Remakes are a tricky business, especially for a game like Wonder Boy III: The Dragon's Trap. Originally released on the Sega Master System in the console's waning days, the game didn't get a lot of attention in North America in the 80s, but it won over the hearts of many in Europe, where the Master System was far more popular. The problem is, how do you reintroduce a game that's a beloved classic to some but virtually unknown elsewhere to a modern, global audience? By keeping the gameplay close to the source material while giving the game an audiovisual overhaul. The result is a classic game that feels fresher than ever before.
The Dragon's Trap is an early example of what's now commonly called a "Metroidvania." This style of action game presents a free-roaming map that you're able to explore more of as you obtain new items and abilities. Most of your abilities in The Dragon's Trap come from the animal forms you can take after beating the dragon bosses. You start off as a lizardman who has limited defense and movement capabilities but wields a ranged fire projectile. As you assume other forms, your abilities will expand greatly: a mouseman with small stature and the ability to scale certain walls, a piranhaman who can swim through water freely, a lionman with a fierce offensive sword swing, and a flight-capable hawkman who can soar the skies but rapidly loses health in water. Each of these forms offers a play style that's both unique and easy to grasp--you won't have to struggle to re-learn controls for each transformation.
The world of The Dragon's Trap is fairly small compared to most modern games of this nature--there's no in-game map, but you probably won't need one. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, especially since this game doesn't have true "save points." If you die or continue a saved game, you'll always begin in the hub town. It's a nod to the game's old-school, password-save roots (you can even use old passwords, if you like), and while it can be a bit annoying to redo entire dungeons if you're KO'd partway through, it also emphasizes the importance of skillful play and proper preparation.
What does "proper preparation" entail? Upgrading your weapons and armor, stocking up on limited-use magic spells that aid you in beating some of the game's more obnoxious enemies, and keeping a few health-restoring potions on hand that'll save your scaly/furry/feathered behind.
A bit of exploration and creative thinking will pay off immensely in the form of loot-filled treasure rooms, permanent health boosts, and secret shops selling high-powered gear. Few things are more satisfying in The Dragon's Trap than pressing up in a suspicious-looking enclave to find a wondrous hidden door to a treasure chamber with copious goodies for the taking. Developer Dot Emu has even gone the extra mile and included new, extra-challenging secret areas made exclusively for this version of the game.
Despite the world map's small size, each area manages to remain distinct and interesting--and this is augmented by the remake's charmingly upgraded presentation.
Despite the world map's small size, each area manages to remain distinct and interesting--and this is augmented by the remake's charmingly upgraded presentation. Between the stunningly drawn backgrounds, exceptionally well-animated characters, and little visual flourishes that make every set of screens unique, The Dragon's Trap is a visual delight. What's even more amazing is that the core gameplay hasn't been compromised at all from the original to accommodate the new visuals--it's still the same in terms of controls, physics, and overall exploration progression. In fact, you can switch from new- to old-school visuals and sound on the fly with simple button presses.
Despite its modernized 2D graphics, The Dragon's Trap does show its age in a few places. Sometimes the means of progression isn't always obvious, leaving you feeling stuck. This version of the game adds a fortune-teller who sometimes drops vague hints, which helps somewhat, but it's still a bit annoying to wander around aimlessly trying to find something to help you progress. (At least the old FAQs for the game are still useful.)
A few of the mechanics also take some getting used to, such as the odd stun state that can happen when you're trapped by an enemy or rapid-fire projectiles and debilitated for seconds at a time. The boss fights also feel very underwhelming--the enemy dragons fall into simple patterns that are easy to learn after a bit of observation, and they don't change them up even at low health. But since they can tank a lot of damage, these encounters turn into tests of patience and endurance rather than skill.
As things stand, however, Wonder Boy: The Dragon's Trap shines as one of the best retro remakes yet. It knows not to tamper too much with the enjoyable, exploration-driven gameplay that made the original so good, instead focusing on updating the presentation to reintroduce the game to a new generation of players. While it's a bit on the short side--you can probably beat it over the course of a lazy Saturday--its small world is packed with personality. Whether you've played the original or are completely new to the weird, wacky world of Wonder Boy, The Dragon's Trap is an adventure well worth embarking on.