Game of the Month: December 2016
Wonder Boy III - The Dragon's Trap
It’s pretty much a given that a consoles best days from both a commercial and quality sense are almost always spaced apart from each other. Whilst great games do, and indeed continue to come out at the start of a lifecycle, it’s from the middle point to the end where the stand out gems are often found. From the dawn of home computer /console gaming right up to the present day, if you look hard enough, that’s where the genuine moments of wow live. Appearing from that crucial middle point onwards, it allows the core fans or the intensely dedicated lover of that system to pinpoint a reason to not upgrade to a more expensive machine. Now this situation can be because a game well exceeds the technical limitations of it’s format or because it’s a genuine high point for the genre it’s connected too. Sometimes, not often, but sometimes you get that magic moment when both factors collide and it’s on those pillars that a new classic is born.
Then there’s that even rarer third ingredient, we sometimes refer to it as the ‘spark’ that somehow manages to inject another reason into the mix, at that point one of the special games is born. For the month of December in the year 2016 everyone at RGG feels it’s way past time that the spotlight be turned to one of those truly remarkable moments when Sega (along with some help) took a Mascot character to it’s highest heights and gamers on an incredible journey. Ladies and Gentlemen, Boys & Girls and those of you watching pay per views on live internet streams let’s all take a moment to fall in love all over again with a special boy, A Wonder Boy… Sega’s Wonder Boy III - The Dragon’s Trap.
Released in 1989 in both Europe and North America for the superb 8-Bit Sega Master System, Wonder Boy III - The Dragon’s Trap was actually the fourth instalment in a franchise owned by Sega themselves. An action adventure game with elements of basic RPG styles and platform puzzling it seemed to magically have a finger in multiple genre pies. Developed by Westone it was a huge step in a direction intended to give one of Sega’s mascot’s far more depth, initially very much an arcade game Wonder Boy had been maturing into a more platform adventure with exploration and more populated game worlds.
Taking place directly after the events of the previous adventure ‘Wonder Boy In Monster Land’ you begin your game with a shortened version of the last boss battle from that game. During this initial section you have a curse placed upon you that transforms you into a Lizard-Man therefore stopping you from fully completing your goal. Once this opening level is finished you are then tasked with travelling the game world in order to defeat several other Dragons in order to acquire the relevant powers to stop your adversary once and for all and to gain an item called the Salamander Cross. This sacred and legendary item is the only thing that can restore you to your natural human form and lift this evil curse laid upon you.
With a large and completely non-linear game environment this means that you will have to explore multiple levels and areas in order to defeat foes, collect charms, life hearts and gold. Being set across an entire world this means navigating numerous obstacles which include underwater sections, small holes in walls, deep cavers and places high up requiring flight or the ability to climb walls. As luck would have it these abilities can be obtained through defeating end of level bosses and then from that moment on being able to change into a different animal or creature. Each of these completely unique and fantastic characters have a distinct look, feel and unique ability.
In total five transformations are both possible and essential to complete your epic quest. Lizard-Man attacks enemies by breathing fire at them, and he can duck. Mouse-Man can walk on walls and ceilings designated by chequered "mouse blocks", Piranha-Man can swim freely underwater and can access underwater places (such as the ship) which the other forms cannot. Lion-Man attacks enemies with his sword by swinging from directly above to directly below him, and Hawk-Man can fly freely in the air but takes damage if he enters water.
Your energy in the game is shown in the form of hearts which you will need to acquire more of from the start of your adventure as the curse leaves you with just a single unit to begin with. Visiting shops in the game world’s towns will also yield several useful and essential items including weapon and armour upgrades. Gold is the main currency however in order to get every item ‘Charm’ is also required. This is taken care of by collecting Charm Stones located in the game world or by applying equipment with charm levels attached. Whilst not a true RPG game by nature it’s nonlinear game environments and it’s requirements to level yourself up absolutely place a foot inside it’s genre. By this point it’s a platform game, action adventure title and also an entry level RPG. All on an 8-Bit console. Not too shabby at all eh?
With such a large and immersive world this is also a Master System title that has a built in password save feature, these can be obtained by visiting churches in the town you are in. There’s also a system that allows you to store passwords in it’s memory meaning you don’t have to type them in all the time, which is handy, because they are massive.
A graphically stunning title this absolutely get’s every single drop of power out of the 8-Bit Sega console with gorgeously detailed and animated sprites set against lovely and very varied backdrops. The use of colour is mind blowing at times and it truly feels as if you are really seeing an entire world, not just a platform game split over several levels. One small issue here however is sprite flickering which appears often, however it never ever interferes with your quest or more importantly your enjoyment. It’s very large, clocking in around the two hour mark if you are an expert knowing the exact rout to take, the first time however it’s a quite lengthy experience indeed.
Releasing to a very warm critical reception it appeared on the Sega format after the point where the Master System was starting to be overlooked by the new and vastly more powerful 16-Bit home computers in several territories such as the Amiga 500 and Atari ST. The new Megadrive was also just around the corner so whilst it reviewed superbly and also sold quite well it was very much a game that went on to become more accepted into the hearts of the Master System’s fan base rather than as a whole compared to every game out at the time. A strange combination of well received, sleeper hit that has gone on to be widely regarded as one of the finest games ever made for Sega’s Master System console it’s also grown with reputation thanks to more fans discovering it later on plus the game releasing on two other formats, a re-release and more recently a HD remake announcement.
In 1991 it was released on to the PC Engine format in Japan with a name change ‘Adventure Island’ and later that same year to the TurboGrafx format with yet another new name ‘Dragon’s Curse’. This situation occurred when Westone allowed Hudson Soft to port it however under the express insistence that all references and traces to the Wonder Boy franchise not carry over. In 1992 Sega themselves released a version for their handheld games console, Game Gear, which was also well received by both console owners and the games press of the time.
The most interesting release of Wonder Boy III - The Dragon’s Trap however came in 1993 when Tec Toy re-released the game in South America but merged it together with a very famous and popular comic strip, ‘Turma Da Monica‘ or ‘Monica’s Gang’ as some of the rest of us may know it. With completely new sprites thanks to the fresh new cast of playable comic book characters it looked very different initially, however underneath it all is very much a similar game experience. Once again Tec Toy making the Sega Master System even cooler than it already was. Lastly the game came to the Playstation 2 as part of a Sega Ages compilation in 2007 in Japan and also the Nintendo Wii had the Master System version available to download in 2009.
Considering the Master System’s perceived sales failure thanks to North America mostly turning their noses up to it, Wonder Boy III - The Dragon’s Trap absolutely has more traction and love in Europe and South America where the system found a permanent and exceptionally profitable home for many years. Like all the truly great games it was great on release but has both continued to age well and also manage to attract entire legions of new fans from different generations. Very much one of the reasons to own a master System it’s also an essential play for PC Engine and TG-16 owners too. Ticking every box and then adding more boxes and then ticking them as well for good measure it’s nearly impossible to point to one reason why it’s a classic. It does everything right, including things you simply didn’t see in 95% of games from the period it was conceived in.
With a recent announcement and video showing the new HD Remake of the game now in development for modern consoles and Windows PC from Developer, LizardCube and publisher, DotEmu more attention has been placed to a game that absolutely should be mentioned in the same breath as Castlevania, Metroid and Zelda 2, why? Because Nintendo needed 3 separate games from two different publishers to do what Westone managed in one game. That’s how good this game is.
Buried right slap bang in the middle of the consoles commercial relevance in Europe it’s a game that oozed class and quality from the minute you picked up the box. With all the ingredients to produce a genuine Wow moment it’s classic status is undeniable and fully deserved. A hit, a sleeper hit and a hidden gem (due to the Master Systems limited exposure in North America) Wonderboy III - The Dragon’s Trap is how you make a Mascot game. It’s instantly recognizable, it’s got bags of charm and class, it reaches inside and tugs at every single possible heart string like it’s auditioning for a role in a Symphony Orchestra and it leaves you both wanting more and from that moment on with a new, and higher, bar level of excellence.
On a system geared towards bringing arcade experiences into your home and with two other popular company Mascot’s vying for attention (Sonic & Opa Opa) Wonder Boy III - The Dragon’s Trap sits in a league all of it’s own, the game that does it all, including stuff you didn’t even know you wanted, until you played it.
‘To be this good took ages, to be this good took Sega‘. ‘Do me a favour! Plug me into your Sega’ Slogans like that were created for games like this. For those who grew up with this who now have children of their own who play complex 3D games but once in a while stop to ask Mum and Dad why they still power up the 8-bit system from Sega, it’s games Like Wonder Boy - The Dragon’s Trap that then convince the new generation to dip their toes in the pool where so many of us learned to swim. These are the games that helped make us, these are the games you hope one day your grandchildren will fall in love with too.