The recent remake project Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap by Lizardcube holds a special place in my heart, not just because it is gorgeous and a tremendous homage to the heyday of gaming, but because it confounded and frustrated the hell out of me.
Let me explain. When this remake project was first announced, it triggered vague childhood memories I have of playing the 1987 classic Wonder Boy In Monster Land, developed by Westone Bit Entertainment for the SEGA Master System. For all that I remember I may have only played two hours in total, but it left such a huge impression on me – the graphics for that time and the color palette used were stunning, the music (which I am listening to now) was catchy, and you navigated a perilous world killing monsters, collecting treasure, finding hidden doors, and buying stuff. Also it was challenging and I never beat the damn thing. What was not to love?
Of course, memories like this are often colored by rose tinted glasses. Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap is an absolutely faithful remake of Wonder Boy III from 1989, the one minor and welcome change being you can choose to play as Wonder Girl instead of the titular Wonder Boy. In this game, you are cursed by a dragon to change into animal shapes, and must use the abilities of the various animal forms you assume over the game to advance. The remake’s cartoon graphics and orchestrated score are a revelation, but other than that, the game is the same as the original to the point where at any moment you can switch between the modern graphics and classic 8-bit graphics of the Master System, even in the middle of a fight. It’s a beautiful homage to a classic game, but the frustration arises from the very fact that none of the cryptic and outdated game mechanics have been updated.
Back in the day, the nuances of how to play a game, including where you need to go and what you need to do next, were left intentionally vague. Sometimes your manual would offer tips and tricks, but without it you were left in the dark. In playing Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap, I fluctuated between blissful nostalgia and exasperation; one moment I would be happily enjoying the masterful aesthetic created by the Lizardcube team, and the next I would die constantly or confused as to where to go next. This game is not linear, and you are encouraged to go back to old areas with your new powers to find secrets and new paths forward. However, you’ll find a new item, such as a magic ring or new sword, and no explanation will be offered as to what it does – you just need to experiment wildly to figure it out.
Of course, that frustration that I experienced was also something I ultimately come to appreciate as the real appeal of this game. Part of the nostalgia Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap provides was for the lost era of platforming in the early days of arcades and home consoles. Nowadays, games will more or less let you know what you need to do or where to go; open world games such as The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild of course play with the idea of letting you roam free without a strict direction, but you also never feel truly lost.
With this remake, I struggled so hard knowing, for example, that there was probably a way to change animal shape without having to visit one of the game’s pedestals – it is suggested that you can do so by some of the environments. It took me a lot of experimenting with the items I had along with random button presses to actually figure it out, and damn did I feel amazing when I did. Nobody told me how to do it – it was just a vague hint in the item name that revealed the answer.
I also died, a lot. You need to purchase new armor to survive hits from stronger enemies, and oftentimes you just can’t afford it. When you die and respawn in town, you do keep your gold from your last run so it wasn’t too hard to save money. With all the grinding, however, I actually found that where previously I attempted to muscle through, I started to take the time to properly learn the enemy attack patterns and play smarter – again, a need that has been lost in a lot of modern games.
I did finally finish the game, and though it only clocks in at four or five hours (minus all the deaths), it was a special experience I am sure I will reattempt at harder difficulties. Classic game styles are experiencing a renaissance – you only need look at the success of indie retro-style games like Shovel Knight to see that the appeal is there. However, Shovel Knight has also evolved the genre by updating the game mechanics to stay in tune with modern game design. By remaking Wonder Boy III and remaining absolutely faithful to the original, Lizardcube is helping to bridge the generation gap from those gamers in their late 20s or early 30s such as myself and the younger generation.
Perhaps Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Curse will offer an appreciation for the level of innovation that was present in those pioneering days of video games, or if nothing else simply provide a glimpse into the past and how far gaming has come. While the game mechanics may not have necessarily aged well, they were of their time, and this game is an absolute love-letter to those nostalgic days.
Kudos Lizardcube, I can’t wait to see what project comes next!
Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap is available now for Switch, PS4 and Xbox One. If you enjoyed this blog, be sure to leave a comment below, and follow Nerd Speaker on Twitter and Facebook for more nerdy content.