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A Sega cult classic finds new life with a gorgeous, loving remake

Hello, Gameologerinos, and welcome to our weekly thread for the discussion of weekend gaming plans and recent gaming glories. There’s a lot to be playing these days, but I wanted to take a moment to recognize something that’s a little under the radar. Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap launched on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Switch earlier this week. It’s a remake of the 1989 game Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap, which was one of many games in the near-inexplicable brand-love-triangle made up of the Adventure Island, Wonder Boy, and Monster World series. (Seriously, it’s incredibly confusing, and for anyone interested in the history here, I recommend checking out the Retronauts podcast episode dedicated to detangling and dissecting this mess.) It’s a cult classic that was incredibly ambitious for the time, a 2-D platformer where, after every boss fight, your character changes into a different anthropomorphic animal with unique abilities that can help you access new parts of the open-for-exploration map.

The Dragon’s Trap remake is incredible work of respect and care. The team at developer DotEmu sifted through the original game’s code to figure how everything worked: What are the equations that dictate Wonder Boy’s momentum? When do slain enemies drop items? How is the damage from the lizard man’s fireball calculated? After reverse engineering all that data, they tweaked things to make the new version feel modern and natural. That balance between honoring, and even reveling in, the past while recognizing the benefits of the present make this one of the better retro remakes to ever come along.

The biggest difference, of course, is in the presentation, as the remake comes packaged with an absolutely stunning new art style. It’s all hand-drawn and lushly animated, with every screen, character, and backdrop being reimagined into this charming Franco-Belgian comic style. One of the cleverest things about the remake, though, is that you can pop into the menu at any time and switch things back to the original 8-bit look. This kind of graphics toggle has been done before, but Dragon’s Trap has also thrown in a handful of settings that let you tinker with the original visuals: altering the brightness; enabling a “retro monitor mode” that makes the colors pop and blend better; and there’s even a scanline that’ll let you decide just how visible you want those synthetic relics to be.

Screenshot: DotEmu

The game’s excellent soundtrack is similarly flexible. It’s been reorchestrated into modern arrangements that are as lush and lively as the new visuals, and just as you can toggle the look of the game, you can do away with the new music and decide to play with the original 8-bit tunes. There’s even an additional option to enable an FM sound mode, which plays the original music as it would have been heard coming out of a Sega Master System that’s equipped with a Yamaha FM sound chip. Yes, there are three versions of the same soundtrack in this remake, and it’s the kind of nerdy novelty that makes a dork like me incredibly happy.