Gettin’ old without the need to change (you rather shape-shift)
It was 1989 and Westone bit Entertainment released WONDER BOY III: THE DRAGON’S TRAP on SEGA Master System II, the most epic trip of my childhood.
Dragons, swords, weird monsters, dark dungeons and adventures in a wild and colorful world to explore.
At first sight WONDER BOY III: THE DRAGON’S TRAP gameplay looks like an average 80’s platform action with lots of jumps and enemies.
But in a few minutes the title shows a surprising amount of RPG elements: spells, upgrades and skills contribute to make this game a little retro jewel.
Dragon as an entree
The plot is simplistic and reprises from the last monster defeated in the previous chapter: Wonder Boy in Monster Land.
The Meka Dragon is finally won, you banished the beast from your castle… but with its last breath, the monster casts a curse turning you into a Lizard-man. Your only goal is to restore your original form by finding the Salamander Cross, hidden somewhere in Monster Land…
Each time a new boss is defeated the curse gets more complicated giving another antropomorphic form to Wonder Boy. This is also the way to acquire new useful skills.
The playtime doesn’t shine for its longevity (around 4 hours), but the world Wonder Boy has to explore in order to break the curse is one of the most satisfying journey in the history of gaming.
It’s one of those games where you’re always asking yourself: “if I bring this new skill/item in this place I’ve already been…” and, guess what? Very often there’s a reward that repays the memory effort.
Secret doors and easter eggs fill this world, mixing deliciously with the hack’n’slash platforming routine that brings every new path.
Each shop door in the game brings in a hectic new grind to increase attack/defense points, because every weapon/shield/armor has its own stat (SEGA knows they are the fastest way to reach a nerd’s heart).
Some items introduce new skills useful to unlock new unexplored parts of the map.
A true retrò heart:
It still feels like an 80’s title, with all the flaws of that Era.
Raw enemies hitboxes, unpolished jumping platforms and monochromatic backgrounds that burns your retinae (try playing it on a CRT TV!).
Still this game totally nails it when it comes to define what a true metroidvania genre is.
The exploration of the 2D world as a true dragon slayer is still fun as hell.
Limitations come from the total absence of a map or hints about skill use after morphing into another form.
Metroid is the first comparison that may come in mind.
The save system in 1989 was also kind of a mess with very long (and not so reliable) password codes. I still remember the anxiety to write them down on paper. They were hidden with my Sega Master System like real treasures.
There were ol’ times of hype, discovering secrets and codes and passing them to friends like some form of oral history. Aware of this, developers put a lot of effort on ghost walls and hidden doors. This is not a Ghosts ‘n Goblins difficulty game, but expect a rare challenge when it comes to raid through all the easter eggs.
In 2017 indie developer Lizardcube and publisher DotEmu release an amazing rework.
I had a chance to replay WONDER BOY III: THE DRAGON’S TRAP on Nintendo Switch.
It felt like a good wine aging well, with hand-drawn backgrounds, fluid action and a save system as a great game like this one deserves.
Wonder Boy series creator Ryuichi Nishizawa contributed to the development of the rework. This to ensure the soul of the game is not lost in the process.
The legend of a melody:
One last incredibly good attribute of WONDER BOY III: THE DRAGON’S TRAP lays in its catchy and epic soundtrack.
Produced in the golden age of chiptune sound by Composer Shinichi Sakamoto, shows an amazing use of the 8 channels available on SEGA Master System II (a PSG Texas Instruments SN76489). In a 2013 interview he said to be heavily influenced by jazz and country-folk.
Here’s another special praise when the game saw its rework in 2017. Michael Geyre rearranged the soundtrack, perfectly following the graphic upgrades with a more rounded sound without altering the feel of adventure that music gives to the whole composition.
WONDER BOY III: THE DRAGON’S TRAP is a must have title for every fan of modern platform or metroidvania games.
The legacy of this gameplay is surely not in its appearance. It’s something in the combination between the puzzle logic and the non-linear map. It takes at least one full hour to reveal itself, then it’s one of the most addictive experience in 2D gaming.
WONDER BOY III: THE DRAGON’S TRAP
- Unique mix of genres
- Addictive gameplay
- Raw hitboxes
- No real save system until 2017