Is Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap the remake this classic game deserves, or yet another cheap, shoddy cash-in on video game nostalgia?
There’s a strong argument against dredging up gaming’s past. In a world of lacklustre remakes, remasters, or spiritual sequels that nobody really asked for – or even worse, that they did ask for and they turned out terrible anyway, thanks Kickstarter – I’m a strong advocate of letting sleeping dogs lie.
And then there’s Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap, originally developed by Westone and published by Sega – as Wonder Boy 3: The Dragon’s Trap – for the Master System in 1989. You might think a lesser-known Master System release, nearly thirty years old, might be a safe bet to tinker with, but not here. Not in casa del Thumbsticks.
As gentlemen of a certain vintage, The Dragon’s Trap is one of mine and Dan’s favourite games. It’s something we instantly bonded over in the early days of Thumbsticks; everyone can tell formative tales of Mario or Zelda, but Wonder Boy 3? That’s something a bit special.
So if Lizardcube messed up their remake of Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap, then they would find no publication more upset about it than Thumbsticks. Thankfully, it’s nothing short of glorious.
Any initial concerns I’d had about the game’s development were squelched early on, when I read a blog post from Omar Cornut, developer and creative director at Lizardcube, over on Gamasutra. In the post, originally written in the game’s devlog, he detailed how he and the team literally dumped and hacked apart an original Master System cartridge, to determine how the game really worked.
It would have been really simple is to make a brand new game that looked similar to (and felt a bit like) the original game. Instead, they took the original game apart and put it back together just so they could be sure everything was identical. You can see for yourself how identical it is by switching between modern and retro graphics with the touch of a button; it’s literally the original game, wearing a fancy French makeover.
Don’t believe me? This is such a faithful reproduction there’s still a cyclops in a box underwater for absolutely no reason, and you can input your original save codes from the 1989 version and they’ll work. Yes, even ‘WE5T-ONE’. I can confirm this works because I have the original game in my garage, and have tested the codes scrawled in pencil in the back of the blue-and-white printed manual. They all work, and instantly transported me back to my childhood. That’s a remarkable, magical thing.
I logged a lot of time on Wonder Boy 3: The Dragon’s Trap in the early nineties – perhaps second only to Phantasy Star on the Master System console – and from something of an expert’s position I assure you that this game is flawless. I know every inch of this world, even after all this time, and everything is exactly where it should be and plays precisely as it always did.
In short, this is the perfect way to produce a remake or a remaster, assuming that the source material still holds up after all this time. And it really, really does.
Let me get something out of the way first though, that should seem blatantly obvious, but a few reviewers have forgotten: The Dragon’s Trap is not a modern game, which means two things. Firstly, the game is fast, intricate and ultimately rock hard; and secondly, it doesn’t hold your hand. At all. Not even a little bit.
The game won’t tell you where to go or what to do – save for a few cryptic hints from the Password Pig – but instead relies on the player’s drive for exploration, and memory of things they could see but couldn’t get to before (that can subsequently be unlocked with new skills) to progress. The lazy, catch-all term would be ‘Metroidvania’, but The Dragon’s Trap is so much more than that. It’s the platform equivalent of The Legend of Zelda, with RPG-lite elements of shopping and inventory, in a vast, interconnected world.
Perhaps a term like ‘open-world platform RPG’ would be more accurate, and fitting, for The Dragon’s Trap.
And spending time in The Dragon’s Trap world is such a joy. The story is simple enough: titular young adventurer, Wonder Boy – or Wonder Girl, because it’s 2017 and why the hell not? – is vanquishing dragons, because that’s what adventurers do, right? The Meka Dragon however has other ideas, casting a curse on Wonder Youth with its final breath, transforming them into a fire-breathing lizard (who is also absolutely adorable).
Our hero must then scour the world for more dragons to defeat, changing through many different animal forms with varying abilities and weaknesses – including Mouse, Piranha, Lion and Hawk – to lift the curse, restore their original form, and bring dragonless peace to the realm once more. It’s a very literal implementation of the Hero’s Journey, Campbell’s monomyth, but why not? The simplicity is refreshing in this modern age of nonsense, but for 1989, this was a more involved story than most.
And, I can’t stress this point enough: The Dragon’s Trap is joyous. It looks amazing. It sounds incredible. It feels so very special.
The Dragon’s Trap was a good-looking game when it released for the 8-bit Master System console in 1989, but I don’t think in my wildest dreams – even with the fervent imagination of a child – did it ever look as good as this. The animations of the hero’s many forms are just so bloody charming, from the Lizard’s cat-like crouch to the Lion’s heavy, lumbering sword, it’s all just so charming.
This is up there with Ori and the Blind Forest and Rayman Origins as one of the prettiest 2D games ever made.
Speaking of Ubisoft’s ubiquitous platformer, The Dragon’s Trap has a typically Gallic charm that could only come from a French illustrator and animator like Ben Fiquet. It’s like Chrono Trigger or Secret of Mana, run through a vivid Alberto Uderzo (of Asterix the Gaul fame) filter. You’ll find it hard not to picture the game’s iconic, laconic, chain-smoking pig shopkeeper puffing on a Gauloises, once you know of its French influence.
And the music! I’ve not even touched on that yet. It’s all the original score – which was in itself an 8-bit masterpiece – but rearranged and rerecorded live on strings and woodwind, it truly sparkles.
One unexpected highlight of the game is a gallery of behind-the-scenes extras, that gradually unlock as you progress through the game. It delves into the creative process behind the game, from showing how the art style has evolved from the original 8-bit sprites to its gorgeous new form, to videos of the recording sessions behind that glorious soundtrack.
It’s just a little thing, but it’s tantamount to the sheer quality on offer in The Dragon’s Trap. The small offerings in the game’s gallery are far superior to any volume of associated tat and detritus that people pay extra for on Kickstarter campaigns, but it’s included for all players, with no money up-front.
The Dragon’s Trap really is the gift that keeps on giving.
Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap may be out of its time – it’s rock hard, a little obtuse, and won’t lead you by the hand – but benefits from a stylish and sensitive makeover that stays painstakingly true to the mechanically perfect original.
The Dragon’s Trap is a remarkable thing, then. Not only is it a retro remake that’s actually not crap, it’s as good as the day it first came out and even holds its own against modern releases.