Wooonderboooooy, what is the secret of your power? Apparently it’s getting transformed by a magical ball of blue flame!
We all know this has been out for a while (since April 2017) on PC/PS4/Switch/Xbox1/Linux/Mac but it’s only just recently had a physical release (13th Feb 2018). With all that said. Is now the time to dive in?
If you’ve ever played a Nes/MasterSystem action platformer in your life you’ll know exactly what to expect from Wonder Boy. A high level of difficulty even on the lowest setting, amazingly quirky ideas, some obtuse gameplay and a metroidvania aspect of powering up and unlocking new areas as you go. This is the sort of description that has me rolling my eyes and moving on but Wonderboy is so well made and visually stunning that it excuses a lot of the original games failings, despite this being built on top of it.
The unique feature on show here is the ability to switch between the new luscious artwork and the original games Master System’s graphics on the fly. Simply tapping R2 pan wipes the screen and your either baffled by strange obtuse layouts or stunned by some of the greatest gameplay animation you’ve ever seen. The same with the audio, clicking in R3 switches the audio to the original in an instant. Neither loops or redraws it simply continues as if the original game had been running all along and vice versa. At first you’ll click this a few times out of curiosity but as with the Lucasarts remasters you’ll eventually find yourself clicking between the styles just to see the huge difference and high level of craftsmanship at work. Lizardcube have turned an old cult classic of a title into a new treasure that given its accessibility, can be enjoyed by all.
There are plenty of moments where the game becomes ‘Nes hard’ and the difficulty curve is pretty sharp at the start even on the easy setting. Area bosses will bounce you around even after only being hit by a projectile once, the powered up weapons simply say “special effect” and do not directly tell you what they do, there is no sign posting other than “you don’t have the power to access this area” in some regions of the game and a Game Over that sends you back to the starting village without your items (although thankfully money does stay with you). All of these issues and yet, when playing they all seem to fade away. It feels like watching a Studio Ghibli-esque film where you forget about a plot hole and can’t help but smile and enjoy the visual masterpiece before you.
The controls make or break a game like this and thankfully in this case they are tight and responsive. Given how your moving and jumping some ridiculously precise jumps to gain new extras, you’ll find yourself getting to grips with the controls quickly out of necessity. You have either your sword or flame breath (depending on which form you’ve been forced into) to attack monsters with, to reap the rewards of a little gold or a disposable item. These can be as useful as the upwards arrow, allowing you to shoot annoying flying monsters or fairly trivial items such as the fireball projectile, which just meander a bit in front of you for minimal damage. At first the attacks do feel a little delayed but once you get to grips with the timing it feels fine. The attacks and slight changes in your character when they are transformed do tend to throw occasional curve balls (especially as Mouse-man) but once you start adapting and playing the game more like Megaman everything sort of clicks into place.
All of the niggles aside this is the best looking 2D platforming game I’ve ever seen. Released the same year as Cuphead, it did beat them to the punch launch-wise for amazingly artistic 2D video game but didn’t garner the same attention. Both games do aim for a different art style and not to side track too much but both achieve what they were aiming for. Wonder Boy was likely passed as niche due to its base game being a MasterSystem game from 1989. There’s a good reason this late to the party review is picture heavy and I find myself wanting to play more of it. Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap looks even better than these screenshots when in motion.
Wonder Boy is a huge game in scale and scope yet there is a surprisingly large amount of backtracking involved. In typical metroidvania style you will find yourself retracing your steps to find new paths with powers you’ve now unlocked. This does cause a fair amount of aimless exploring to find the next area though and after your third return to the village just to progress to the next boss this back and forth-ing does feel stretched. It’s at moments like this you’ll find yourself switching between new and retro music/graphics to keep yourself from being bored from the trip. This actually works surprisingly well and collecting the extra coins on route helps towards a need to collect all weapons and armour regardless. Collecting hearts makes the game a lot more enjoyable to and you’ll find yourself hunting for those and feeling genuinely rewarded when you do successfully find one of those truffles.
You’ll likely find yourself as I did, simply wanting to grind some areas for cash to purchase more powerful armour and weaponry just so that you can survive harder encounters. Monsters have a simple colour code system to help you identify when to run and when to tackle them but if 1 to 2 hits isn’t doing it, chances are you shouldn’t be there. Wonder Boy is chock full of items that cost obscene amounts but thankfully little quirks like hidden chests re-spawning due to bugs from the original game which have been left there to help the player (nothing game breaking mind) result in this experience becoming more of a plan and less of a slog. It becomes an almost Dark Souls like experience of improving your equipment and then venturing further with some areas clearly gated off by powerful monsters that will make short work of your health and lives until your strong enough to make them regret walking in your direction.
Typically I’m not a fan of metroidvania games. Nor does the idea of playing a cult classic Master System title that looks rough and super difficult sound like my cup of tea. Yet I found Wonder Boy strangely endearing. Before I knew what was happening I would find myself happily exploring the levels, humming the music, switching to retro in each area to see the drastic difference in visual design and getting a similar feeling I had when playing Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse. If you fancy something visually amazing but with the gameplay to back it up then I highly recommend you pick this up (a physical version will also net you the artwork on the case as its bloody lovely). A sense of wonderment that largely covered over the cracks in the game and left me wondering if I had missed some other secret area. A monstrous game given a modernisation that was never a trap at all.