The Wonder Boy series was one of the Master System's most beloved franchises, though its cult-classic status hasn't prevented it from falling by the wayside. A convoluted history, including a tangle of complications regarding the rights to the series, meant a comeback would be virtually impossible. In spite of this, a tiny French developer named Lizardcube has teamed up with DotEmu to bring us a modern take on the third game, originally released in 1989.
The original game of the same name was very much a pioneer of what we now know as the popular sub-genre Metroidvania. You begin the game as the titular Wonder Boy on a quest to vanquish the Meka Dragon who, upon defeat, curses our hero, turning him into a sort of half-man, half-dragon. From then on, the game adopts a non-linear structure in which you explore Monster Land, gradually unlocking new areas and transforming into various creatures with unique abilities. These forms will, in turn, allow you to explore further and uncover hidden areas previously unaccessible. For example, once you transform into the mouse, you can defy gravity by walking any which way you like on the checkered blocks you'll see throughout the game.
Fans will fondly remember all this, of course, but what they may not be prepared for is how drastic the presentation has been updated. The structure, the gameplay, and the level design are practically identical to the original, but the music and visuals take huge artistic liberties. The hand-drawn art style is gorgeous, especially in motion where you can see the wonderfully old-school animation. Where the backgrounds used to simply be solid colours, we now see fully realised locations, adding a depth to the world that couldn't be achieved on an 8-bit system. The music has been totally re-imagined and accompanies the new aesthetic perfectly, and the sound design is also a significant step up.
What's quite remarkable is that the modernised presentation manages to both be totally fresh and nostalgic at the same time. You can witness this for yourself, as the game allows you to switch to the retro look and sounds at any time. The difference is staggering, but again, the new art and music certainly tip their hats at the almost 30-year-old original. If we could levy any criticism at the way the game looks, it would be that the blocks that form many of the platforms and obstacles juxtapose strangely with the environments. This was the case in the original, but it's far more pronounced with the vastly more detailed world. Still, we can appreciate Lizardcube's desire to stay as close to their inspiration as possible.
Perhaps even more impressive is what the developer has left untouched. The game plays more or less exactly as it did on the Master System. Fortunately, the world is still a fun one to explore, and there is no shortage of secrets to discover as you revisit old areas in new forms. That it holds up to modern standards speaks well of the game's design. The Dragon's Trap is such a faithful recreation, in fact, that you can input an old password and it will work just as it did on Sega's 8-bit console, and vice-versa. However, there is one thing the remake has inherited that isn't quite so desirable. The slippery character movement can make platforming a chore at times, and can also lead to some frustrating losses during the basic combat. This isn't a game-ruining problem, but it definitely takes some getting used to.
Still, you will get used to it as the game runs its course, which in our case was just over five hours. It may be short, but it's a well designed, imaginative Metroidvania with a good level of challenge and just enough meat on its bones to keep you engaged. The equipment with different stats for the different forms you take adds a thin layer of RPG-esque depth, the handful of creatures you play as have their own strengths and weaknesses, and new obstacles and enemies are sprinkled in at the same pace as you're given new abilities to toy with. The game's cohesive and concise design largely stands up today, and with the beautiful new coat of paint, this is a great way to play The Dragon's Trap again – or discover it anew.
Wonder Boy: The Dragon's Trap is a ruthlessly faithful remake of the Master System classic that boasts a dramatic and beautiful audiovisual makeover. The game itself is still very enjoyable with a world map that's fun to work through and a lean Metroidvania structure that introduces new ideas right to the end. The controls are quite loose, which can lead to some frustration, but by and large this is a wonderful recreation that both fans and newcomers will enjoy.