A lot can change in almost 30 years of gaming, but a good platformer is forever. Initially released in 1989 for the Sega MasterSystem, Wonder Boy 3: The Dragon’s Trap featured all the hallmarks of the (then) up-and-coming genre. Now, the team at Lizardcube has recreated it in painstaking detail – and while The Dragon’s Trap’s design definitely shows its age, it still has a few wonders in store for us thanks to a solid foundation, aesthetic upgrades, and some much-appreciated updates to the original programming.
Your character, the titular Wonder Boy – or, in a nice added touch of inclusiveness, Wonder Girl – is cursed by a robot dragon (because the ‘80s) and turned into a fire-breathing lizard-man/woman (again, ‘80s). To lift the curse, they’ll need to defeat more dragons to transform back into their human form and rid the land of their evil. It’s not a particularly compelling story, but given that it’s pulled from an era when “go left” was considered plot development, this bizarre backstory provides a lore-friendly excuse for the core mechanic.
The gameplay will be familiar to anyone who ever picked up a Metroid or Castlevania game released before 1995, or, more recently, Ori and the Blind Forest. Beginning with next to nothing, you fight your way through several areas connected via a central hub, stabbing snakes,crabs, ghosts, and other assorted monsters to collect new equipment and hunt down dragons that serve as boss creatures. Making your way through each sector is a satisfying exercise in patient advancement. With limited health, I had to attack cautiously, striking at just the right moment after learning and avoiding enemy attacks, which made combat feel more like Dark Souls than Donkey Kong.
After reaching and defeating each dragon, you’ll transform into new creatures with different abilities, such as a mouse that can climb walls or a fish-man that can swim, which in turn allows you to reach new areas and stab differently colored crabs, ghosts, and dragons. Oh, and ninjas, which don’t really fit the whole “Monster Land” theme considering that you start out fighting what’s basically a knock-off MechaGodzilla I’m not going to try to over-analyze it. Each addition grants you new tactics, which, without the advantage of modern popup tutorials, are fun to puzzle out while exploring each new location.
The style of the updated art is somewhere between hand-drawn fan sketches and a Disney movie, which works well given the vague fantasy setting. The character designs, both of the various animal incarnations of our hero and the many enemies you’ll encounter throughout your four- to six-hour adventure, all exude cartoonish personalities that fit well into the ridiculous “story.” For example, a fire-spewing cloud that once just had vague dark shapes for eyes now sports a pair of cool-guy shades and a smug grin, making it extra satisfying to knock them out of the sky. Similarly, each of the environments are beautifully rendered and possess a unique feel and implied backstory, such as massive statues depicting ancient heroes or sprawling cities beyond what was once just “Forest” or “Desert.”
This is especially evident when swapping back and forth from the 2017 art style and the “retro” mode, which allows you to experience Wonder Boy as it was initially released, complete with a chiptune soundtrack – which has been re-recorded as an orchestral score in one of the best musical adaptations in recent memory . It’s a cool and impressive feature – you can even input checkpoint codes from the original release – that really demonstrates the development team’s love of the original game, similar to what we’ve seen in the Monkey Island Special Editions and Oddworld: New ‘N’ Tasty.
In some cases, however, this devotion to the source material is a double-edged sword. While it’s clearly a heartfelt and faithful recreation of the original game, it could have made use of a few simple mechanics that have become somewhat standardized over the past 30 years. Forcing us to grind for randomly dropped items, for instance, may have been an acceptable way to extend playtime in 1990, but in 2017 it seems arbitrary and annoying that I’m not able to purchase them in shops, especially since I only need them to reach one boss fight. On a technical level, Lizardcube may have updated player hitboxes and rebalanced some physics issues from the original, but there were moments (especially in some boss battles) where it seemed my attacks were failing to land at random, regardless of how well-timed or on-target my strikes were. These issues weren’t egregious enough to make me cry foul or rage-quit, but they did remind me of just how good we have things in the modern age of platformers.
Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap
Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap is a modern version of Westone Bit Entertainment’s cult classic platform-action game. Cursed into a half-human, half-lizard monstrosity by the Meka-Dragon, a lonesome adventurer is facing the challenge of a lifetime!
On Xbox One
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I had just as much fun during my six- or seven-hour playthrough of Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap as I have with many of its contemporary counterparts. While its antiquated roots cause some minor frustration with unreliable hitboxes and unnecessary grinding, the foundational combat and exploration is still engaging and fun after 30 years. From long-time Wonder Boy fans to platformer enthusiasts who’ve never heard of it until now, you’ll likely be able to find whimsical fun and a neat bit of genre history in this charming adventure.