Monday 23 September 2019

Wonder Boy III: The Dragon's Trap for the Sega Master System

In the annals of video gaming, how many titles put you right at the end of the prequel game? A handful to be sure, and the only one parading the stage during our passage through games old and new is Super Metroid. Which is an interesting happenstance, because there are a number of mechanics it shares with another game picking up where its predecessor left off: Wonder Boy III: The Dragon's Trap. Published in 1989 for the Master System and subsequently appearing on the Game Gear, the PC Engine (under a different name) and getting a latter day reskin for the Switch, PS4, and XBox One in 2017, in the pantheon of Sega-sourced mascots the Wonder Boy series of games have tended to get outshone by a certain other character. Nevertheless, the broad consensus among professional reviewers of the day placed Dragon's Trap the nearest the Master System had to a Super Mario game in terms of depth, making it easily one of the best games the machine had to offer.

Not to be confused with the light arcade jaunt Wonder Boy III: Monster Lair, Dragon's Trap immediately casts you into said trap. Picking up just prior to the final boss battle in Wonder Boy in Monster Land, you find your way to the room of your nemesis, slay him and ... and ... he curses you, transforming you from a super deformed swashbuckling warrior into a dragon. You escape the castle and your quest begins to lift the curse, change you back into, well, Wonder Boy again. All the while battling to other evil dragons to liberate all the lands from their scaly grasps.

Dragon's Trap, despite its cutesy countenance is nothing of the sort when it comes to gameplay. It is a very strategic platformer where you have to think seriously about your next move. Most enemies appear fairly harmless, but a combination of funny attack patterns, occasional dodgy baddy placement, and a propensity to knock your energy bar into the middle of next week can catch you unawares. No curling up into a ball and barrelling through here. Matters aren't helped by your being relatively slow and awkward - at least at first. As you kill more enemies, accumulate more cash, upgrade your gear, and progress further into the game you get a nice treat. Following your defeat of a dragon boss, you are cursed again and assume another form. From dragon you become an anthropomorphised mouse, from a mouse a merman (or, officially, "Piranha Man"), from merman into a lion, and from a lion into a bird. Therefore, in addition to getting access to new equipment to buy you acquire new abilities that unlock different levels. The mouse can climb specially patterned walls, merman can swim up and down and around the screen, lion has good reach with the sword and can smash like Hulk, and I'm sure you'll never guess what the bird can do. As you progress deeper into the game, there are rooms that allow you to switch between different beasties to help clear whatever obstacles are thrown at you next.

This is a long game, a very long game. Don't let the YouTube playthroughs fool you. The exploration, getting to grips with each character, hunting down weapons, grinding for cash, seeing what your magic weapons can do, and working out what the hell to do next is enough to head scratch anyone into alopecia. The dozens of hours some would have sunk into trial and error, running back and forth, and beating the game through brute repetition and trying out absolutely everything doesn't bear thinking about. Dragon's Trap is certainly a game, like the best arcade adventures, that makes you work.

Is it deserving of its classic reputation though? There are some major annoyances. Tracking backwards and forwards, or proceeding through a level and reaching a boss who's nigh on impossible to defeat because you're not the right animal form is perhaps the biggest gripe. It's bad, because once you reach a certain point in the level there's no turning back and undoing your mistake. Very frustrating. It's also not immediately clear what all your special items can do - without looking at the instructions or a walkthrough, I'm still not sure what the stones you occasionally pick up for your items roster are supposed to do. The major gripe has to be the end of level bosses, though. Once you've got their patterns down most don't offer too much trouble. But the two I hated with a passion is the Pirate Dragon and the Samurai Dragon, both of whom demand pixel perfect precision to take out as well as near endless time to whittle down their energy. Nothing wrong with a strong challenge, but repeat timed buttoned presses for five to ten minutes? It's enough to test the patience of a menhir.

Its canonical status in 8-bit Sega circles then rests on standing out from the Master System crowd. Few are the games requiring thought and a significant time outlay, save a celebrated RPG or two. Especially when too many MS games at the time of Dragon's Trap's release were not terribly well programmed, were shallow, and simply weren't very good. This was like a bolt from the blue, and demonstrated the machine could provide the immersive experiences more readily found on its Nintendo competitor. How about now when games past and present are easily available, tastes have moved on, and the series itself has fallen into relative obscurity - though the remake, and its particular success on the Switch and the appearance of Monster World IV on the forthcoming MegaDrive Mini are helping drive interest. Perhaps it doesn't stand up so well. What gamers were willing to accept in the late 80s and early 90s, and what was considered hard and what was considered fair game design has shifted. Getting through Dragon's Trap can be hard work, or perhaps best thought of as a labour of love. Well worth checking out for a challenge, and for geeks wanting to see the adoption and re-embedding of Metroid-style mechanics. Readers looking for accessible retro experiences, particularly on the Master System, might be better off with Sonic or the original wonderful Wonder Boy romp - this one might prove too off-putting.

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