Wonder Boy: The Dragon's Trap

An ingenious way to make an old-school game feel new. 

By Urian Brown March 06, 2018

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There’s little doubt we’re in the era of game remakes. But unlike movie remakes, which are usually subpar money grabs, many developers are putting their backs into these remastered editions. And one of the best examples of how to do a game remake is Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap I am head over heels in love with this game, and it’s not a nostalgia trip—I’ve never even played the original!

The coolest thing about this remake is the ability to switch between old-school graphics and new. AT ANY TIME. It’s so much fun to flip back and forth to see how the artist chose to reimagine each level. The old school graphics are charming and fun, but a tad sparse. They only had so much memory to work with at that time. But the new art, it’s so beautiful it’s downright inspiring. Hats off to this artist, they not only managed to capture the essence of each level but actually improve upon it.

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A regular blue sky background will suddenly turn into great pyramids off in the distance, towering over the landscape. Crude sprite monsters will suddenly have hilarious cartoony faces that stay true to what it seems the original programmer intended. I spent a lot of time in the game just going back and forth between graphic styles just to see the differences. And the changes feel like they’re done in a respectful, lovingly way. They didn’t add a bunch of stuff just to show off, they just used their imaginations and filled out the levels in charming ways.

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How did they do this? The gameplay is exactly the same as the original game. All the monsters are in the same spots, all the obstacles, items and everything. It’s literally the same game, but with an incredibly beautiful shiny new coat of paint. I would love to see other companies to do this to their older titles. It would be a blast to play old Sonic and Mario games, but with neat new graphics and the ability to change styles at any time. Nintendo! Sega! I know you guys read the video game reviews here! Make it happen!!!

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As for the game itself, it’s hard, but a lot of fun and very inventive. The concept is simple enough, you’re a knight and you have to fight your way through a 2D side-scrolling level to the boss and defeat them. But each time you do, you get turned into a different animal! And these animals all have different powers that help them unlock a new section of the world. The lizard can shoot fireballs, the mouse can stick to walls, the piranha can swim, the hawk can fly, etc.

Each level is designed around the powers and limitations of each different form. Each level is also really friggin’ hard. This game doesn’t mess around! You have to memorize the movement and attacks of every foe along the way. A couple of bad moves and you’re gonna be in trouble facing the boss. And you can’t just run through the levels. If you get hit by a creature, you can’t turn intangible, like some games, and just run through them. If you try, you’ll just keep taking damage. And you'll need those hearts.

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Luckily, each hit doesn't take a full heart. Most hits take a part of a heart so it’s more or less a health bar. But sometimes, a monster will a full heart or more of damage and your chances of making it through the level are dashed. It’s hard, but it never feels unfair. With a lot of patience, you’ll notice you’re making it further and further through the levels over time. Well actually, it does feel a little unfair at times, the design of some of the levels definitely lures you into spots where you’re going to get hit. And often from behind. But those spots aren't frequent and once you know the trap, you'll be ready for it next time. 

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To help you get through levels, there are armor and weapon dealers, treasure chests with money or items, and permanent extra hearts scattered throughout the game. Some are in obvious spots, some are hidden. You’ll definitely want to explore all the nooks and crannies and go back to previous levels with your new powers to unlock secret areas.

However, going back to old levels doesn’t feel like as much of a chore, cuz you’re getting paid! Each monster drops money or items and in this game, you need both. You need money to buy weapon and equipment upgrades. They’re not cheap! And each new animal form needs a new sword, shield and armor if you want to be effective. And the items are really helpful in levels, especially the boomerang. Having a distance weapon, you can use over and over, is ridiculously useful.

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When playing through the game, I couldn’t help but notice how much it reminded me of Dark Souls. It’s hard, like wicked hard. But if you memorize the enemies’ movements, go through levels slow and steady, keep getting armor and weapon upgrades, you just might make it. And expect to die a lot. It's brutal, but not unfair. Oh, and pay attention to the boss’ patterns! They’ll slay you if your head is not in the game. See, it is like Dark Souls

I played the Nintendo Switch version and it’s a great game for on the go. The levels aren’t that long and you’ll die so many times getting through them, it’s perfect for short sessions. And when you die, you get to keep your money so it’s never a total waste of time.

Hint: Use the boomerang if you’re the mouse. His tiny sword kinda sucks and the boomerang will make levels much easier. 

by Urian Brown