The Dragon’s Trap does not come in to dethrone the kings of the Metroidvania castle; what it does, instead, is provide a satisfying glimpse into the past, revealing that it knew much better than many of its contemporaries how to use nonlinear gameplay to push action-platforming to new grounds
Originally published in 1989 for the Sega Master System under a slightly different name, Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap was – according to order of release – the fourth entry of a saga whose roots could be traced back to arcades. And, in many ways, its remake and release on the Nintendo Switch in 2017 can be seen as an attempt to reignite interest in a franchise that although certainly beloved and acclaimed, ended up not having the same luck as its contemporaries that were able to live past gaming’s early eras to find success in more modern settings. To some, the idea of reviving a property by reintroducing its fourth chapter rather than its first may seem a bit strange, but the approach begins to make a whole lot of sense when the nature of Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap is analyzed against the context of its reappearance.
Like most efforts that started out inside arcade cabinets, the franchise’s core gameplay was – despite its platforming inspirations in Super Mario Bros. – of a simplicity that clicked in short bursts. By the time it got to The Dragon’s Trap, however, its bones had grown so considerably that it reached a delightful tipping point, because its style had turned into something else entirely. Even if it still involved a good deal of wiping out enemies and jumping, the type of progression the game featured indicated some of its team had taken a good look at the original Metroid, or perhaps Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, and made a few notes on how an adventure could be constructed away from the standard level-based journey.
The Dragon’s Trap, therefore, can be neatly described as an action-platformer that unfolds like a Metroidvania. And since the Nintendo Switch as well as its competitors have proven – thanks to the efforts of a wonderful horde of indie developers – to be excellent breeding grounds for titles that fall into the genre, there was really no better choice to bring Wonder Boy back into the fray than its 1989 Master System outing. Such entrance into an overcrowded scene that has produced its own classics may look like trouble for a remake of a game that is so distant in the past, but The Dragon’s Trap winds up proving it can still hold its ground very well.
Quite boldly, and on what is a move that initially puts The Dragon’s Trap in an even more precarious position against modern juggernauts like Hollow Knight and Guacamelee, the game is not one of those remakes that executes deep alterations on what is already there. Yes, there is a slightly improved menu, a screen with instructions on how to play, the replacement of passwords with an actual save system, a few nice storytelling frames, and the choice of one among three difficulty levels when the adventure begins. But other than that, The Dragon’s Trap recreates the original experience note by note; so much, in fact, that it is possible to use passwords for saving and – at any point in the quest – players can press a button to smoothly alternate between the remade version and the Master System one, in all of its 8-bit glory.
Given that lack of abrupt change, the sole major differences between the source material and the remake are, of course, the visuals as well as the soundtrack; and on those two fronts, The Dragon’s Trap deserves the utmost praise. Its hand-drawn scenarios are not overly complex or layered, but they are simply beautiful in their vivid colors; meanwhile, its models are animated with a fluidity that although not totally comparable to Cuphead, might be one of the few instances in contemporary gaming when that parallel is acceptable. At the same time, its music, which is inspired in that of the Master System version, captures the already clear excellence of those songs made up of beeps and propels them to the stratosphere via fantastic rewrites and new arrangements.
The fidelity that The Dragon’s Trap has to the original ultimately means this is an old school game; one that comes straight from 1989 with new visuals and music. As anyone who played Metroid (which is from 1986) and Zero Mission (its 2004 remake) can attest, it took a whole lot of changes between them to make the experience of the former palatable to a new audience; and that NES effort is considered a classic. Based on that, the natural assumption would be that The Dragon’s Trap – which is rather distant from holding the same status as Metroid – is left out to die without any major overhauls. The twist, though, is that this is just not the case; far from it, actually.
It is true that The Dragon’s Trap borrows from Metroid, but the fact that it is grounded on the simplicity of action-platforming leads it to never venture into the gargantuan labyrinths that made Samus’ first adventure so seminal but at the same time much too ambitious for the system it was in. As such, the trick it tries to land is simply not as complicated. Chalking up the success of The Dragon’s Trap in its unadulterated state exclusively to tamer audacity, however, would be unfair, because no game from 1989 could stand up to the scrutiny of players more than a couple of decades in the future without the magical gaming elements of good design and creativity. And, in the end, that is what makes the title hold its ground: the great way in which its elements were put together and how smart it is in the use of Metroidvania concepts.
The Dragon’s Trap begins in quite a climatic moment, as the titular Wonder Boy makes his way through the halls of a castle to face a big mean dragon; this event links the game to the closing moments of Wonder Boy in Monster Land, which ends with the hero being sent towards that conflict. As it turns out, though, the enemy was more prepared than anticipated and soon after entering the creature’s lair, the protagonist is cursed. Kicked back to the village, players see that the human hero is now a lizard, and their goal is to guide him through the land, kill a bunch of dragons to undo the curse that was placed on him, and finally face the main villain once more.
It is a simple enough premise, but one that allows the game to implement its Metroidvania inspirations. That is because undoing the curse is not a one-step process. Rather than going straight from Lizard Man to Wonder Boy, the hero will take on a new form every time he kills a boss; and each one of those shapes will bring a different skill to the table. As Lizard Man, he will use no armor or weapon, relying on spitting fireballs instead; as Mouse Man, he will have his attack reach brutally reduced while gaining the ability to climb special walls and even walk upside down on the ceiling; as Piranha Man he will swim freely; as Lion Man he will swing his sword vertically, allowing unique blocks to be broken; and as Hawk Man he will be able to fly.
Working like a hub, the village features entrypoints to all areas that eventually lead to the dragons, including a desert, a beach, a cave, a jungle, and so on. The Dragon’s Trap, then, uses its Metroidvania inspirations to toy with players regarding where they need to go. From the start, while some of the exits will be locked behind obstacles that are impossible to overcome, a few will be wide open, and at nearly all points in the quest gamers will have more than one option to investigate. In spite of this open-ended configuration, The Dragon’s Trap is relatively linear, because the dragons can only be killed in a predetermined order that will, as a consequence, generate the same pre-established sequence of transformations. Therefore, to the satisfaction of Metroidvania lovers, old-school gamers, and others, not all trips down a certain road will lead to meaningful progress, as they may come to an end in an obstacle that needs to be left for later or in something else entirely, like a treasure chest or a shop.
In the design of the roads that lead away from the village, The Dragon’s Trap diverges from Metroidvania complexity and opts for sheer simplicity. Although a platformer in style, there is no falling into pits to one’s death, even if there are some hazards waiting for those who mess up jumps. The game opts, instead, to replace that danger with a solid barrage of respectable foes. Due to that, the mostly flat and straightforward slices of land that need to be traveled to reach the dragons feel like tricky enemy gauntlets that would be worthy of an early Mega Man game if they were – in their normal difficulty setting – slightly harder. And despite how roads tend to end in indoors temple-like structures where the mean flying lizards reside, even those enclosed locations are straightforward sequences of screens that need to be carefully navigated one by one.
It is pretty basic, but the demanding yet usually fair difficulty of those paths and the very smart placement of enemies, which creates rather tight situations, generate plenty of thrills. That design choice for simplicity is partially responsible for the old-school light that clearly shines through the game in spite of its updated visuals and music. That characteristic, however, is made even more obvious by another core gameplay detail: the fact that, if the protagonist dies before killing a dragon, he will be transported back to the village and have to start his journey to the creature from the hub, keeping only the coins he has collected and any pieces of equipment or permanent health upgrades he may have acquired.
For those who are used to the comfort of abundant checkpoints found in more contemporary games, a blow of the sort may be too much to take. But the truth is even though there is frustration in having to start back from the village, especially if death occurs when facing a boss, The Dragon’s Trap is not one of those titles from gaming’s early eras that dish out unbearably ridiculous magnitudes of punishment. For starters, the roads to the dragons are not that long, meaning that replaying them does not take a lot of time. Secondly, there is a nearly constant sense of progress in repeatedly trying to get to a dragon and beat it, as players will feel they are getting further each time or at least grasping enemy patterns a little better. Thirdly, the game’s solid level design makes the locations fun to play through over and over again. Finally, since almost all beaten foes drop some cash, there is all the gold that will accumulate.
This last item is particularly important because throughout the world of The Dragon’s Trap, gamers will encounter multiple shops – some in plain sight, some slightly hidden, and some in rather obscure placements – that will work as their main network of support. In a few of them, they can pay to be healed; in others, they can buy potions that will revive the hero in case he dies; and in the majority of those places, they will find new – and usually expensive – swords, shields, and armors. As such, although they may be fighting the same enemy at the same location for the fifth time because they simply cannot reach or beat a dragon, players can be satisfied with the knowledge that they are at least gathering gold that can make their lives easier once they stock up on potions or buy better equipment to deal with the dangers ahead.
Through these tiny smart design decisions, The Dragon’s Trap defuses the potentially brutal ramifications of its old-school progression and allows the quality of its quest – be it in design or structure – to emerge nearly untouched. And in the process, it reveals to those who did not play it back in the day that, for a game from 1989, it had a surprisingly advanced understanding of how to build an adventure that was big and challenging, yet more enjoyable than frustrating.
It is undeniable that, especially as a consequence of its choice to respect the original entirely, The Dragon’s Trap can turn some people away. The occasional need for new armor, hence more coins, to face a new area more appropriately might come off as grinding. Its lack of checkpoints is certainly not for everyone, and an option activate them would have been ideal in order to reach a wider audience. Its lack of a checklist for collectibles and chests may disappoint those looking for full completion. Its six-hour length can be seen as too short. A few details of world design could have been polished, even if that meant altering the source material. The short reach of Mouse Man’s attack can feel excessive at times. A handful of enemies are positioned in somewhat unfair or frustrating ways. And the fact switching between forms can only be done by going to a couple of specific locations or using a relatively obscure technique is too stiff of a limitation, especially considering there are a few items that can only be reached by certain forms.
By landing in the middle of a world that is absolutely packed with brilliant games that either belong to the Metroidvania genre or take inspiration from it, there is really no way The Dragon’s Trap could have measured up to the best of them. This is, after all, a remake of an 8-bit title; and one that deliberately opted to preserve the gameplay of the original in its entirety. Consequently, despite flawless visual and musical updates, its overall spirit inevitably reveals an outdated heart. But antiquated and bad are far from being synonyms, and The Dragon’s Trap pulls one incredible trick when it proves that what was great back then can still be enjoyable as long as its design was smartly done.
The Dragon’s Trap does not come in to dethrone the new kings of the castle. What it does, instead, is provide a satisfying glimpse into the genre’s past, revealing that it knew much better than many of its contemporaries how to use nonlinear gameplay to push action-platforming forward to completely new grounds. Even though it has a gorgeous new coat of paint, the experience is certainly not for everybody, because in the end this is a quest made up of failures, repetition, and backtracking. But anyone who is either willing to go through a very good and unique old-school take on the Metroidvania style or curious to learn more about the format’s early days should look no further.