[Disclosure: A Nintendo Switch review copy was provided for the contents of this article]
As a lifelong gamer, I don’t quite know how I missed the Wonder Boy series. I know I used to have a Master System, and I vaguely remember borrowing a super hard game that fits the description and style of the games in this iconic series, but I can’t say for sure if it was, or which one. That vague memory includes my five year old brain struggling to accommodate the really tough gameplay and what I thought (at the time) was a really complex RPG system of upgraded armour, weapons, shields and special weapons.
The remake that I’m reviewing today is based on Wonder Boy III: The Dragons Trap, which first launched in 1989. The 2017 versions drops the “III” but retains the rest of the title, and where possible, it stays true to the classic gameplay in its purest form. In contrast to the feeling of staggering complexity that I experienced as a youngster, the 2017 remake of Wonder Boy feels incredibly simple, and the lite-RPG elements of iterative armour and weapon upgrades feel almost reminiscent of a 30 year old equivalent to Dark Souls.
Even though the classic gameplay is retained, the crew at Lizardcube have done an incredibly comprehensive job of updating the game in pretty much every other way. I’m even willing to go as far as saying that this remake of Wonder Boy is probably the most comprehensive remaster of any game that I’ve seen to date. The game features a huge range of improvements that enable players to switch between classic and modern graphics, and even (unusually) classic and modern sound effects and music. For avoidance of doubt, that means you could be playing with classic graphics and modern music, or modern music and classic sounds, or modern or classic everything – fantastic.
The new look for Wonder Boy is much more than a basic, low resolution application of spit and polish. The game has been completely overhauled, with a striking and beautiful art style that has layers and layers of colour and detail. It stands alone among similar titles, but an easy comparison to make is probably Rayman Origins or Legends. I say easy because both Rayman and Wonder Boy were developed in France, but there is also a genuine similarity in the quality of the beautifully animated, hand drawn visuals. One thing I will also say (since I am going to mention it several times going forwards) is that Lizardcube have also included a Wonder Girl skin, which is purely cosmetic, but a nice nod towards equality nonetheless.
I said before that it’s possible to switch between new and old graphical styles, and one interesting use for this that I found was when facing the dragon bosses that are littered throughout the game. These enemies can only be hurt by hitting them in a specific place, and somewhere between Wonder Boy/Girl, the boss, the sumptuous backdrop and the array of flying projectiles, it can be quite easy to lose yourself in the action. As a result, I often found myself using the cleaner, classic view to face these enemies and even some of the busier sections of the game. Switching is instantaneous and done with a click of the shoulder button, so it has no impact on gameplay flow.
The game maintains the structure of the original, with Wonder Boy/Girl being cursed by a dragon, as the title suggests. He or she must then journey through a number of worlds that each branch out from a village that acts as the in-game hub. The initial curse casts our hero as a lizard with the ability to breathe fire over a medium range, and as each boss is defeated, a new curse is applied that changes Wonder Boy/Girl into a mouse, a lion, a piranha or a hawk, each of which has one or more unique strengths and weaknesses. Whilst avoiding spoilers, I can say that there is a method that enables Wonder Boy/Girl to change form at will, but it isn’t necessarily something everyone will find. The remake introduces an additional, easier way to do so, but I am still not 100% sure that it will be accessible to all.
In general, this theme of tough, valuable secrets and an unforgiving approach is maintained throughout. I mentioned earlier that there is a slight feeling of Dark Souls running through the game, and that manifests in the fact that you will often come across shops in worlds that sell improved weapons and armour. You’ll buy them, but will often die anyway due to the strain of getting to that point, but you’ll benefit from keeping the items when you respawn back in the village. Wonder Boy/Girl also keeps any money earned and because enemies respawn, farming is an option.
These are all good things, because Wonder Boy: The Dragons Trap is what I like to describe as bastard hard at times. Not only is much of the nicer stuff hidden behind invisible walls, lava fountains and God-knows what else, the enemies are frequent, often tough and sometimes hard to predict in terms of their movements and patterns. Another good thing is the arsenal available to Wonder Boy/Girl, which features not only a varied attack based on current animal form, but also a range of special weapons dropped as collectibles. From tornadoes that bounce between enemies, to arrows that shoot directly upwards, there is weapon to answer almost any threat, and effective management of these special weapons (which do not carry over upon death) is a really key part of being successful.
Wonder Boy: The Dragons Trap is available on Xbox One, PS4, PC and Nintendo Switch, but I reviewed it on the Switch by design, and I want to give it the attention it deserves. All console versions of The Dragons Trap appear to run equally smoothly on all consoles, and it looks fantastic in high definition, or even upscaled to 4K, but in particular, I loved playing it on the Switch in portable mode. This is the perfect game to showcase the Switch’s capabilities, because it runs fantastically well in both docked and portable modes, and whilst it is suitably deep and challenging for playing at home, it also offers the feeling of pick up and play accessibility that is so common among simpler, older games.
Overall, I have absolutely no hesitation in recommending Wonder Boy: The Dragons Trap to anyone. This is the most complete direct remake I’ve ever played, and it is both faithful to the original source material, and considerate of the needs and demands of modern gamers. It is hard (especially later on) but there are mechanisms in place to enable steady progress (including four difficulty levels) and it weighs in at around seven or eight hours even for a competent gamer, so there is plenty of content. The graphics are superb and stand apart in their style, colour palette and overall beauty. Wonder Boy is fantastic on any system, but on the Switch, an already superb game benefits further from the accessibility of Nintendo’s powerful, portable system.
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