Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap
Developed by: Lizardcube
Published by: Dot Emu
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch and Microsoft Windows
N.B – This Review is based on the Nintendo Switch version of Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap
One of my fondest memories of my childhood was discovering that my parents had bought me a Sega Master System for Christmas in 1990, and sneaking into their bedroom to unbox the console and play it whilst they were out shopping. Of course, Alex Kidd in Miracle World was an instant favourite but it was Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap which would eventually steal my heart. The game was probably one of the first examples of the RPG format that I had ever played, and my six-year old self couldn’t get enough of it. I loved the central concept of changing forms into different animals, each with specific abilities, in order to reach new areas and defeat new bosses. Long after I’d moved on from the Master System, to the Mega Drive, then the Sony PlayStation and beyond, something about Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap stuck in my memories and it appears I wasn’t the only one.
The folks over at Lizardcube clearly had the same affection for Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap as I did as they announced a remake in June 2016, after three years in development. However, remake suggests a complete overhaul of the game, which is not strictly accurate. Lizardcube preserved the core of the game by reverse-engineering the original Master System code and recreating the game with brand new hand-drawn graphics and a new musical soundtrack. By maintaining the skeleton of the original game underneath the new graphics, Lizardcube were able to let players toggle the graphics between the modern and retro styles with a push of a button. This is hugely enjoyable and demonstrates how much of a difference the new animated graphic style adds to the game. While the structure of the game remains unchanged, Lizardcube did introduce new difficulty settings and some hidden, but optional, bonus areas.
For those unfamiliar with the original game, Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap opens up with the final fight of the previous adventure and sees the titular Wonder Boy (or in this remake, you can select Wonder Girl) cursed by the Mecha Dragon and turned into a Lizard. This begins an epic journey through Monster Land defeating a variety of different dragons and earning new animal forms – each with new abilities that enable the player to reach new areas. The game itself offers an open-world environment and encourages exploration to discover new levels, much like the Legend of Zelda series, resulting in a more rewarding experience when players discover the right path. Each character has strengths and weaknesses and midway through the game, players must alternate between the forms to navigate through areas. However, this mechanic isn’t used as much as it could be and it would have been better to see more examples of these types of puzzles.
While the game doesn’t feature traditional RPG elements such as Experience Points, it does allow characters to “level up” through the acquisition of new weapons, armours and shields. Another neat twist is that some items are better suited for specific animal forms, allowing players to experiment with equipment to get the optimal stats. Again, this is a relatively simple approach to the RPG genre, yet it is extremely effective. Exploration, rather than grinding battles, is what drives character growth with heart containers hidden in chests allowing the player to increase their hit points for the tougher dungeons. The gameplay can be tough, and the variety of different enemies and attack styles will require the player to use strategies when traversing dungeons. Knowing when to block a projectile and when to fire an arrow into the sky are key skills that are needed to defeat the more complex creatures lurking in Monster World. The clouds with sunglasses which continually drop molten lava balls on our hero were one of the more irritating of enemies in the game’s bestiary, resulting in numerous expletives being uttered at my Nintendo Switch screen.
While the game has been released for PlayStation, Xbox and Microsoft Windows, it has proven popular on the Nintendo Switch in particular – with the Switch version outselling all other versions combined. I own all the platforms the game is available on, but I chose the Nintendo Switch because this game is perfect for short bursts of play, making the morning commute into a joy instead of the usual drudgery of sweaty armpits and coffee breath. I only played the game in handheld mode, but the graphics look absolutely gorgeous on the Switch’s screen – I loved switching between the original and modern graphics, and comparing the beautiful work of artist Ben Fiquet against the 8-bit graphics and seeing the depth of detail in the environments. It is truly stunning, and I wish all game remakes looked like this.
Fans of the original game will love the remastered graphics and audio provided by Lizardcube, and will no doubt approve of the studio’s reverence for the original game – ensuring that it plays exactly like it did in 1989. It is a delightful love letter to one of the most enjoyable games of the 8-bit era, improving upon the original by adding buckets of charm and atmosphere to the world. As much as I love the fact that it was only aesthetic changes that Lizardcube made to the game, part of me wishes that there had been more of an extension to the main story – perhaps new animal forms or new dungeons to explore. I managed to finish the game within 6 hours – although that may be due to my previous experience with the title – and it would have been nice to have some new content beyond hidden areas. I would love to see a sequel to the title using the same graphics and game engine, but taking the series further! That said, this is one of the best and most heartfelt retro remakes ever, and deserves all of its success on the Nintendo Switch system.