Friday, April 21, 2017

Wonder Boy: The Dragon's Trap Review

Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap is a remake of the 1989 Sega Master System game, Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap, also known as Monster World II. I don’t know why they dropped the III. Maybe because Monster Lair is also Wonder Boy III and Wonder Boy in Monster World is Monster World III. Confused? Good! Just trying to keep Wonder Boy tradition alive. The game was made by a small developer named Lizardcube and it’s available on Switch, PS4, and XBO for $19.99, and it’s also coming to PC.

I never owned a Master System and I never played Dragon’s Trap until recently, but I have played every other game in the series and I’m a big fan of Wonder Boy in Monster World and Monster World IV, which are the sequels to Dragon’s Trap and the games Dragon’s Trap is the most similar to in the series. If you’re not familiar with the series, these games are similar to games like Zelda II and the original Shantae trilogy. They are 2D action platforming games with some RPG elements and dungeons in a free-roaming world.

Dragon’s Trap starts off on the last stage of Wonder Boy II, Wonder Boy in Monster Land, AKA Monster World I. You are at “The Last Dungeon”, Meka Dragon’s castle, and you’re there to kill him. After raiding the monster’s lair and defeating Meka Dragon, he puts a curse on you and turns you into Lizard-Man. You then escape the crumbling castle and set forth on a quest to remove the curse. Nobody specifically tells you to do this, but the fortune telling pig in town strongly hints that you should.

This game is old-school. It’s from 1989, after all. It sets you loose in this world and there isn’t much in the way of direction or hints. The fortune telling pig does give you some hints, but they are few and somewhat vague. There is no map, radar, or blinking arrows telling you where to go. You’re left to figure things out on your own. Gamers used to today’s handholding games might have issues with this, but I’m fine with it. Exploring the world on my first playthrough was a lot of fun.

As you progress through the game, you’ll get different animal-man forms to play as, which give you different abilities. These abilities allow you to reach new areas and discover secrets around the world. You start off as Hu-Man or Hu-Girl (AKA Wonder Boy and Wonder Girl), who can crouch and use a sword and shield. Lizard-Man can crouch and breathe fire, which can cancel out enemy fire balls. Mouse-Man is half the size of everyone else, so he can get through small spaces and he can cling to checkered blocks around the world to walk up walls and upside down on the ceiling. Piranha-Man can swim. Lion-Man has an arching sword attack that can break blocks above and below him, which most other characters can’t hit. And finally, Hawk-Man can fly, but takes damage if he goes into water.

The combat and controls are reminiscent of Zelda II. The combat consists of a lot of shield blocking, jumping over enemy attacks, learning enemy patterns, and attacking at the right time. It’s simple, yet challenging at times. Your character’s movement has a lot of inertia to it. It’s not quite like a game with icy floors, but your character doesn’t stop on a dime. It’s a bit like the original Wonder Boy or Mario in Super Mario Bros. This takes a little bit of getting used to, but I was already familiar with other Wonder Boy games, which play similarly. I think the new graphics really help the character movements make sense. The remake has more frames of animation than the original and they let you know what your character is doing in a much better way.

A few changes have been made to make this remake a bit more playable and modern. The biggest change from the Master System version is the way that gear becomes available at shops around the world. In the original, you were blocked off from buying certain pieces of gear by the charm stone system. The charm stones were stones you found around the world inside chests and from random enemy drops. The amount you had collected determined what gear you could buy. That system is gone and now your only barrier to buying gear is the amount of money you have. The gear in the game has stats, so this does make the game a little bit easier by increasing your attack power and defense and also cuts down on grinding.

The gear in the game is actually very important, but the game never tells you just how important and leaves you to find out on your own. Each piece of gear gives different stat boosts to each form, so gear that got you through a dungeon as Lizard-Man, might not be the best gear to play in as Mouse-Man. On my second playthrough, I tried fighting one of the bosses without buying a specific sword and was having to hit him twice to take away 1 HP. I ended up resetting the game to go back and get the sword.

Another big change is the addition of autosaves. The only way to save your game in the SMS version was through 14 character passwords, which you could only get from the fortunetelling pig in the village. The game now autosaves whenever you do anything, even something as small as collecting a coin. The old password system is also still in the game. You can even use a password from the SMS game and continue your game in the remake or take a password from the remake and use it in the SMS game. I actually did this myself for my third run. I played about halfway through the SMS version and then used a password to continue my game in the remake. I even still got a chance to pick between Wonder Boy and Wonder Girl and choose the difficulty setting, even though the SMS version didn’t have Wonder Girl or difficulty settings.

The game has 3 difficulty settings. Easy makes enemies easier to kill and increases potion drop rates. Normal is basically the difficulty of the SMS game. Hard increases enemy HP and adds a time limit to the game. This mode is for the hardcore speedrunners.

There are also some smaller changes that help playability. Thanks to there being more buttons on your controller, you now have a separate button for special items. In the original, you had to press down and jump at the same time to use items. You can also scroll through your special items with the L and R buttons now. You had to switch your special items in the pause menu in the original. It also seems like potions drop more often in the remake. I played about halfway through the SMS version and never got a potion to drop from an enemy.

Of course, the most noticeable change is the new graphics. The whole game has been redrawn in a completely new style. This new style doesn’t really match the original's, but it looks great anyway. The new art style is more like a Disney comic book than the original game’s in-game graphics or Japanese artwork. The new style reminds me of Jeff Smith’s Bone comics. The game even looks like it’s drawn and hand painted on rough comic book paper and even uses traditional shading techniques, like cross hatching. I think it looks amazing. They really went the extra mile and made something awesome, even where they didn’t have much to work with.

The music has also been completely redone. The composition is still pretty much the same, but it has been re-recorded with acoustic instruments. It’s kind of like a band going on Unplugged and redoing all their hits in a new style. All the sound effects have also been completely redone and there are even new sound effects where there were none in the original.

As if it wasn’t enough to have completely redone graphics, music, and sound effects, all the original graphics and sounds are still in the game. You can press ZR at any time and seamlessly switch between the new and old graphics. There’s no loading or anything. There’s even options for scan lines and retro monitor effects. You can also press in on the right analog stick to switch between the new and old sound effects and music. There’s also an option to use the FM sound unit from the redesigned Japanese Sega Master System.

I think this is a great game. It’s not as big or as complex as Wonder Boy in Monster World or Monster World IV, but that’s understandable. This game plays like the game that came before those. I had a ton of fun playing it and have played through it 3 times already. I actually think speedrunning it is super fun and I’ve never really been into that kind of stuff. The game is just a joy to play, the graphics are amazing, and the music is beautiful. The developers obviously have a lot of love for the Wonder Boy series. I highly recommend it to anyone who is a fan of the Genesis Monster World games, the Shantae series, Zelda II, or Metroidvanias in general.