The Sega Master System may have lost out to the NES in terms of pure commercial success and depth of software, but it nevertheless had its fair share of amazing games - and 1989's Wonder Boy III: The Dragon's Trap must surely rank at the top of the list. A massively influential and innovative title, it combined platform action with a non-linear structure and very slight RPG overtones, foreshadowing the "Metroidvania" sub-genre which would be popularised by the likes of Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night years later.
The Dragon's Trap is recalled with such fondness today that its popularity arguably eclipses the two subsequent 16-bit sequels, Wonder Boy in Monster World and Monster World IV. It has now been reimagined by French studio Lizardcube, a team made up of developers who unashamedly label themselves as hardcore fans of the original. The core game is identical but the visuals and audio have been comprehensively upgraded and a smattering of creature comforts have been included to bring things up to modern standards. This is a remake handled with the care and attention of true fans, and it shows.
The Dragon's Trap initially feels like a typical action platform title, with the player jumping and attacking their way through a fantasy landscape in the game's opening section, which takes place immediately after the events of its forerunner, Wonder Boy in Monster Land. Upon defeating the Mecha / Meka Dragon a curse is placed on the protagonist, turning them into the fire-breathing Lizard Man. The aim from this point on is to explore the massive, sprawling game world to track down the remaining dragons to unlock Wonder Boy's other transformations, which include Mouse Man, Piranha Man and Hawk-Man. The ultimate objective is the acquisition of the Salamander Cross, the only item which can lift the shape-shifting curse.
Defeating enemies grants coins, secondary weapons (such as arrows for hitting airborne enemies and a boomerang which can be caught once thrown) and occasionally life-replenishing items such as hearts and potions, the latter of which automatically refill your energy gauge when it is reduced to zero. Coins are used to purchase weapons, armour and shields from the various vendors dotted around the game world, and these boost your offensive and defensive capabilities. Exploration also yields extra heart containers to increase the amount of damage you can take, as well as special items which allow you to overcome certain obstacles - such as a ring which grants the power to destroy special blocks.
This "gear-gating" approach may seem like old news in 2017, but back in 1989 it felt truly revolutionary - and the fact that each transformation has special abilities which allow it to reach certain areas made the concept even more interesting. Mouse-Man can scale certain surfaces for example, while Hawk-Man has the power of flight and Piranha-Man can swim. Switching between these forms is only possible at certain locations in the game world, so while there's a lot of back-tracking involved, the way in which the various locations are stitched together makes the whole game feel like a finely-tuned puzzle - and one which has lost none of its capacity to amaze and entertain, even after all these years.
While Lizardcube has wisely kept the basics the same, the changes it has made elsewhere enhance the experience massively. The gorgeous hand-drawn visuals are a joy to behold, boasting silky-smooth and highly expressive animation as well as rich, detailed backgrounds. In many ways this facelift fills in the gaps that were a consequence of the original game running on modest 8-bit hardware; sprites which were once just a few pixels high are now stunning rendered in crisp high definition and are bursting with emotion and character, while the locations which left so much to the imagination in 1989 and often featured entirely blank backgrounds are packed with new imagery and environmental details. The same can be said for the music; Lizardcube has painstakingly recreated Shinichi Sakamoto's original soundtrack using instruments such as the violin, guitar, oboe and mandolin, and the results are utterly incredible (and lovingly documented via a series of behind-the-scenes video clips in the game's gallery mode).
Should you be such a purist that you feel the need to experience the original game without such embellishments, then fear not - with a tap of the ZR trigger you can revert to 8-bit graphics, albeit in a widescreen format running at a smooth 60fps; it's also possible to apply CRT-style scanlines for a truly authentic feel. Pushing down the right analogue stick switches on the original sound effects and music, allowing you to alternate in order to suit your own personal taste - you can play with 8-bit visuals and remastered audio, or vice versa.
Lizardcube has retained the game's password system - a throwback to the days when battery backup save data wasn't always the norm - and your original passwords will work just as they did on the 8-bit version. However, the game has an auto-save (and three save slots per user) so you don't have to search for a pen and paper every time you want to have a rest. Death removes your secondary items but allows you to retain your gear and coins, which means even when you die deep within enemy territory, you get to keep the cash you've amassed so furtive explorations aren't totally without reward. Furthermore, it's now easier to switch between your secondary weapons than it was in the 8-bit original - you simply tap either the L or R button to cycle through them.
It's amazing how well The Dragon's Trap stands up when set against modern takes on the same non-linear format; while it lacks the deep NPC interaction seen in later Wonder Boy games and doesn't have as much variety in its environments, it's a much tighter experience all-round. The biggest problem is the brevity of the challenge; while there are plenty of secrets to find dotted around Monster Land, completing the game doesn't take all that long - even a player who has no knowledge of the Master System original should comfortably finish The Dragon's Trap in around five to six hours. Once you've battled your way through the game once and acquired all of the possible gear there's little reason to do it a second time, unless of course you want to see what everything looks like in its original 8-bit form (or play as Wonder Girl, newly introduced for this remake).
It's clear that the team at Lizardcube are massive fans of the original Wonder Boy III, and that affection translates into what is without a shadow of a doubt the definitive version of a game which has previously been ported to the Game Gear and PC Engine / TurboGrafx-16. The new visuals are sumptuous and the soundtrack - which uses traditional instrumentation rather than computer-generated audio - proves just how catchy the original tunes were. Despite the passing of the years The Dragon's Trap remains a perfectly-pitched non-linear action adventure which must surely rank as one of the best of the 8-bit era. Its biggest failing is the fact that like the Master System original, it can be completed in the space of an evening. Still, that evening will be one of the most enjoyable you can possibly spend with your Switch, making this a recommended purchase regardless.