Remakes of obscure titles prompt us to ask a single question: “Why?” They’ll come right out of left field, leaving us bewildered about how there could’ve been any perceivable demand to bring them back with a fresh coat of paint. Whether we’re referring to Flashback, Rez, Shadow of the Beast, or The Legend of Kay, they can fail to generate any new interest and tarnish the original game’s legacy if there is little to no effort put into them. Sometimes they fully realize a cult classic’s potential with appropriate adjustments and profound visual upgrades. In regard to Wonder Boy: The Dragon's Trap, developer Lizardcube has taken the 1989 Sega Master System title and remade it in such a way that sets another high precedent of unparalleled quality for future remakes.
It’s not often that one can compare an old and new version of a game on the fly like in Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary, but The Dragon’s Trap does this and more. The scope of Lizardcube’s work is made drastically clearer by switching between retro and orchestrated music, observing the discrepancies between the 8-bit and 60 frames-per-second cartoon graphics, and unlocking concept art and video files detailing how these elements were reconstructed. The Franco-Belgian inspired art style, with its hand-drawn attention to simplicity, muted colors, and shape language, calls to mind the imaginative, inviting illustrations of E. H. Shepard. The cute character designs are faithful yet significantly improved over the preceding ones, and the same philosophy extends to the landmarks and enemies, which are all in their original places yet with reworked foregrounds and backdrops that are far more sophisticated and expansive.
What was once a continuous line of identical trees is now a sprawling field of wheat with towering cliffsides in the distance, complete with rays of light that actually play on your character’s features. Shadows and floating particles drift across moving objects as well, which speaks to the obsessive level of admiration the developer has for Ryuichi Nishizawa’s creation. This isn’t even to mention the incredibly charming, balanced score that emulates the classic melodies while adding in varying layers of instrumentation befitting of every stage, ranging from jazzy improvisation to Eastern music with Taiko drums and a Shamisen. Even new sound effects have been inserted for enemies, your character’s footsteps, and ambiance with birds chirping or the pitter-patter of rain.
There’s no doubt that Lizardcube has revived and vastly improved the aesthetics and audio design of the original game, as it is far more pleasing to the eyes and ears. However, in recreating the game to a tee, has it been worth this effort and time? While the title and premise may not seem as memorable as NES classics like The Legend of Zelda or Super Mario Bros., this would be an unfair evaluation of how well its mechanics hold up today. There’s a distinct slipperiness to your character’s movement as it takes just under a second to come to a stop, so while this is annoying at first, it forces you to carefully evaluate your approach to a surprisingly wide variety of opponents and how you plan to attack, and with different types of the same foes that have greater health and more eccentric behavior, there’s always something new waiting around the corner.
What sets the game apart is how the protagonist is cursed by the Mecha-Dragon and transformed into an anthropomorphic dragon. To reverse the curse, he (or she, since you can choose to play as “Wonder Girl” now) must defeat a series of strange dragons across Monster Land, transforming into even more animals along the way. Much like Altered Beast, you’ll morph between these forms with levels designed to test their unique traits, such as Mouse-Man’s awesome ability to walk sideways or upside down specific walls. Piranha-Man can swim, Hawk-Man can fly, Lion-Man has a sword swinging 180 degrees, and Lizard-Man breathes fireballs. All of them have their pros and cons, but what makes the mechanic even more useful in this semi-linear world is how backtracking to previous levels will unveil hidden doors with a treasure inside or a new heart to obtain. You’ll come across new stores where Pig-Man will sell you new shields and armor or swords to respectively boost your defense and attack stats, and you might come across ones that allow you to change form at any time or grant you an extra life.
The level design itself isn’t particularly memorable. There’s hardly any complex platforming to make note of, but it’s the placement of foes and their tricky patterns that define the game’s appeal. Figuring out when a Skeleton will reverse course or start jumping over you repeatedly is tough to approximate, and dealing with the Samurai’s ability to evade your first thrust will startle you at first. Most enemies will have you on your toes as you figure out how to take each one out. For some long stages, outlasting them will try your patience and skill after multiple deaths, but getting into the groove of this is a fun challenge to master. It’s disappointing that the boss fights with the big, bad dragons are not as engaging, with some having predictable move sets that make their buildups rather lackluster despite how great their designs and stages are.
While you don’t have to go for many of the extras, they’re good incentives to poke around for secrets that will make some stages less intimidating since some enemies can eliminate an entire heart in one hit. This might mean that you need to go through whole levels again to get to a particular piece of equipment you want or stock up on potions to revive you, but these backtracks are at least worth stocking up on coins for expensive items in the five to seven-hour experience.
Considering how much diversity and imagination The Dragon’s Trap fits inside that time frame, it’s a whimsical adventure all these years later that radiates with impassioned TLC. While there's an adherence to the underwhelming difficulty of the original bosses and platforming for faithfulness' sake, this game possesses solid mechanics and enemy variety that jive nicely with its level design.
Wonder Boy: The Dragon's Trap was reviewed on PlayStation 4 and is also available on Xbox One and Nintendo Switch. It will be available on PC via Steam in the coming weeks. It was reviewed with a code provided by the publisher.
Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap is a monster of a remake. It gives a fairly forgotten gem a profound buff to let its inherent charm shine through even brighter with gorgeous artwork and music. Its animal-altering mechanic and hoards of enemies guarantee that you’re in for a good, fun challenge, and while its platforming and boss fights may not have the same impact, it’s no wonder why the developer saw Wonder Boy fit to return.
- Whimsical Art Style and Music
- Great Enemy Variety
- Changing Animal Forms With Level Design
- Simple Platforming
- Fairly Easy Boss Fights