Wonder Boy is a combat platformer deliberately reminiscent of earlier titles in feel, but with newer features that come as a welcome addition. Though far from a platforming connoisseur, I have incredibly fond memories of games such as Yoshi’s Island, and looked forward to revisiting platforming titles again. Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap did not disappoint.
Of course, as a platformer, I did not expect much of a story, and indeed story does not seem to be a forethought in the developer’s mind. As simplistic as your hero is, Wonder Boy (or Girl) sets out in the first level to destroy the Meka Dragon, where the game teaches you the simplest of rules. Dragon’s are bosses, and can only be hit in the head. Dispatching enemies like the mechanical terror you have become, you are swiftly cursed to be a beast until you fight your way through the other dragons, and are transformed (temporarily) into a Lizard Man. That’s it, but it gives a swift framework for the basics of progressing through the game. Simple and efficient, but lacking for any game of more substance. But as a consequence of such a simple story, small things can crop up that take a slightly more humorous note. For example, in the starting village that you spawn in after death, there is a church that is home to a priestly pig-man who can serve you with hints if you bother him enough. He (along with others) does not recognise you as the legendary hero you have been built to be, even between transformations, thinking that you as a Lizard Man and a Mouse Man are entirely separate people (although who could blame him?).
Wonder Boy does something that I always like in remastered video games of being able to switch to earlier graphical quality for comparison. Sadly, in this case, it looks less like progress has been made and more that the past was a grotesque abomination constructed of too few pixels, headaches and bleeding eyes. Luckily, the “current look” graphics are pleasant and you never once have to actually look at the “old look” style, as such a gripe could be considered entirely outweighed by the positives of the “current” style. Light colours and bright lighting (in most cases) make the look of the game easy on the eyes and some smaller details add to the fluidity and the fidelity of the screen. For example, when Wonder Boy turns around, he spins and lowers to the ground as if fighting his own moment to turn as quickly as possible; a vigour worthy of the champion Wonder Boy is touted to be. Enemies seem to be a bit floaty at times, certain types appearing to be a lot heavier than their movement would suggest, but otherwise enemy designs are varied and interesting enough to keep you on your toes.
On that subject, I would like to raise the issue of special enemies. Those with some sort of difference between them and their peers, often coloured differently, or merely given a coloured aura. The fact that there are special enemies is not the contention, merely that the colours (although consistent within each enemy type) do not appear to have anywhere near the same effects on enemies with similar attack styles. This puts your combat style down to a bit of trial and error, which in a game that is as annoyingly unforgiving as this one, can become taxing very quickly.
Mentioning which, leads neatly into my main issue/praise of the game, it’s difficulty. As mentioned, I am by no means a hardcore platformer, but I played the game on easy and the system seemed utterly determined to kick my butt all the way down the line. Power-ups are obtainable throughout the game, but they are single use only; some enemies can only be killed with some of these items, and dying without a potion sends you back to the starting village with no items and all your hard work since the latest dragon fight gone to waste.
Potions, under Wonder Boy’s logic, are used to revive your fallen hero when receiving fatal damage, allowing them to continue from that point forward with full health, whatever items they were carrying and one less potion. Dying without one turns into a game of Russian Roulette, as you get to spin a wheel at the chance of earning a free potion for use in your next try, though you won’t be revived, meaning you still lose your progress. This combined with it’s relentless hounding over my health gauge left me fearing a crowded section every time I loaded a new screen. This, however, works in Wonder Boy’s favour. You see, after burning through all your best items, two potions and way too many lives to admit with a tear or two, you’ll arrive at a Dragon’s lair to fight the beast one on one. As mentioned before, they can only be hit in the head and you can only jump so high. Some Dragon attack patterns are easy to figure out, like the Zombie Dragon, which will swim beneath you forcing you to jump to avoid his dorsal fin and then pop up to spew poison at you, giving you an opportunity to attack (this is blindingly obvious after the first time he does it). Others will force you back to the starting village over and over because their patterns are not that obvious. The Mummy Dragon being my favourite. After flying low to the ground, he will charge you, and each hit to the head will force him to fly higher, enough hits and he will pass harmlessly over you; in fact, it took me three deaths to figure out, and even then I am convinced it was by luck.
The toughness of beating the less obvious Dragons puts a great deal of satisfaction in the victory over them, something I feel that many games sadly lack.
Onto this, it is gratifying to see a game go for a more “figure it out for yourself” method of teaching. Very little is ever explained throughout the game, but learned through experiment. Also, almost no holes in the game are instant death pits. They’ll lead to watery parts of the world, or secret chests, or shops, but very rarely, if ever did a pit instantly kill the hero. Again, this is something I enjoyed, if only because the first time I fell I was convinced I was to die only to start sinking to the ocean floor to fight some squids that (for whatever reason) breathe fire.
After each Dragon, you are turned into different animal-man hybrids. Some with very obvious powers (the Piranha Man being the only hero able to swim) and some less so (the Mouse Man being able to walk on some walls and ceilings), each one affected by the weapons and armour you buy differently.
Progressing through the game unlocks assets in the extras menu as well as instrument recordings which is a nice insight into some of the process that went into creating Wonder Boy in the first place. The only problem I see with this game is that had I played on easy, I feel I would have completed it quickly enough that it would not have been worth the time, or the money. But put safely in the middle, the time spent is worth the game’s asking price of $20 (or equivalent), and the hard mode is enticing, for when a few clear days present themselves in my schedule.
Overall, with only its misleading difficulty levels, I see very little holding the delightful Wonder Boy back. It was well worth the creaking joints and pounding head that I associate with stressful games and is definitely a game to look into.
- Art Style / Animation
- Leaves playing to the player
- Frustrating difficulty