Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap

I love making my readers feel old. There’s something satisfying on a primal level about sending them to their bathrooms to cry and check their hairlines when I mention things like how I was only ten-years-old when the Sega Dreamcast released in North America. In that spirit, here’s me reviewing a remake of Wonder Boy III, a game which released for the Sega Master System in July, 1989. Do you know what else released in July of 1989?

Me.

Into the world.

From my mother’s vagina.

Yep, you’re old. I’m not. Suck it.

Of course, it’s kind of bizarre that I’m reviewing a game that was, at the time of its original release, clearly not an indie. It was a major tent-pole console exclusive. Sega’s answer to Super Mario 3. Not only am I reviewing it, but I’m counting it as an indie game. For my new readers, I have a rule: for the rare non-indies that I cover here (South Park: Stick of Truth, The Simpsons Arcade Game, or Peggle 2 among others), win or lose, I don’t count them towards the IGC Leaderboard’s percentile rankings. Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap will count, and spoiler alert, I’m giving it my Seal of Approval. But wait, you say: how can a major first-party game (it was published by Sega for the Master System) that was their best weapon in their war against Nintendo before the Genesis possibly be an indie today?

I’ve been doing Indie Gamer Chick for six years. I’ve reviewed over 550 games. I was, and probably still am, the defacto face of an entire indie gaming platform (rest in peace, XBLIG). If anyone would know what exactly makes a game “indie” or not, it would be me. But the truth is, I would have an easier time defining the meaning of life than defining an indie. (By the way, the meaning of life is that cream cheese mixed with powdered sugar makes a delicious frosting. Everything else is meaningless.) At one point, the gang at Zen Studios protested that I denied their Chick-Approved genre-smörgåsbord Castlestorm a spot on the Leaderboard on the basis that they made video-pinball games using the Star Wars IP. Star Wars clearly is not and never would be considered an indie game, and I felt at the time any studio big enough or reputable enough to be selected to develop for that license shouldn’t be considered for indie status. Zen Studios challenged that and convinced me otherwise. So while their work with the Star Wars IP wouldn’t qualify, Castlestorm certainly did.

I often complain about action-adventure indies that forget to make the hero “blink” long enough after taking damage. That’s not an issue with Wonder Boy. Actually, it goes to the other extreme: sometimes you blink so long it could take as long as a minute before you stop being juggled by enemies and regain the ability to, you know, move and fight back. But at least you’re not taking damage during that shit. This is the final boss, and I spent more time recoiling from damage during it than actually fighting it. Look closely to the right of it and you can see me stun-locked.

Which brings us to Wonder Boy III’s remake. The new one, not the old one. Uh, yea, in case you didn’t know, it’s already been remade once. Because of ambiguous rights issues that practically require a flow-chart (the original Wonder Boy was remade as Adventure Island for the NES and THAT spawned a completely different series, making it the Power Rangers of video games), Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap was released a year after the SMS version on the Turbo Grafx 16 (PC Engine in Japan) under the name “Dragon’s Curse.” This is the version I bought on Wii Virtual Console in 2007, so I was already familiar with it. And I quite liked it back then. I mean, the controls were so slippery that it felt like someone had buttered the floor, and this was also around the time my epilepsy developed and I had to look away from the screen quite a bit. But still, really nice game. As someone who grew up in the PlayStation era, it was one of my favorite lost classics the Virtual Console allowed me to rediscover.

This remake is actually reverse-engineered from the SMS original. So, yea, it’s a $20 ROM hack. Only there’s never been a ROM hack like this. The guys at Lizardcube painted absolutely gorgeous facades over the original graphics. While I’m fairly sure that all the original collision boxes were retained, the effort is so admirable and so striking that you have to tip your hat to them. You can switch back and forth between the original graphics and the 2017 remake on the fly, and sometimes I found myself doing it just so I could be gobsmacked by how much work they put into it. Here’s what the game looked like in 1989.

And here’s the exact same shot, only with the 2017 graphics.

Wow.

Of course, being a ROM hack that aspires to faithfully recreate the original means all the warts are along for the ride. Wonder Boy has terrible platforming controls. Floaty, loose, laggy at times. The weird thing is, the developers did fix a few things, including the most obvious flaw. In the original game, you needed to acquire and equip a sword to break some of the stone blocks. Pausing the game to equip this killed the pace and was just tedious busy-work, especially when you acquire a sword that lets you create breakable blocks that you then have to switch back-and-forth with. Even for its time, it’s such an obviously stupid design choice that it’s astonishing it took nearly thirty years for someone to fix it. In the remake, they’ve eliminated the block-busting sword. Instead, the stone breaking thingy is a charm that, once you have it, is always equipped regardless of what sword you’re using. But besides adjustable difficulty (very welcome since the bad controls made the original a maddening experience), the block-breaking issue is the only major fix. It’s like a dermatologist saying “well, you’ve got a lot of moles, but we’re only going to remove the one on your nose. Because it’s cancerous. And also, we’re going to need you to pay in cash from now on.”

I can’t really blame the developers on some of the more glaring issues with the original. But, because they clearly recognized that some aspects of the game hadn’t aged gracefully, I can’t give them a pass on them either. While the concept of switching between different animal forms was, and still is, inspired, Wonder Boy III didn’t use the idea to its fullest. The level design varies from decent to atrocious. Each animal-form is acquired by completing a dungeon. The mouse’s dungeon is repeating a series of identical zig-zag rooms on the left side of a giant pyramid, then dropping to the bottom of it and doing a repeating series of identical zig-zag rooms from the right side of a giant pyramid. Click the link. See that? Repeat that six trillion times, or at least it feels that long. Only the enemies might change, but otherwise it’s exhausting in its dullness. But that’s not even the worst level! The lion’s stage is series of flat rooms without platforms or puzzles or anything but ninjas (random). It’s incredibly lazy and uninspired. It feels like the original developers just gave up or lost their will, or surrendered to writer’s block. I don’t know the story on it, but Wonder Boy III came out after Super Mario 2, a milestone title in the realm of level design. Even for its time, these stages are the rice cake of game design: better than tofu and edible, but certain to leave you wanting something more. It’s a stripped-down Metroidvania, and it shows its age.

The lion’s animal power is being able to swing its sword in a top-to-bottom slashing motion, allowing you to break blocks above you. So the lion’s power is awareness that “up” is a thing.

Still, there’s a lot of fun to be had in Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap. Grinding up money is fun (assuming you don’t outright cheat the game by opening a treasure chest in the town, returning to the title screen and going back to the now full-again chest, which I, ahem, most certainly would not do, cough), the different animals are a blast, and the variety of weapons is nifty. I just wish instead of doing an artistic upgrade, they had just remade the whole game with new levels and new dungeons. In fact, LizardStation did add new dungeons called “The Unknown”, but they’re hidden and I didn’t find any in the three hours it took me to finish. I only discovered them because the final one unlocks after the credits and features you playing as the human Wonder Boy (or, optionally, Wonder Girl, which changes nothing but allows the game to be listed under the “female protagonist” tag on Steam, a tag which in no way feels like it’s mostly used as a cynical way of monetizing political correctness and equality. No sir or ma’am) and shows you where’s it’s located. There’s one of these new “Unknown” dungeons for each animal form, but I didn’t know they even existed when I played through it, let alone where they were hidden at. I tried to play the Human dungeon but literally the first screen was so poorly designed, requiring precision movement from a game infamous for shitty controls that I immediately lost interest in trying more. It felt like one of those, well, ROM-hacks.

When I first started playing it, I told Indie Gamer Team that this felt like a fan project that got noticed by the IP holders and made legitimate. As it turns out, that’s what 2017’s remake of Wonder Boy III actually is. That’s really cool. When we think of the nature of what makes something indie or not, something like The Dragon’s Trap doesn’t make things easier for us. It’s a fascinating anomaly that both suits and defies nearly every label. A former marquee console headliner that went on to become one of the most unsung indie gems three decades later. Just, weird. While I liked it, and I would love to see more remakes along these lines, I would have preferred Lizardbox fix the control issues and the stuff that actually matters to gameplay over painting over the problems, even though they were very good at painting. It would be like buying a 2017 Porsche 911 that has the option to transform instantly into the original 1964 Porsche 911. That would be fucking sweet, right? But what if it turned out the car’s specs, no matter which version of the Porsche it looked like, were the 1964 model’s, with the only modern concession being a CD player instead of a radio? I’m not sure that’s something most people would want. Hell, maybe not even fans of the original would want it. It’s why I have to give the nod to DuckTales Remastered as the better remake. It remembered that it had a chance to right every wrong, not just the really obvious stuff. Whereas DuckTales was a trip down memory lane for retro gamers but still modern and slick (granted over-produced to the point of annoyance), I don’t think Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap 2017 will be that for gamers of all ages. I showed it to my Godfather’s 10-year-old grandson C.J. and it didn’t hold his attention. His father said “it would have probably made a good rental from the video store back in the day.”

Then C.J. asked “what’s a video store?”

What’s a video store? Why you little twerp, a video store is a place that people used to go to..

OH GOD, IT’S HAPPENING TO ME TOO NOW!

Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap was developed by Lizardcube
Point of Sale: Steam, PS4, Xbox One, Switch

$19.99 just won a $100 bet that she could work in the phrase “from my mother’s vagina” seamlessly into a review in the making of this review. Pay up, Dad!

Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap is Chick-Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard. Debate if should be eligible in the comments.

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Cuphead

♪♪ Well Cuphead released to Indieland,

And gaming fans thought it was nice,

They figured no one would bad review it, and they turned to Cathy Vice,

CAAAATHY VICE!

Aaaaand now her hands ache, like stabbed by knives

And her timeline fills her with dread

If her review should proceed but Cuphead don’t succeeeeeeddd..

Welllllllll..

Xbox fans will take her head! ♪♪

Mom?

So yea, here I am, reviewing 2017’s indie game of the year. Oh, the year isn’t even over yet. But let’s face it, Cuphead was fated to win universal accolades and more nominations than Meryl Streep regardless of quality the minute it debuted. Which, actually that’s exactly like Meryl Streep, come to think of it.

So yea, for those of you who already have formed an opinion and are fishing the internets for people who don’t share your opinion to hate-hoo, no, I didn’t like Cuphead. Oh I wanted to. Trust me, I like my windows. The thought of them having bricks thrown through them has me positively distraught. But I have two options: I can lie to my readers and say I liked something that I didn’t. That seems like a bad way for a critic to have integrity. My second option is to admit that I didn’t think Cuphead was fun. My father has an expression: sometimes you have to eat shit and learn to like the taste of it. Which, granted that could apply to forcing myself to play Cuphead until I like it. But, in this case the shit I’ll be eating is the mountains of it I expect from Xbox fanboys emotionally invested in the success and accolades in a game that they need to be universally praised because if it isn’t that means they can’t rub it in the face of PS4 or Switch owners because they base their self-esteem on owning the “best” console.

Speaking of integrity, no, I didn’t finish Cuphead. I did beat all the bosses through the first three stages. That I could play it at all is a fucking miracle. As people know, I suffer from photosensitive epilepsy. And literally every stage and every boss in the game opens with something that is my specific trigger. Thankfully, we quickly discovered I could just look away when each section started, though that means I had to wait nearly a full second before I could get in and start shooting. If people need an excuse as to why I didn’t like it and the old chestnut “she just sucks at games” seems tired, you can blame my utter failure at Cuphead on that one fraction of a second longer I had to wait over everyone else. I’m sure that made all the difference.

It would seem most people use the heat-seeking bullets (pictured) with the spread gun. Which was my first instinct too. Huh, maybe I am slightly wired for shit like this.

But seriously, the hook here is that you have to fight a series of bosses, with all the actual levels being optional. You gotta give the Cuphead guys credit: they know their audience. Contra is one of the most beloved 8-bit era games, but I have never once heard a single fan of it fondly reminisce about its level design. Most of them bring up how the final boss was a giant heart (if that’s the case, I wonder what part of the body this thing is supposed to be?). So why bother with the levels at all? There’s six normal levels in Cuphead that are treated like afterthoughts. That’s kind of a shame because, like the bosses, there’s genuine inspiration behind them. Unlike the bosses, they don’t seem designed specifically to generate an absurd body count. I’m guessing that’s why they don’t offer a nerfed version of them when you enter them, which the boss fights do. You do need to complete the stages to be able to get upgrades. For a game so fixated on bosses (seriously, the developers wanted to set a Guinness World Record for most bosses in a shooter. I’m guessing they got it, along with “game with the most forced finger amputations.” In your face knifey-finger game!), it seems weird that you don’t earn any upgrades through beating the entire point of the game.

So yea, the bosses. There’s a ton. They can be quite clever in their design. The issue is they’re so insanely difficult to beat that unless you’re wired for this particular genre, you’re going to be spending a lot of time making incremental progress only to die and start over. There’s no checkpoints, so every failure takes you to the start of the battle. There is an option to play a “simplified” version of each boss, which is how I ended up beating everything through the first three stages. But, if you don’t beat each boss on normal difficulty, you don’t get access to the final area of the game, which is basically just more bosses. I didn’t get access to it. I wanted to, and I tried really hard. I was able to beat the first world’s bosses on normal difficulty. The bosses after that? I spent nearly an hour on this one..

Seen here beating the nerfed version of it after another dozen or so failed attempts.

And about twenty times in a row I died at the very end of the fight. Some people say “the point isn’t to be entertained or having fun while you’re playing Cuphead. It’s the sense of accomplishment you get when you finally do win. All the anger and all the frustration is washed away then.” Accomplishments are not entertainment. If I had lost my virginity and then had an encounter with Jason Voorhees and survived, yea, that would be an accomplishment and I’d probably have felt good about myself. The thing is, I know I’ll just end up having to survive him again and again and again. After a while, it becomes less an accomplishment and more a war of fucking attrition. And that’s how Cuphead feels. By time I gave up, I’d put over seven-and-a-half hours into it. My hands were killing me (take my word for it: map the shooting to one of the triggers, do not leave it on the X button if you value your hands), I had a pounding headache, and I was being told by the game that I had played it wrong and had to go back and do it the right way.

I can’t stress this enough: Cuphead is fucking gorgeous to gawk at. We’re used to games looking good these days, so I don’t think the average gamer appreciates the degree-of-difficulty in getting a video game to look just like a 1930s Fleischer Studios short. It’s insane how uncanny it is, and that’s commendable. I mean, it’s weird they went to all that effort but the cut-scenes unfold as a series of still images with text instead of, you know, a cartoon. It’s also kind of jarring how they chose a shooter of all things to fit into this art style. A Zack & Wiki style puzzle-adventure seems like it would have made more sense since those old 30s cartoon shorts were based around slapstick and visual gags. Here, the bullets don’t even look like they match the art style. They’re bright and look like they were overlaid on top of the hand-drawn animation, giving the whole experience a strange Dragon’s Lair-ish vibe. But even with those nits, Cuphead is probably the best looking indie game ever. I just wish it had been something that aspired to be fun, instead of difficult to the point of inaccessibility.

And this is where I stopped. Call me a pussified quitter all you want. By time I got here, my hands were hurting so bad that I asked myself what was I trying to prove? I hadn’t liked anything about actually playing Cuphead up to this point, and probably lost relationships after attempting to play it in co-op. It’s been 24 hours since I put it down and my hands legitimately still hurt. If I wanted that from a game, I’d buy a PainStation.

Go ahead and say I suck at games. It’s the fallback insult for every single person who disagrees with one of my reviews. “You didn’t like Hotline Miami because you sucked at it. You didn’t like Cuphead because you sucked at it. Just stick with Call of Duty you casualtard!” You’re right, I did suck at Cuphead. I also sucked at Spelunky, Kingdom, Super Amazing Wagon Adventure, and countless other indies I’ve loved. If a game required me to be good at it to enjoy it, my list of recommended games would be shorter than Mitt Romney’s bar tab. The problem with Cuphead is I didn’t find it fun. I found it tedious and maddening. I hate saying “it’s just not for me” because that sounds wishy-washy, but it’s just not for me. I don’t think not finishing it means I’m not qualified to say why I don’t like it. There was once this guy who ate an airplane. For real. His name was Michel Lotito, and he ate a lot of weird shit. He set a pretty high standard for what a person is willing to swallow in the process. Saying I’m not qualified to review Cuphead is like saying every food critic who hasn’t eaten an airplane isn’t qualified to review food. You’ll excuse me if I find that way of thinking, ahem, tough to swallow.

Sorry.

Cuphead was developed by StudioMDHR Entertainment
Point of Sale: Xbox One, Steam

$19.99 noted that only 4.32% of Cuphead owners apparently have finished all the bosses on the first three stages regardless of what difficulty they chose in the making of this review. Well I finished all those bosses and got the achievement for it. In fact, only 12.51% have the achievement for beating all the bosses in the second world, and less-than-half of all owners (42.73% to be exact) have even finished the first world’s bosses. Kinda strange, given how angry Xbox fanboys are about any remotely critical opinions of Cuphead, that so few people who own it have actually made any progress and are instead screaming at people who did beat all those bosses because they didn’t have fun doing it. But I’m sure they’ve loved and relished every minute spent with it and it’s just a total coincidence the majority of owners apparently can’t pretend they’re having a good enough time to force themselves to get past even the first world. Fucking GAME OF THE YEAR, AMIRIGHT!

 

Christ, if I suck at games, I hate to think of how bad at them the other 95% who didn’t get this must be.

 

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