Picture eight-year-old me in 1990. I'm at my cousin's house, crowded around his family's wood-panelled TV set with a bunch of other kids. He's just got a Sega Master System for his birthday and I am staring enchanted at the bright colours on the screen, waiting with wild anticipation for my turn. We're playing Wonder Boy III: The Dragon's Trap, and this is my first video game.
I am terrible at the game. I have to keep looking down at my hands to figure out which of the two buttons I should be pressing, and whenever my character is in any sort of danger I swing the controller around erratically in a vain effort to make him move more quickly. Some other kid has beaten the first stage and I am flailing around in an Egypt-themed area. The visuals pop with vivid purples, yellows and greens, and the music is instantly hummable and probably drove my parents slightly mad as I repeated the melody in the car ride home. In the middle of the screen my bright green lizard-man character edges forward uneasily and is killed by a fire-breathing sunflower. I am spellbound.
Little did I know in those innocent days that my first brush with the 8-bit Master System was with one of the console's finest games, an action-platformer that has since established a cult following big enough to inspire a lavish remake 28 years later. Wonder Boy: The Dragon's Trap drops the Roman numerals of the original, but in nearly every other way is a faithful and reverent update that still manages to drag the game squarely into the current decade.
For those not in the know, The Dragon's Trap starts with our hero Wonder Boy (or Girl in this new version) at the peak of his powers, rampaging through a castle in order to slay the Meka-Dragon. With the dragon's dying breath, however, the titular trap is sprung and Wonder Boy is transformed into a half-lizard, half-man thing and brought crashing back down to earth. In order to break the curse, he must find and slay five more dragons, each one changing him into some other animal-human hybrid with a unique power. Different areas are accessed from a central hub town, and each animal form allows you to go somewhere you couldn't before, making the game just as much about exploration as it is about hitting things with your sword.
The biggest changes to have taken place in this new version are obvious: Wonder Boy now looks and sounds absolutely gorgeous thanks to studio Lizardcube's total graphical and soundtrack overhauls. The game's visuals are stunning, with smoothly animated sprites hand-illustrated in a Franco-Belgian cartoon style, and backdrops that wouldn't feel out of place in a Studio Ghibli movie. Yet for all its flourish, each enemy is immediately recognisable from the original, and the backgrounds feel like a natural extension of what existed before. It really does look and feel like something the original developers might have come up with had they had the technological means.
The music has been revamped as well, with composer Michael Geyre taking Shinichi Sakamoto's highly memorable chiptune score and fleshing it out in inventive ways. The lush, fully orchestrated tracks that make up the new version – while not the immediate sugar-rush of the chirping 8-bit original – are more sophisticated, less repetitive, and respectfully done.
And in a completely genius move, Lizardcube has actually included the game's original graphics and soundtrack as well, which can be switched to on the fly with the push of a button. I took advantage of this feature frequently, at first switching to retro style for long stretches for the full-blown nostalgia hit, and later momentarily tapping back and forth just to compare the old and new versions. It's testament to the quality of the remaster that I eventually settled almost exclusively on the new style. It just looks and sounds that good.
Gameplay-wise, a few subtle tweaks to the original formula make a world of difference. Having more than two buttons on a controller allows for items to be accessed in a much more functional way, and being able to call up a menu to switch gear and check supplies is a welcome change from having to crawl over to the Master System to push the pause button on the console itself (a design choice that thankfully died with that generation).
Charm points have also been revisited: where once charm stones would drop randomly from enemies or in treasure chests making for a tedious grind to find enough to get the best gear, now there are a fixed number of stones that can be won by completing six brand new challenge rooms – one for each transformation. The areas are well integrated into the old game – so much so that when I found my first one, I seriously questioned whether I'd just missed the location all those years ago.
In terms of what hasn't changed, Wonder Boy's simple but satisfying combat remains fully intact. Enemies still attack in easily-readable patterns, with higher levelled versions boasting trickier attacks. Boss dragons are still relentless, projectile-hurling beasts, each requiring a little bit of work to figure out and a lot of timing to defeat.
Best of all, our hero is still a joy to control, running, turning and jumping with a solid sense of momentum, and attacking with a chunky forward thrust of the sword. There's a rhythm to navigating Monster World – run, slide, attack, pause to catch a dropped coin, repeat – that took me right back to being that kid hunched in front of his cousin's big old CRT TV.
So how do I score this game, one that I believe stands on its own as a great action platformer, but which is inextricably tied to my childhood and my gaming coming-of-age? It's impossible not to look at this title with rose-tinted glasses, even if its presentation undoubtedly brings it in line with that of the best 2D games of the present. Do I score it with its place in history in mind, or try to judge it solely by how it stacks up to its modern counterparts? I don't know the answer to any of that, so I just have to go with my gut.
I love this game, I've replayed it periodically over the decades, and I intend to keep doing it in years to come. This new version is the best Wonder Boy has ever been, and I wouldn't be surprised if I'm still firing it up in the retirement home.