Apr 18th, 2017

Tired and exhausted would be my immediate description of how I feel after playing six hours of Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap. As a remake of Wonder Boy 3, a retro 2D platformer originally found on the Sega Master System, Wonder Boy doesn’t take difficulty very lightly. This game’s difficulty is as ever faithful to its retro roots as it is beautiful. Nothing will one hit you, thankfully, but you’ll consistently wish that the password system or at least some type of save mechanic had carried over to the remake.

Wonder Boy stays true to its retro roots. There’s no hand holding found in this one. From the moment you start the game, you’re pretty much on your own, aside from the post-death tips that you’ll receive. For me, this was pretty frustrating. Not because I’m used to being told where to go, but because of how large Wonder Boy’s world is.

After getting out of the starter castle, you stumble upon your first town. Cool, that’s a perfect place to talk to the townspeople and get your bearings, or so I thought. Instead, I talked to one townsperson, jumped down a hole and accidentally started a new level.

This time, I was on a tropical beach filled with crabs, snakes, and clouds that rained fireballs from above. Yeah, still no hand to be held. Begrudgingly, I stumbled my way through this new area and managed to come to a ship of some sort.

Within the ship was a lone merchant, selling an expensive armor that appeared to have no defensive bonuses, and a much cheaper one that gave me +XX defense. A metaphor for capitalism, perhaps? Anyway, after that, I went back to the outside of the ship and tried to figure out where to go next. Well, my cloud friend helped me out by giving me a swift death, placing me right back at the town from before. Lucky for me, death in Wonder Boy doesn’t feel as harsh as it should. You don’t lose any of your hard-earned equipment; just the ones you got from chests. Anything you bought is yours to keep. There’s also a roulette that will give you a life potion, if you’re lucky.

Now that I was back in the town, I decided to try things again. I skipped the first merchant and went into another door. This time, I jumped on an arrow and was flung into another level.

Here we approach my biggest problem with Wonder Boy: It never feels like you’re really going anywhere meaningful. The game just lets you stumble into levels without so much as a word of warning or notification or anything. Throughout my playthrough, this left me confused as the game asks you to keep going back to old levels once you’ve changed animal forms. Oh yeah, there are different forms, around five to be exact.

Each of the furry, creature forms you take on comes with its own set of strengths and weaknesses, and a special ability. The mouse is short enough that it can easily walk under projectiles from the taller enemies, but its short-length sword makes close-range combat risky and difficult. The mouse can also cling to walls and other specifically-marked surfaces to reach new areas. The lion has a giant shield for blocking projectiles in addition to a sword that strikes in an arc as opposed to the standard stabbing motion. This makes him perfect for mowing down enemies above or below you or breaking certain blocks. I haven’t really found a weakness for this guy, yet. He’s pretty overpowered. He’s also my favorite.

Along your journey, you’ll die. A lot. Like I said, this game isn’t a slouch when it comes to difficulty. You’ll find that enemies will hurl projectiles the second they see you on screen, leaving a small window to react with a counter projectile or just suck it up and accept your impending death.

When you die, you’re thrown back into the town. As I mentioned earlier, you get to keep any gear you’ve purchased, but items you’ve found (like arrows, fireballs, or tornadoes) are all gone. This at least keeps some semblance of balance to the game or you’d easily stockpile these abilities and wreak havoc on the enemies, something I so desperately wanted to do after each death. While there’s that bit of balance that doesn’t keep death from feeling cheap.

Because you’re tossed back into town, you then have to find where you were just a few moments ago. With all the doors and backtracking, that can take a few moments of trial and error. Then you have to make all that progress again. This was the most frustrating thing about Wonder Boy for me. I could be feet away from the boss, but when I die, I have to spend minutes getting back to the boss or wherever I came from.

Such a gameplay mechanic is forgivable in roguelikes because they typically have randomly-generated levels, so you feel like you’re tackling a fresh challenge each time. Here, it’s just repeating the same actions over and over until you make some progress. Couple that with the fact that some levels lead into secondary levels and you’re bound to pull some hair out when you die.

On a more positive note, the game is absolutely beautiful. Developer Lizardcube took some liberties in this remake. Environments remain largely the same, but there’s far more detail. You’ll see hand-drawn foliage, and forgotten structures adorned across each area, giving some life to the environments these creature inhabit. If you want to see what the game looked like back in the day, a simple tap of the right trigger will switch the game to its original art style. It’s kinda surreal jumping back and forth between the two styles, and seeing how far we’ve come in video games. You can even fine tune this style to include scan lines, altered music, and retro sound effects for a more authentic experience.

And for those who are wondering, you needn’t worry about and frame rate drops or technical mishaps. The Dragon’s Trap runs perfectly fine in either docked or undocked mode.

With six hours under my belt and an infuriatingly-difficult level ahead of me, it’s hard to say if I’ll come back to Wonder Boy full-time. I know I’ll probably return to try to make a little bit of progress, but I doubt I’ll do something drastic like long play sessions. If Wonder Boy were an easier, less stressful game, then sure. But it’s not. Wonder Boy is a testament to a time when video games were far harder than they are today. Seeing as how remakes can often forget their roots, I see that as a good thing.

If you’re looking for a faithful remake of a classic game, it’s honestly hard to go wrong with Wonder Boy. Even if you’re not looking for a remake, this is one of the most beautiful Switch games available. Not picking up it or at least entertaining the idea would be doing a disservice to your hybrid buddy.

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