I’ve had quite the run of pure action games lately. Think I’ll pump the brakes over the few weeks with some more thoughtful adventure and RPG fare. First up is one of the Master System’s most acclaimed titles, Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap.
This 1989 Westone production is a direct sequel to 1987’s Wonder Boy in Monster Land. In the event you weren’t already aware of this, the game is keen to remind you. It commences with a playable prologue in which you reenact the climax of Monster Land. As Tom-Tom the Wonder Boy, you once again storm the castle of the MEKA Dragon and slay the beast. This time, however, it manages to curse you upon its death, transforming you into a lowly Lizard-Man and simultaneously stripping away all your cool equipment and health upgrades. In other words, it’s back to square one as you’re forced to scour the land rebuilding your power and hunting for the legendary Salamander Cross, the sole artifact capable of restoring your human form.
Dragon’s Trap would hardly be a true Wonder Boy game without a convoluted release history. It made it to the TurboGrafx-16 in 1990 as Dragon’s Curse, the PC Engine in 1991 as Adventure Island (not to be confused with the Hudson Soft series of the same name that was itself a Wonder Boy spin-off), the handheld Game Gear in 1992, and the Brazilian Master System in 1993 as the comic-licensed Turma da Mônica em o Resgate (“Monica’s Gang in the Rescue”). Most recently, a 2017 remake for multiple platforms was widely praised for modernizing the art and music without altering the classic gameplay.
I chose the Master System original as my introduction because I’m the kind of guy who likes to go right to the source when possible. If you do the same, take my advice and keep a second controller plugged in and close by. One of the Master System’s most unfortunate hardware limitations is a pause button situated on the main unit rather than the controller. Thankfully, Dragon’s Trap includes a workaround for this: You can use controller two to access the in-game menu instead of having to get up and walk across the room every time. Why this godsend of a workaround goes undocumented by the game’s official manual is anyone’s guess.
Anyway, after vanquishing the MEKA Dragon, the newly-cursed Wonder Boy is free to start his odyssey in earnest. This entails venturing off from a central hub town in order to locate the game’s five main dungeons and defeat the five boss dragons who make their homes therein. It’s side-scrolling exporatory platforming in the usual Metroid mold. As in most such games, the journey isn’t 100% non-linear. Some areas of the world can only be reached using specific special movement abilities gained in other areas. No matter how good a player you are, you can’t just march to the final dragon’s castle and retrieve the Salamander Cross first thing.
What makes Dragon’s Trap stand out some is the way its central dilemma, the shape-changing curse affecting Wonder Boy, doubles as character progression. The hero gains most of his new abilities not from equipment found or purchased, but from unlocking new monster forms. The starting Lizard-Man has a ranged fire breath attack. After you defeat the next boss dragon in the sequence, you become the tiny Mouse-Man and can now cling to certain walls and ceilings. Next comes underwater specialist Piranha-Man, followed by master swordsman Lion-Man, and finally aerial ace Hawk-Man. Early on, you’ll be stuck in whichever form you happen to have been cursed with most recently. Later, you’ll discover specific rooms where you can swap between them as needed.
This isn’t to say there’s any shortage of equipment to acquire, only that most of it provides basic boosts to Wonder Boy’s attack and defense stats rather than wholly new abilities. Interestingly, the game also implements a third stat called charm, which exists as a safeguard to prevent you from simply grinding out a ton of gold up front and buying all the best gear straightway. Charm is based primarily on your current items equipped and merchants won’t sell you their best stuff if it isn’t high enough. It essentially means you’re forced to go through several intermediate grades of weapon and armor before you can invest in the top of the line.
The action in Dragon’s Trap will feel familiar to anyone who’s played its predecessor or its Genesis sequel, Wonder Boy in Monster World. Walking has a slightly slippery “ice level” feel to it at all times and combat consists primary of short range short thrusts supplemented by a handful of limited use spells. This combination of loose movement and precise attack timing definitely qualifies as an acquired taste. While healing potions and extra heart containers help, the last few dungeons are still brutal. I actually found the final third of this one tougher than the dreaded Zelda II, mostly due to the lack of extra lives. One death in a dungeon is all it takes to ship you all the way back to town.
Although it nails most of the adventure fundamentals admirably, there are a handful of areas where Dragon’s Trap isn’t as fleshed out as it could be. Underwater terrain is uncommon, so Piranha-Man doesn’t enjoy the same prominence as the other animal forms. While I’m on the subject, Lion-Man’s gimmick (an improved sword attack) also feels like a missed opportunity. He is a lion, after all. Were fangs, claws, roaring, and pouncing not inspiration enough? Lastly, a wider selection of friendly NPCs would have gone a long way toward making this iteration of the Monster Land/World setting feel more lived in. Apart from the cute nurse at the hospital, everyone else you encounter is either an enemy or a cigarette smoking pig that runs a weapon shop.
Provided you’re up for a challenge and can learn to love its finicky combat, Dragon’s Trap will delight. The shapeshifting mechanics are genuinely clever, as is the level design, and it features some of the best graphics and sound on the system. I’ve played a couple other Master System games in the genre (Golden Axe Warrior, Golvellius) and this is far and away the best of the three. It’s close to being the best of its series, too, only being edged out by the phenomenal Monster World IV. If you’ve been searching for a Master System fantasy quest on par with the best the NES has to offer, look no further. This here’s the real deal, and I ain’t lion, man.
Oof. That last one was bad even for me.