Game Pile: Wonder Boy III – The Dragon’s Trap

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I think this is going to be one of the oldest games I’ve ever reviewed in the Game Pile. Released in 1989 by Sega and Wetstone, Wonder Boy III was a sequel in that era of weird gimmick sequels. When you might see a whole genre shift between games, where you might see two or three games with the same name for different consoles, and when game developers didn’t know enough of what they were doing to really get what they shouldn’t do – which meant they tried everything.

Wonder Boy III is a fantastic game and you should know about it – and it’s been on my mind since October, when the company that made it finally began the slow process of finally dying. Come on then, let’s see one of the most important games they ever made, and why it matters.

 All High-Falutin’ Description

First our framing device, which I want to remind you is from a videogame that came out in 1989, began literally at the point the previous game had ended. You played Wonder Boy, a ridiculously powerful individual with an immensely badass sword, an array of potions and all the hit points your heart could desire. You’re in a castle, and you’re here to take out the Meka Dragon for reasons we don’t really hear elaborated because words are hard. In some versions of the cart it’s referred to as ‘the evil’ dragon, but whatever.

You slay the dragon, and then, in retaliation, the dragon’s dying curse transforms you into a dragon. Oh, not one of those gigantic cool dragons with the badass wings and all. No. A squat little green dragon that’s cute and can only breath a little bit of fire out at once. That, right there, had me hooked as a kid because wow, he could breathe fire and he was like a dinosaur!

Trust me, I was big on dinosaurs as a kid.

Stuck as a lizard, Wonder Boy then ventures forth to find and slay another Dragon, figuring that one will turn him back into a boy (or Hu-Man as the story says). It doesn’t – it turns him into a mouse. Then another, that turns him into a fish. Then another, and another and another and along the way he changes back to earlier forms and back-back again.

For lack of any better word, Wonder Boy III is a Metroidvania game, but rather than Castlevania’s oppressive gloom and gory revelling in horror tropes, or Metroid’s isolated tale of space, it’s a brightly coloured, personal story about finding a way to make the body you’re in feel like the body it should be, slaying dragons along the way – whether those dragons are an oppressive regime of controlling technology, visions of religiously orthodox past, the ghosts of the dead, thieving criminals who bring violence from outside legal structures and are lionised for it, or even those closest to us, who doubt us and wear two faces to hide their disdain.

I swear this game isn’t really a queer game but now I say all that it does kinda sound it. You could probably read a queer subtext into this game, but I need to stress, I don’t think the games’ developers meant for the second dragon to represent a dead religious orthodoxy that vomits bile onto those who do not comply. I think they just went ‘hey, mummies are cool, and dragons are cool, let’s make a mummy dragon.’

Interlocking Systems of Systems

When you break down a videogame it’s essentially just a bunch of systems and an input, and Wonder Boy III packed a lot of system into its tiny little cart. This was a Sega Master System game, and the Master System had 24 kilobytes of Ram, in total, split between system and graphics. Yes, kilobytes. This game could run on pocket calculators these days. Hell, it could run on pocket calculators ten years ago.

Wonder Boy III had an upgrade system for gear that relied on you earning money from killing things, which you would do as you explored. However, not everyone would sell to you – because you were a grody monster. This meant sometimes shops would have a bunch of goods labelled helpfully as ??? and you’d just have to wonder about it – with the knowledge that coming back this way might yield something later. You could improve your reputation with the shopkeepers by collecting Charm Stones, which you found by, again, exploring.

Each form had, to some degree, a relatively unique method of advancing that was usually subtly handled. The lizard form could duck and fire a weapon at range, giving it the ability to shoot enemies that might otherwise block a space. The piranha form could swim in ways that jumps underwater couldn’t reach. The bird form could fly, but also couldn’t go underwater, meaning there were spaces the bird could never reach. While the mouse can run and climb on blocks marked especially for him, the lion could attack directly above and directly below – allowing for some surprising niche areas where the lion could advance by attacking breakable blocks. What’s more the game introduced these abilities slowly – you would use them to solve a puzzle at a bottleneck, but then you’d see those same bottlenecks hidden in other areas. This means that while the game’s flow is linear – you can only defeat the bosses in one order – it still feels open.

Exploration is a great game mechanic if you can use it well and when you consider how little grunt this particular system had to make its levels large and how simple the landscape looked, packing a lot of different directions into a tight space was a challenge, and the game meets it with remarkable skill. There are even secret passages that don’t really need exploring. More than a few of them are even cunningly sealed behind enemies that you need to attack with magic spells – which is another system.

In Wonder Boy III, spells are basically just pick-up items you retrieve randomly. They are not distributed with any particular rhyme or reason and you can sometimes have a lot of them and sometimes have none. They’re not perfectly balanced but interestingly, almost every single enemy in the game is particularly vulnerable to one of them as a coincidence of design. As an example, there’s a skeleton enemy whose heads launch off their body if you attack one or the other. If you throw a fireball – which arcs up then down – it hits the head, then the body, and kills the skeleton in one hit. The magic spells are consumable, and you have to manually select each one, too, which is more a testament to the limited control scheme of the Master System than anything else. You’ll probably hoard them, but sometimes you’ll find an enemy type that fall prey to a particular spell and be glad you did.

None of this is to say the systems are all perfect. The gear system does require a lot of grinding because they expected you to be lost a fair amount of the time and struggle to find your way forward. With back-and-forth backtracking, you would accrue about enough gold for most of the gear as and when you needed it. Plus, gear is not just ‘doing more damage’ but in a few cases are ‘being able to advance the game.’ Bit of a bummer, there.

The final system, and easily the strangest in hindsight is the password system. As a PC Gamer I had been familiar with password codes to access later game stuff before. Most famously, The Lost Vikings does this, where you punch in a four-letter code and it takes you to a particular level. But Wonder Boy III doesn’t have levels. It has this vast, sprawling space with bosses you can kill, different sets of gear, and variable stats and inventory. And therefore, the game has passwords that are fourteen characters long, and only accessible from a few specific spaces around the world.

Representation

About a year ago, I noted that as a white dude, I found the argument that we needed white protagonists to identify with as fanciful. I argued, that as a child, I had identified with a duck, a square, and at least once, a lizard. This was the game I was joking about. This was the story that I remembered ringing true with me

The issue of representation in videogames is one of many still at the centre of the modern crap-storm of games critique. Let me forward to you my take on it. I’m a white guy, which means media culture has never made me feel like an outsider. I have never in my life looked at videogames and felt that I don’t belong here, in general. There have been videogames that have made me personally feel like they weren’t ‘for me’ and that was fine, but broadly speaking, I never felt like playing a videogame was some form of covert cultural invasion. That is to say: I never felt excluded, and therefore, I was free to find whatever part of the media I felt best expressed myself.

This isn’t so for everyone.

For other folk, there are a lot of traits that shape identity that videogames deny existing. I don’t just mean subtle, potentially invisible things like cis/trans status, I mean big, obvious things. I mean like just being Not White. I mean being able to find more videogames where I can play Shrek than where I can play a Native American, which when you look at it is like being unable to play ‘an Asian’ on the scope of these things. I mean being able to see videogames that don’t take place in our world still being wrought with Christian imagery. I mean that for some people, it’s very easy to feel like videogames weren’t designed with them in mind.

In a lot of cases they weren’t.

Yet, for me, Wonder Boy III is one of the games that made me feel something of me in a story. A story that I didn’t really get at first, but somehow always throbbed inside me when I was young. I really love this game, even though I only finished it last year, and the mid-game grinding drives me bananas. I think the reason I loved this game is because I only ever got to play it alongside my cousin. My cousin who was taller than me, older than me, stronger than me, beat videogames I couldn’t, understood things I didn’t, and went to a school with dozens of people. My cousin who grew big and did kung fu and woodworking and who, in many ways as I was growing, made me feel inadequate.

Playing alongside my cousin, my save of the game never progressed past the Mouse. I couldn’t finish the game in our little, few-days-long trips down to visit. I had to make do with tiny windows of time. But I’d come back a few weeks later with my password written down on a piece of paper, and he’d show me where he was – he’d show me the lion the game had made him.

That somehow stuck in my head a lot.

One day, I thought, I’d be the lion. I’d become big, and dangerous, and cool, with a mane and a shield and that would be me. And until then, I was a tiny little speck, hiding and climbing on things, and wondering if I was ever, ever going to stop being afraid of bigger things.

Videogames are very strange things, and they’re for everyone. Don’t underestimate how much it can matter to some people to see something as simple as hands like their own in a game. It might be all it takes to make them feel invited enough to see themselves in other spaces, like in mice and dragons and kaiju and more.

Verdict

Wonder Boy III is available on the Wii Virtual console, and probably every single emulation site in the world. Maybe you can buy the cart on Ebay and a Master System to go with it, if you’re really hankering for that old school style.

Verdict

Buy it if:

  • You’re interested in the history of the metroidvania.
  • You want to study some really interesting map design.
  • You want a fun, brightly colourful, skill-driven exploration game.

Avoid it if:

  • You need autosaves.
  • Your reaction time is impaired.
  • You become lost easily and this frustrates you.

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