage. The relative cost of healing potions however, can sometimes lead to an extended cycle of grinding for gold before trekking all the way to the end of a stage to buy replacement potions from one of the two vendors in the game that sell them (at a markup that would make 7-11 blush). This can sometimes interrupt your momentum, particularly if fighting the end stage dragons while under-equipped. Its a long trek to restock and go all the way through the stage again, only to lose all your progress and the costly potions consumed in your unsuccessful fight.
Given this point, I should also take a moment to talk about the save system. While supplementing the original password save system with a conventional save file, it isn’t obvious when saving occurs and you only have the one save slot. So there is no “saving before you fight the boss” and restoring if you’re unsuccessful. If you lose the fight, you have to restock before trying again or hamstring yourself out of the gate. It seems that saving occurs when you return to the home town, but I have never seen any kind of indicator to show when it was safe to shut the game down, so it eats at my paranoia. It is at times like this, my love for Lizardcube’s faithfulness to the source material could have taken a back seat to the expectations of a modern game. The ability to save and reload manually would have gone a long way to alleviate this annoyance.
Finally in terms of modernization, the game has added trophies and achievements. Playing this on the PS4 as I was, I couldn’t help but notice that Lizardcube didn’t press for The Dragon’s Trap to have a Platinum trophy. I can’t imagine how a game of this quality didn’t qualify for a Platinum, considering the blatant pandering debacle that was My Name is Mayo did. Perhaps this was due to the length of the game, which is a bit on the short side (granted I do have a significant advantage due to experience cutting down my play time), but frankly they should have challenged Sony during certification to get it. For trophy hunters, an omission like this can have an impact on sales.
Simply put, the game exudes polish on every screen. It is obvious the love that Omar Cornut and Ben Fiquet have for the game, and without their dream, I’m certain that this title would have never seen the light of day. Truly the lengths that they have gone to demonstrates the level of quality that the game exudes, even to the point of getting the blessing of the game’s original creator, Ryuichi Nishizawa.
Unlike some remasters that can be hit-or-miss, Lizardcube has delivered Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap as the definitive version of the game. It is a uniformly positive experience that any lover of platformers or metroidvania style games should absolutely have in their collection. For those who enjoy the Monster World games already, this is a necessary addition to your library, breathing new life into a classic game. Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap sets a standard for remasters that few have measured up to. I look forward with great anticipation to Lizardcube’s next project, no matter what form it might take.