The first Wonder Boy game created strictly for consoles, Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap focuses on solid action-adventuring, and the result stands right next to Phantasy Star as one of the best games on the Sega Master System.
In a move that perhaps inspired the intro to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Wonder Boy III actually begins at the end of Wonder Boy in Monster Land, as you traipse through the castle (thankfully simplified from the original maze) and fight the final boss, the Meka Dragon. Unfortunately, as you deal the killing blow, the monster curses you, turning you into a dragon humanoid. Once you escape the collapsing castle you must venture through the land to find the Salamander Cross, the only item that can rid you of this curse.
While you begin the game as Lizard Man, you will change forms every time you kill a boss. At the beginning you’re stuck in your current form, but as you progress you can find special rooms that let you transform at will. Each form has different skills and attributes.
Lizard Man is the initial form, and is actually quite powerful. Rather than wielding a sword, you shoot out fireballs (though you still equip swords for attack power boosts). Though this form lacks a shield, you can use said fireballs to block projectiles. You can also swim harmlessly through lava without the use of the Dragon Armor. He is also the only form that can duck.
Mouse Man is difficult to use because his sword is so tiny. However, he can fit through small openings and climb on checkerboard bricks. Meanwhile, Piranha Man lets you swim – being underwater in most other forms just slows you down.
Lion/Tiger Man (the form depends on the version of the game) is the most physically powerful. He swings his sword at an arc, allowing you to attack above and below. He can also break bricks without equipping the Thunder Saber sword. Finally, as expected, Hawk Man can fly. However, he is the most physically fragile, and is actually damaged by water.
Several different dragons must be killed throughout your adventure, each with some sort of theme: the Egyptian stage has a mummy dragon, the jungle stage has a zombie dragon, the underwater pirate ship level has a pirate dragon, the Japanese level has a samurai dragon and so forth.
Wonder Boy III ditches the level-by-level structure in favor of a more open world you can freely explore. The hub is a single central town, which splinters off in multiple directions. Much like Metroid, good chunks are off limits until you gain the proper animal form to reach them. While the route through the game is pretty explicit – you won’t get lost for too long – you can explore at your leisure, revisiting areas with new skills to find hidden heart containers and extra equipment. The world structure though is largely nonsensical. If you fall down the well, you’ll somehow end up on a tropical beach, while if you fly into the sky, you’ll find the game’s equivalent to Egypt. It’s one of those “video gamey“ aspects that lends it a surreal nature. Magic works in much the same way as in Monster Land, with fallen monsters randomly dropping limited use items, though now you can select them from the pause screen, and they’re cast by holding down and jump.
Most of the annoying bits from Monster Land have been dealt with: the timer is gone, as is the score, and you can now save your progress with passwords. However, some of the new RPG mechanics don’t quite work. The biggest issue has to do with your Charm Points, or CP. This is basically the equivalent of the Charisma stat in tabletop RPGs, and determines what items the shopkeepers will sell you. However, you’re never told what the requirements are – if your CP is too low, potential items are simply shown as inaccessible question marks.
Your CP is determined by your equipment, your current form, and by rare items called charm stones. The logic behind this is probably that a shopkeeper wouldn’t want to sell anything to a grotesque fish/man thing with ugly armor, but would be more willing to part with their goods to something more adorable with fancier goods.
You can sort of cheat the game to find these, but it’s still needless grinding. The game doesn’t keep track of opened treasure chests, so you can find a hidden cache, get a password, reset and hunt down the same chest, repeating this until you’re powered up.
The only other major issue is with the rather straightforward level design. Many stages are just long, linear paths and repeated environments, albeit with enemy variations. Dying on a boss battle and having to repeat the same endless corridors quickly grows tedious. And later levels are hectic, as the game tosses tons of bad guys on the screen.
Projectiles inflict a huge amount of damage regardless of your defensive stats, so learning to block them is essential for survival, but there are many times where dealing with it all at once is practically impossible without taking some damage. The post-damage invincibility period is implemented like in the arcade version of Monster Land, thankfully, so you can absorb multiple attacks while only taking a single hit’s worth of damage.
Still, outside of these issues, Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap is an utterly brilliant game. The graphics are substantially improved over even the arcade version of Monster Land, taking a cue from the cutesy goofiness found in Monster Lair. The characters are large, distinctive, and strangely adorable, the monsters actually seem to have personality, while the locales are colorful and lively. The music is also completely fantastic, even if some themes (particularly the main dungeon song) get repeated too often. It’s one of the crowning jewels of the Sega Master System for a reason.
The Master System version of the game was not released in Japan, remaining a North American and European exclusive. Instead, the first version to reach Japan was Hudson’s PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16 release, known (confusingly) as Adventure Island in Japan and Dragon’s Curse in North America. In any case, it’s largely identical to the Master System release.
What little text there is differs quite a bit from the SMS version (the opening warns you of bad guys that can turn you into a “totally disgusting creature“) and some of the character sprites have been changed. The human form has blond hair, like the previous games, instead of green hair like the Sega version’s hero. The Lizard Man form looks different, and the lion has been changed into a tiger. The frame rate is also smoother. Otherwise, the improvements are minor. If you have a Turbo Booster or CD-ROM system, you can also save your game, although the password system is still available.
In Japan, Sega released the game in 1992 for the Game Gear under the name Monster World II: Dragon no Wana. It’s mostly the same as the Master System version, through since the view is zoomed in to make up for the smaller resolution, many of the areas have been slightly redesigned, and some of the larger rooms have simply been removed. You can also transport back to the hub town by using charm stones. In general the game is slightly easier too. There’s also a new, much cooler, title screen and a new song to go with it.
Wonder Boy in Monster Land was filled with weird looking shopkeepers, but the wackiest one is the password guy from The Dragon’s Trap. It’s not clear why he is also in charge of the church, but obviously the religious folk in Monster Land have no problem with a purple chain smoking pirate pig running their establishments. Also note how the cigarette and the crosses of the church shows Sega’s apathetic nature towards censorship, compared to Nintendo’s fervent policies of protecting American youths during the olden days. Unfortunately, he was taken out of the Game Gear version, replaced by more normal looking humans.
The Master System version also has an item called the Hades Armor, which revives you to full health when you die. It’s supposed to be a consumable item, but due to a glitch, it’s possible to keep it after regeneration, thereby making you immortal. This “feature” was removed from the other versions.
Though Wonder Boy III was strangely omitted from the Monster World Vintage Collection, it was completely remade in 2017, developed by a French team called Lizardcube, who had previously worked on the DS cult classic Soul Bubbles. Rather than being a mere emulation or port, it’s a complete remake, featuring entirely new HD graphics and revamped music. The project came about when Omar Cornut, developer of the MEKA Master System / Game Gear emulator, began hacking the ROM of Wonder Boy III to look for hidden elements, and then decided to use that experience to try to replicate the game as closely as possible. It was released on the PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch and computer platforms.
The visuals are absolutely gorgeous. Just stunning. They’re 2D hand drawn illustrations, rendered in high definition, with the sprite work having a distinct art style from the original but still keeping within the spirit of the Monster World series. The backgrounds are just as breathtaking, with many areas given complete overhauls to make them look less generic. It also lets you choose to play as the pink haired Wonder Girl, even though, as before, you only really get to control her in the intro (and the main game with a code).
All of the music has been redone with live instruments, with many of the lairs given their unique arrangements. You can switch between the retro graphics, music, and sound effects with a single button press, allowing you to compare the new and old school styles (including both PSG and FM synth soundtracks too). There’s even a new 8-bit style sprite for Wonder Girl.
Most of the physics and level designs are mostly identical, though there are occasionally some extra signposts to indicate where hidden doors might be. There are some minor tweaks though, as well as some balancing for the various difficulty settings. For example, the Tasmanian Sword had a secret ability to switch forms at any time, originally done with the second controller, but the command was changed to be done with a single controller. The Thunder Saber has been changed to a Thunder Ring, so every weapon will break stones and you don’t need to switch back and forth between swords. Getting Mouse Man to latch onto checkered blocks is a little easier.
The charm stone system has been replaced too – you can buy almost any piece of equipment as long as you have enough gold, and enemies don’t drop charm stones anyway. Instead, there are a handful of completely new, rather challenging areas, which will grant a charm stone when completed. Gain all of them and you’ll be able to purchase a new, extremely powerful weapon.
This is easily one of the best retro remakes ever created. It looks amazing, it sounds amazing, and it was obvious that it was created by people who loved the original – the staff roll has photos of all of the development staff (both the remake and the original), and while the game automatically records your progress, it will still understand all of the passwords from the SMS/GG release. That’s devotion.