The complicated and intertwining histories of Wonder Boy, Monster Land, Monster World, and Adventure Island are far too complicated to thoroughly dig through in what will likely be a short review. I would point you to HG101 or Retronauts for the most in-depth looks at the series.
In a nutshell, a simple arcade game called Wonder Boy was released in 1986 and thanks to a series of legal licensing issues, it somehow branched off into four different sub-series all published and developed by different companies and designers of the old video game world.
Wonder Boy: The Dragon's Trap is a retro throwback designed to be a pseudo-remake of the SEGA Master System classic Wonder Boy III: The Dragon's Trap. Publisher DotEmu hyped it to be completely redone with new HD graphics, a fun and consistent art style, remixed music, and the wacky ability to swap between retro and modern graphics on the fly.
And sticking with series tradition, I was confused almost immediately. Why? There are currently not one but three retro throwbacks from the Wonder Boy, Monster Land, and Monster World family tree in development, and honestly, I had no idea which one I was playing until I started writing this review. I thought I was playing something entirely new, but the new game is actually titled Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom…and the other new game, being made in Korea, is called Wonder Boy Returns.
Seriously, you could write a novel on how complex this nonsense is. Between these three new games though, something tells me this Wonder Boy: The Dragon's Trap be the best of the lot, mostly because it sticks so closely to what made the series popular back in the day.
Regardless of its confusing roots, Wonder Boy: The Dragon's Trap is a nice retro package for those who want a smartly designed platformer from a series that never got its fair time in the spotlight.
Series comes full circle
Wonder Boy: The Dragon's Trap takes place immediately after the first game in the Monster Land series, meaning the third game in the Wonder Boy series… NO! We're not talking about that here! Like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night would do much later, it begins with the final boss fight from the previous game and uses his death as the launching point for a new adventure.
Our hero, named Hu-Man or Hu-Girl depending on your gender choice, is cursed after slaying the enemy dragon and transforms into a weak lizard beast with the ability to spit fire. From there, our hero stumbles into a nearby village and seeks out a further six dragons to slay, ultimately regaining human form.
Yup, that's about it for the story. Wonder Boy: The Dragon's Trap is not in the business of telling a grand tale. Its main purpose is to send you on a non-linear journey through six worlds, loaded with cartoonish monsters and a charming sense of humor.
Each victory over a boss dragon transforms the hero into a different anthropomorphic being, be it a mouse, a frog, a lion, or an eagle, and each form's unique ability opens up a different portion of the interconnected map. Our hero as a mouse can climb walls and fit into small places. As a frog, he can swim, and as an eagle, he can fly. All pretty self-explanatory.
Like the games of old, mostly because this is a game of old, progress is entirely based upon your ability to problem solve and pick up visual hints for paths. There is no developer dragging you by the hand and telling you where to go next with an infuriating tutorial. Six bosses and boom, you're done! The game unfolds at a lightning pace, and honestly, I was impressed with how naturally it flows.
You really have to keep in mind that the original was first released only a year or so after the first Metroid somewhat standardized the side-scrolling exploration genre. There wasn't much to go on at that point, but honestly, Wonder Boy: The Dragon's Trap's progression and exploration are far superior to the original Metroid in every way.
Not only that, this remake does it far better than many modern indie games that it clearly inspired.
As for core mechanics, in short, combat is fun and requires a few brain cells, especially with the first lizard form. Timing those fireballs is hard work because you need to find a balance between fire rate and range. Platforming is a bit stiff, but the level layout accounts for the hero's limited jumping capabilities. Bosses are never challenging since their patterns are easy to pick up.
Wonder Boy: The Dragon's Trap is hardly the most challenging game of all time, but this is a series that has always gotten by on the charm of the character artist, not so much the brutal learning curve. I swear, with priorities like that, you'd never expect this was originally a game from the 80s.
Retro remake or definitive edition? You Choose!
Ultimately, there are three ways to look at this package. Either you see it as a very loyal remake of a cult-classic with a sweet new art style and a remixed soundtrack, or you see it as the definitive version of a game not many people got to play when it first game out.
Because, seriously, who ever owned a SEGA Master System?
The third way to look at it is a combination of both! I played with the optional 8-bit graphics far more often than I did with the new graphics and had a lot of fun doing so, but that's just because I like old games. Development team Lizardcube's remixed art is perfectly fine, and I'd actually put it on the higher end of the retro remake spectrum. Being able to flip between the two art styles on the fly, to the point where you don't even lose momentum in a jump, is a really nice touch.
A simple press of the R2 button is like a time warp back to your childhood!
There's just something off for me about playing a game that is clearly Japanese in its design but drawn with overly European art. Plus, those 80s anime inspired character sprites… who can live without them? Everyone likes having options and balance, and the game does a good job not forcing you to choose one style of another. Flip as often as you please!
Wonder Boy: The Dragon's Trap is a really solid retro release, and if you are new to the series, it could provide a decent starting point for your new retro adventures. If you're more into the HD graphics, it's a solid platformer that gets by on teasing your intuition and challenging players to find the best path forward.
$19.99 might be a little steep for newcomers given what it offers, but for retro fans looking for the definitive version of a classic, the price is right.