Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap (Master System)

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.

Monster World IV (Mega Drive)

Too real, genie. Too real.

Back in February, I played through the fifth game in Westone’s Wonder Boy series: Wonder Boy in Monster World. Regrettably, I was none too impressed by that game’s flat presentation, unexceptional level design, and achingly slow combat. Among the options I presented in passing for a more satisfying action-adventure experience on the Genesis/Mega Drive was WBiMW’s Japan-exclusive sequel, Monster World IV. I’ve since acquired a lovely English-translated reproduction copy of this superior sequel, so I figure this a fine opportunity to give it the detailed treatment it deserves.

Monster World IV is the sixth and final game in the series, though it forgoes the Wonder Boy name completely, owing to its new protagonist, the green-haired Asha. A simple switch to Wonder Girl in order to maintain brand recognition seems like the obvious way to go. I suppose marketing departments work in mysterious ways.

One day, Asha hears voices on the wind fortelling doom for Monster World. Being the hero type, she promptly takes up her sword, bids her family farewell, and sets out from her remote village to help however she can. Arriving at a monster infested tower in the wilderness, she defeats its guardians and discovers a magic lamp housing a sarcastic genie who swiftly whisks her away to the bustling capital city of Rapadagna. Here the true nature of the threat to Monster World is slowly revealed.

As in previous series entries, the focus here is firmly on side-scrolling dungeon exploration and amassing the ever-larger reserves of gold needed to upgrade your hero’s arms and armor along the way. That said, I’m happy to report Monster World IV brings with it significant play control enhancements that make this process much more fun. Like Shion in the previous game, Asha can jump, climb ropes, swing her weapon, and block incoming attacks with her shield. New to this installment, she can also dash and execute upward and downward sword thrusts similar to the ones seen in Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. These additions alone result in platforming and combat that’s faster and more strategic than ever before by series standards.

If that wasn’t enough, there’s also Asha’s pepelogoo to consider. Pepe who now? Well, it turns out pet pepelogoos are are all the rage in Rapadagna. Asha encounters hers not long after arriving in the city and the two are inseparable after that. These insanely adorable rabbit/cat hybrid critters fly through the air by flapping their ears and are basically Pokémon before Pokémon was a thing. They may not look it, but they’re also the Swiss Army knife of dungeon exploration. Asha relies on hers to double jump, glide, flip switches, sniff out secret doors, act as an improvised platform, and much more.

Between Asha and her newfound friend, there’s so much to master that you’ll likely barely notice the magic system from Wonder Boy in Monster World wasn’t carried forward. Really, it’s no great loss. You still have your magic lamp to return you to town instantly when you’re low on health in a dungeon and the remainder of the offensive spells from the last game are less necessary due to you having more attack options available by default this time around.

In other good news, the dungeons in Monster World IV have been reworked with an eye toward enhancing both their length and complexity. Some of the longer ones can easily require an hour or more to complete and proper puzzles (most of which revolve around creative pepelogoo use) play a much bigger role than before. This is a dramatic improvement over the short, simple dungeons of WBiMW, which derived most of their challege simply from being packed to the gills with tough enemies and high damage traps.

Of course, I have to mention Monster World IV’s stupendous graphics. These are some of the lushest backgrounds and best-animated sprites ever to grace Sega’s 16-bit machine. This might be the most Super Nintendo looking Mega Drive game I’ve ever encountered, if that makes any sense. The use of color is so sublime that the results seem almost too vivid for the hardware. There’s even one spellbinding sequence that appears to make use of a Mode 7 type background scaling effect! I’m guessing it’s actually accomplished via sprite scaling, similar to the pseudo-3D objects in classic Sega arcade games like Space Harrier, but it still took me by surprise. Great stuff.

There’s some equally great art direction informing all this technical wizardry, too. Monster World IV makes use of a whimsical Arabian Nights fantasy setting, replete with flashing scimitars, flying carpets, and the aforementioned genie of the lamp. In this way, it recalls Culture Brain’s The Magic of Scheherazade and anticipates WayForward’s Shantae. While it’s a fairly standard hero’s journey tale at heart (albeit one with some genuinely amusing dialogue throughout and a nice twist toward the end), I appreciate the effort made to give it a unique visual identity when compared to the rest of the series.

As I’m sure you’ve gathered by now, there’s a lot to love about this one and I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent in Asha’s pointy-toed shoes. There are a few caveats worth mentioning, however. Nothing dealbreaking, at least not for me, but certainly worth being aware of up front.

For one thing, I found the music by Jin Watanabe to be a uniquely frustrating case. The quality of the audio itself is impeccable. These are some of the best sounding instruments I’ve ever heard on the console. Again, they’re practically Super Nintendo caliber. Unfortunately, all this production is wasted on some very limited compositions. The choice was made to have most of the game’s music tracks be based on variations of the main theme. I’m not against musical leitmotif as such. Used judiciously, it can link two scenes together emotionally in a manner both subtle and powerful. Look (or rather listen) no further than Quintet’s Terranigma for proof of that. Here, though, It just comes off like the composer was too rushed or indifferent to come up with more melodies. That’s a shame. It’s not bad, mind you. They just could have done so much more with this pristine FM synth quality.

On the gameplay side, Monster World IV is just about as linear and streamlined as an adventure game can get before it ceases to be an adventure game entirely and falls instead under the action-platformer umbrella. There’s only one town, Rapadagna, and it contains the entrances to all of the game’s dungeons in one central hub room. Furthermore, you must visit each of these dungeons in a proscribed sequence and each becomes permanently inaccessible after you defeat its boss. In short, there’s no sequence breaking, no side questing, and no backtracking. The only difference between this and setup and, say, Super Mario Bros. is merely that you have the option to stroll through town between stages to hit up the shops for some new equipment or see if any NPC dialogue has changed. Still, as stated in rapturous detail above, Asha’s adventure is so well-designed and executed you probably won’t mind that it takes place entirely on rails. Probably.

For my money, Monster World IV is Westone’s masterpiece. It’s far and away the high point of the series, handily surpassing even the excellent Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap. Non-Japanese gamers got the short end of the stick yet again when we were denied this one back in 1994. If you’re not a physical media die hard like me, an official English language version is available as a download for the PlayStation 3, Wii, and Xbox 360. At least it is at the time of this writing. Online game distribution being as fickle as it it, there may again come a time when the good old fan translation is the only game in town. In the grand scheme of things, that’s one of the best things about classic gaming: When the big publishers let you down, the fan community swoops in to save your butt like a true blue pepelogoo.

Wonder Boy in Monster World (Genesis)

 

I’ll never forget you, either, uh…Sherry? Shelly? Damn.

Ever since I looked into the origins of the Adventure Island series back in December, I’ve been meaning to give a Wonder Boy game a proper go. The history of Wonder Boy and its various offshoots is enough to make anyone’s head spin, but here are the basics: Both series had as their starting point the original Wonder Boy, a 1986 arcade platformer by Westone. After this first entry, the two diverged drastically. Wonder Boy’s official sequels adopted an exploration-based adventure style inspired by games like The Legend of Zelda, while Adventure Island’s mostly stuck closer to the simple run-and-jump action of the arcade original.

Complicating matters further, 1991’s Wonder Boy in Monster World is both the fifth game in its franchise overall and the third in the Monster World sub-series, which explains its ludicrous Japanese title: Wonder Boy V: Monster World III. There was also a version released for NEC’s PC Engine Duo/TurboDuo (The Dynastic Hero) and a super strange Brazilian Mega Drive edition (Monica’s Gang in the Monsters’ Land) that replaced key members of the game’s cast with licensed characters from a long-running Peanuts style comic strip. The rabbit hole is deep indeed.

Despite its convoluted release history, the game itself is actually quite straightforward and approachable. Wonder Boy in Monster World is a side-scrolling fantasy action adventure romp in which the player assumes the role of a blue-haired silent protagonist named Shion who sets out to defend Monster World from an invasion by…monsters. The bad kind, I suppose. That’s all you get in the way of story, so just grab your sword and get moving.

Monster World itself is divided up into a number of discreet regions surrounding the castle town of Purapril, which serves as a hub linking them all. There’s no zoomed-out map screen to navigate between locations like in Zelda II or the like. Rather, the entire game is one interconnected series of side-scrolling areas. There’s a forested land populated by elves and fairies, a jungle, a desert, an undersea realm, and so on. Each of the lands you visit is home to a town with the usual shops and chatty NPCs as well as a monster-filled dungeon you’ll need to fight your way through in order to further your quest. The different areas of Monster World have to be tackled in a prescribed order dictated by the designers, however, so you can’t just wander off anywhere you please from the get-go. For example, you’re not able to venture underwater without the magic trident found in the jungle dungeon and the heat of the desert will prove fatal unless you’re wearing the magic boots from the undersea dungeon. Progression is thus strictly linear, though you can backtrack and use new abilities to track down hidden treasure chests in previously unreachable corners of earlier levels. In fact, you’ll need to do this at one point before you’ll be allowed entry to the volcano dungeon.

Shion himself controls about as you’d expect. One button jumps, another swings his weapon, and a third activates any spells or items mapped to it through the pause menu. The weapons themselves come in two flavors. Swords are the better defensive option since they can be be paired with shields, while spears offer a bit more range at the cost of greater vulnerability. Movement is precise and responsive, although you may have some difficulty coming to grips with Shion’s pathetic walk speed. I honestly thought I was missing something at first when I noticed how slowly I was moving. Surely there had to be a run button or something, right? Wrong. You can eventually acquire new boots that will speed you up a little, but it never really felt like enough to me and I was annoyed by the slow pace all the way up to the end.

Once you’ve adapted to your “young man” protagonist’s crippling arthritis, the combat and light platforming which make up the bulk of the game are actually pretty decent. There’s a good variety of enemy types and patterns to reckon with and the game generally rewards patience and precision over mashing the attack button and hoping for the best. If there’s one thing I would add to the formula, it would be the ability to swing your weapon above and below you instead of just straight ahead, as engaging enemies from these angles is often a pain if you’re low on magic.

Speaking of which, your magic is mostly used to damage enemies through various means (fire, lighting, etc) without the need to get close. There are also spells to temporarily bolster your defense and weapon damage as well as a Return spell that warps you to the most recent inn you stayed at. Each spell has a set number of uses allocated to it rather than drawing from a shared pool of magic points, so you never have to worry about forgoing use of some magics just so you don’t lose access to others. I appreciate systems like this because they encourage the player to find good uses for every spell instead of just focusing on a handful of optimal ones. That said, Return in particular is a godsend because you can only save your game at inns and dying forces you to re-load your last save, erasing all progress you’ve made since. If you find yourself at death’s door deep in a dungeon, it’s always better to cut your losses and warp out than to die and forfeit any items or gold acquired since you entered.

Rounding out the gameplay are the helper characters. Most towns you visit will include one brave resident who will volunteer to accompany Shion into the local dungeon. There’s a fairy, a dwarf, a baby dragon, and more. Each is useful in their own way. The dwarf, for example, helps you locate secret passages and the dragon attacks enemies with his fire breath. These guys remind me in many ways of the familiars from Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Pity they’re just not implemented all that well here. Each is only available to use in a single dungeon and, though their abilities are nice to have, they’re in no way crucial to your success. In fact, you can complete dungeons solo with little to no extra trouble. Perhaps if it were possible to retain your stable of helpers throughout the game and switch between them at will or to have them gain new abilities over time, this could have been a real standout feature. As it is, it just feels like an afterthought which doesn’t really impact Shion’s journey all that much in the end.

Graphically, Wonder Boy in Monster World is no powerhouse. The visuals here are only a slight step up from those in the previous entry in the series, and even if Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap was one of the best looking Master System releases ever, I still expect more than this out of the 16-bit Genesis. The bright colors and cartoony character designs are certainly not without their charms, however. Even the most imposing boss monster still has a doe-eyed cute factor that’s through the roof. The music by Shinichi Sakamoto is generally pleasing without approaching greatness. I found myself enjoying the more low-key numbers like the Purapril Castle and undersea themes quite a bit. Very soothing.

Can I recommend Wonder Boy in Monster World? Not really. Nothing about it (other than maybe your hero’s sloth-like stride) comes off as outright terrible, yet not a lot stands out as exceptional, either. If you’re in the market for action-adventure games on the Genesis specifically, Beyond Oasis, Crusader of Centy, and Landstalker: The Treasures of King Nole are all better places to start your search. This game’s more exciting Mega Drive sequel, Monster World IV, is also a great option, provided you can either read Japanese or track down one of the English language re-releases for the Wii, PlayStation 3, or Xbox 360.

Sorry, Shion. You’re no wonder, boy.