Wonder Boy is an odd series to discuss. Part of the problem was that the Wonder Boy name was copywritten with Sega, but the actual game series belonged to what was then called Escape. Escape later changed their name to Westone. This resulted in games getting new sprites and plots but keeping the same gameplay on non-Sega systems. The second game in the series, for example, was reclad as a Bikkuriman game with very catchy music. The fifth game in the series got changed into a beetle themed Power Ranger like character in a game called “Dynastic Hero.”
Now, add in the fact that each game in the series has changes to the game play systems, and it’s suddenly very hard to talk about the games as a series. For example, Wonder Boy (Arcade, SG-1000, NES, Master System) was a game about a caveman, running through timed stages, doing complex jumps and gathering fruit for more time. The sequel “Super Wonder Boy” or “Wonder Boy in Monsterland” has time limits but also introduces exploration elements into the game. Hidden areas drop money (much like hidden fruit caches in the first game) which allow you to buy better equipment. Wonder Boy III: The Monster’s Lair is basically a side scrolling shooter with platforming elements. Again, there’s a timer, and fruit to help fill it up again. For all these games, there’s a very nice summary of the series on Hardcore Gaming 101 – click here for the article.
Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap, meanwhile, is the first game that did not come out for the arcades. To my taste, it’s just on the edge of being an RPG. You spend most of the game doing real time fighting and exploration (with a heavy puzzle element as you unlock new ways to explore.) You then trade in your money for new equipment (with another mild puzzle involving charisma.) Unlike a strict action game, there’s generous time limits and it’s fairly easy to retry difficult areas. There’s also bits of plot in the form of NPCs, though dialogue is very minimal.
Why isn’t it an RPG? Well, there’s very little plot, and there’s no save system. Instead, you have to memorize / write down passwords. You mostly spend the game platforming and completing simple “climb this with some skill that you have” style puzzles. There are also repeating path mazes (though you can pretty quickly tell if you picked the wrong path.) Still, this form of difficulty hurts mimesis.
Is it particularly good at what it does? Jumping is kind of slippery in the game, though that is a common problem in Master system games. You do get a super powered early character which allows you time to fumble with the controls and get used to how the game controls. You also get a pretty clear feeling of power, and most of the forms available have some use in the game. I think the game is one that lends itself well to the Metroid style of exploration. Having someone to tell you that, say, there’s a hidden item to the left of the tower is a lot more fun than having to fumble around until you find it yourself. Still, you can complete a good deal of the game with sheer perseverance. I’m primarily discussing this game to show the edge of “It’s not really an RPG, is it?” and an excuse to discuss Xexyz later.