I'll be honest here - I continually mistake the Wonder Boy titles for Alex Kidd titles. It's probably because I grew up with the likes of Mario and these other games simply never got a look in, or, of course, it could be ignorance. I'm not going to say that's impossible.
Wonder Boy III: The Dragon's Trap isn't an Alex Kidd game, but a Wonder Boy game, which means we're playing as Tom-Tom out on his merry adventures to... cure himself of a curse (given to him by dragons) that turns him into different creatures. That's a video game plot if ever I've heard one.
But how does it play?
Oft quoted as being the greatest game for the Sega Master System, my time with The Dragon's Trap can be described as 'hellish'. Brief and hellish.
We did not get off to the best of starts. The game opens with a simple recreation of the last level from the previous game, Wonder Boy in Monster Land, with dull corridors and simple enemies to shoo away with the sharp side of your sword before stumbling into the boss fight against the Mecha Dragon.
I say stumble because the level loops if you take the wrong path,and the nondescript wooden door that leads to the Mecha Dragon was a bit stiff to open, in that I'm still not absolutely sure how I opened it.
This introductory fight to set up the story is simple as far as boss fights go, but God damn did it frustrate me. The controls are slippery and floaty and all kinds of off-putting, and with them, I could never get the timing to twat this dragon on the head right, meaning he'd deal damage, move forward and breathe fireballs, probably hit me again (because if you fail to land any attack, merely touching him will trigger a loss of damage), trap me in the corner for a short while, then return to start the cycle again.
I knew what I had to do, and it's not like I was running out of health, but I was certainly running out of patience for it - this being the introductory level remember. Whether I had something on my mind while playing or not I have no idea, but I knew that The Dragon's Trap was getting nothing from me, and probably never will.
So what am I missing out on? Unfortunately, I'm missing out on some funky music that is still on in the background as I write this up. Funky music can't save a game, though, and this is a top of the class kind of game, so we know it's got to have something going for it.
That something is the whole character changing ability, which sees you able to transform between your starting lizard form to that of a mouse, a hawk, a piranha and more, each boss fight giving you a new form for you to take, and each form introducing new ways to play the game and new challenges to work your way through.
As a mouse, for example, you can cling to the walls and ceilings. It's not quite true to what mice are capable of, but it varies the game enough for you to not just be running through a level and hitting enemies until they disappear (though that's generally what you'll be doing).
Despite my complete inability with this game, it was designed to also appeal to players who aren't quite so good with action, and so comes complete with shops and items a-plenty. I don't know what any of it does, but having a one-eyed smoking pig as a shop keeper is all I need to give Wonder Boy III high praise.
By a strict interpretation of the whole 'if I haven't played it, I can't really review it' thing, then I probably shouldn't be definitive with The Dragon's Trap. I've 'played' what amounts to an intro cinematic in modern games, and then failed anyway - and giving up is a failure, whether I could have persisted with it or not.
Watching it, it looks simple, in terms of what's on display if not the challenge. I know we're not expecting miracles in the graphics department from the Master System, but that simple look does have the potential to put people off, only for the music to bring them back. Maybe.
I just don't know. On paper, it sounds pretty good. In my hands, it was near appalling. On YouTube, I'm enjoying it, or the music at the very least. Oh, and that pig. Shame I never saw him in person. I could go back and try again, but I've been burned by the experience, it's hard to overcome that.
Hopefully, you'll have a better experience with it than I will.
FILLING YOU IN
Stop right there, thank you very much. The wonders of Twitter (and then this incredible ability of mine that I've recently discovered, known as 'reading') have lead me towards an upcoming remake of The Dragon's Trap that - at least so far as the concept art and prototype footage go - looks pretty damn cool. In fact, it looks pretty damn cool to the point of reigniting (well, just igniting, really) my desire to try Wonder Boy III again. Properly this time. Without giving up.
I don't know when I'll be able to tackle it again, but I do have some free time coming up. I'll probably try playing it whenever PlayStation VR turns my stomach inside out, so expect another update on Wonder Boy III soon. Hold me to it if you have to.
Don't expect me to blaze my way through it, but I want that terrible first impression I had to shuffle off into a part of history that we don't talk about. A place where Tony Hawk: Ride resides, for example.
We shall find the wonder in Wonder Boy III.
FILLING YOU IN SOME MORE
Here we go. For reals this time.
Like my first time with Wonder Boy III, that Mecha Dragon was an annoying sod. Knowing what you need to do but not being able to do it can be grating. Was that a lack of skill or a particularly irksome boss? I'd say a bit of both - for an introductory boss he does come at you quite a bit.
Then again, it is a retelling of the final boss fight in the previous title, so it's tricky. Either way, I eventually whittled down his health and proceeded to get cursed into becoming a dragon, who, once he escapes the castle, is left to wander a kind of open world.
On your travels, you'll see doors like this one. A door in a video game must be opened, right? Not these bloody doors - this one acts as a 'no, actually, I want to go back' short cut door, resulting in backwards progress and having to get to wherever it is you were heading all over again.
Initially, everything looks straight forward. Enemies pose different threats and the movement is a little too slippery and sluggish for my liking. Takes a bit of time to get the hang of, but it's not all bad.
In most other games, falling into water results in a loss of life and a restart. Here, you just end up getting chased by fish and octopuses/octopi/octopodes/fleshy ink sacks until you find the door back to the surface, and you can collect gold and health along the way, which will be useful to you throughout your travels.
Not that I got too far...
After getting corner-trapped by a crab (no, really, that sucker cost me a revive potion), I was left to run through the stage on the tiniest amount of health which could mean only one thing - I was going to see my demise aaaany second now. Sure enough, it came after a mistimed jump into, rather than over, an enemy. The Dragon's Trap had claimed another soul.
I'm still at odds over the way it feels, but in the end, it's like getting used to one version of Mario when you are so used to the feel of another version of Mario. It takes time to adapt, of course it does, and I gave Wonder Boy III more time here than I did at first - time that it deserved because I like it.
I'm not good at it, but I like it.
That music, though. Gah, love that.
Though it was made in Japan and heavily influenced by other Japanese titles, The Dragon's Trap wasn't released there until it was ported to the PC Engine in 1991.
Wonder Boy III: The Dragon's Trap, developed by Westone, first released in 1989.
Version 'played': Sega Master System, 1989, via emulation.
Version watched: Sega Master System, 1989 (World of Longplays)