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Wonder Boy: The Dragon's Trap (PlayStation 4) artwork

Wonder Boy: The Dragon's Trap (PlayStation 4) review

"The remake blueprint."

Old school gamers all have the same fantasy. To picture one of our favourite games from a bygone, golden era and imagine that it received the modern treatment. We fantasize about this. How amazing would Super Metroid look and feel if redone now, with all the trimmings? Can you imagine? Itís a fantasy that is being explored more and more these days, and it often ends with disappointment when the job is fobbed off on some B-level development team who don't 'get it,' and we lament that it should never have been attempted in the first place.

With Wonder Boy: The Dragonís Trap, we're presented with the same old game, adorned with a fresh coat of paint Ė and it has no business working as well as it does. The saying goes, itís in the details, and it was never more apropos than it is here. With enough love for the source material and meticulous care in reupholstering it, itís possible to create the best possible version of the original thing, to bring that original thing to life in a way that would surprise and please even the those who had the initial vision. The Dragonís Trap is what they wanted to do all along even if they didnít know it at the time.

And so the logical next questions are: is the source material good enough to hold up today? And, is it worthy of this treatment that any relic of yesteryear would be envious of? If you've sneaked a glance at my score, you already know what my answers are.

To be sure, Wonder Boy III: The Dragon's Trap (the source material!), is not talked about with the same kind of reverence as metroidvania standard bearers Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, nor should it be Ė but it should be a much bigger deal that it is, because it was proudly and ably waving the genre flag well before those two pillars of the genre came along. Were it not for the fact that it was only ever available for two obscure consoles (the Sega Master System, and later, the Turbografx-16), it would certainly have met with a much larger audience, and as a result, far greater acclaim. The underappreciated classic now has the opportunity, with this present widespread release to make the impact it should have made the first time around, on the strength of what I would consider the best remake Iíve ever played.

The game begins with the climactic conclusion to the previous entry in the series, Wonder Boy in Monster Land, as our hero faces off against the Meka Dragon. The scene-setting clearly foreshadows the way Castlevania: Symphony of the Night opened on Richter Belmontís final battle from the legendary Castlevania: Rondo of Blood. With the dragon dispatched, we find ourselves stricken by a curse, and turned into the unfortunate Lizard Man.

Our ultimate goal then, is one of self-preservation and self-restoration (no princess-rescuing here); weíve got to kill dragon after dragon, changing from Mouse Man to Piranha Man to Lion Man to Hawk Man, to regain our lost humanity (murder is always the way to regain lost humanity, I find).

I also found that transmogrifying from one bipedal animal to the next a nice twist on the metroidvania convention of requiring your learned abilities for progress: Mouse Man can navigate those tightly arranged special blocks that you saw earlier, Hawk Man can fly over that precipice you knew you couldnít leap, and so on. Itís a little less obvious and more organic than double jumps and the like.

Most metroidvanias these days have a comparatively complex map connecting a sprawling world, but a pretty clear path to progression. Get the double jump attribute, backtrack several save screens to that spot with the cliff face you couldnít reach, and reach it. The Dragonís Trap is not like that. There is no map, the world is not large, there are no save rooms. (The original passwords are still here for nostalgia but have been replaced by autosaves.) But sometimes youíll venture the wrong way and only know it because enemies will be too strong. A door in the sky will lead to a fork in the desert road: which way to go? Just figure it out, the game seems to say. There is no red door on the right, locked with a red key impeding progress rightward in order to push you leftward. The gameís limited scope would seem to suggest that such signposts are unnecessary, and yet, your small stock of hearts for vitality and smaller range with your sword create a challenge that makes random and reckless exploration feel risky.

And really, thatís what old school gaming usually feels like. First time decisions are met with apprehension because wrong moves can have dire consequences. Fumbling through a steeper learning curve than you might be used to should be expected; so too should a very quick romp from start to finish on your subsequent runs, once youíve figured it all out. The Dragonís Trap isnít long, and it isnít tricky, but youíll have to take a few lumps to learn its ways.

Wonder Boy III was always bright and storybook colourful, its score memorable and saccharin. This is where the new developers went to work. With an already more than competent 8-bit era presentation with which to work from, it was as if they paused the action every so often while replaying the original, closed their eyes, and said, ďweíre outside of the burned out remains of a crumbled castle. What would that look like? What would it look like really?Ē And where a cutout, uniformly bricked castle sporting a few broken parapets sat pasted upon a flat teal sky hung like retro wallpaper; a sunken castle now slumps, its parapets scorched, its walls cracked, beneath wisps of fog bespeaking the ghosts of the fallen, and a red flag with its head hung, speaking of resignation. A scene once made up of identical green trees lined up like a picket fence atop a blue backdrop is now a fully realized watercolour world, complete with billowing bloodstained clouds, a graveyard, a statue of a fallen warrior, a cliff face. As you would expect, the characters too, are imbued with personality where their early sprite forebearers had none: Lion Man soldiers forward with grim resolution on his face, lugging his great sword behind him, Pyramid Head-style.

The developers have given us the greatest tool by which to admire the gravity of their improvements; you can switch between the old look and the new, the old sounds and the new subtly beautiful orchestration with the press of a button, in real time. The feature is something greater than novelty: itís a tribute, and a gauge for how far weíve come. Every time I revisit the game, I am invited to click back and forth, to marvel at both.

Interestingly enough, while I actually owned both a Master System and Turbografx, and played both iterations of the game when they came out, I didnít love the original. I liked it well enough, but found its charm system Ė here, all but removed Ė offputting. Essentially, in addition to earning gold to buy better equipment, you were required to grind to earn randomly dropped charm stones so that you would have sufficent charm to win over certain storekeepers who would otherwise not bother showing you their finest wares. I suppose kiboshing the system makes this update easier, but it also makes it a whole lot more likable.

The only remaining vestiges of the charm system are hidden challenge levels for each animal form to fight through, with a single stone, and a single trophy, at the end of each stage as rewards for your trouble. Oh, how the annoying have fallen!

Itís true that The Dragonís Trap could have done more Ė not with the actual game, but with all the expected extras that remakes and collections usually offer. A boss rush? A new boss? A new level? More unlockables? Something. But aside from the charm challenges and a vitality-draining hard mode, thereís not much here other than a very old, very straightforward side-scrolling quest with cool animal powers, and areas and bosses that arenít so tricky as you are initially vulnerable Ė all dressed up with updated envisioning (I made that up, just go with it) of the highest, most gorgeous order. Thatís all thatís here: the great game from 1989, plus the best facelift youíve ever seen. And thatís enough. It's more than enough.


Masters's avatar
Staff review by Marc Golding (February 25, 2018)

There was a bio here once. It's gone now.

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