If the tension between arcade intensity and console depth undermined Wonder Boy in Monster Land, it absolutely defined the sequels. Perhaps torn by the dual personality demonstrated by the second Wonder Boy, Westone created two different games called Wonder Boy III. The first (Monster Lair) was a coin-op title that took Monster Land’s action combat and amplified it, going so far as to add shoot-em-up stages to the mix: The quintessential arcade creation. The other (The Dragon’s Trap) focused more on Monster Land’s RPG trappings and took the form of a non-linear action game with persistent progress, gear, and a constantly evolving protagonist.
Then again, that’s just the American terminology. In Japan, Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap wasn’t called Wonder Boy; it was presented instead as Monster Land II. In other words, Westone saw two distinct branches of game design emerging from their imperfect 1987 arcade title. The Wonder Boy games would exist as pure twitch experiences, as befitted the arcade, while the Monster Land titles would explore deeper and more exploratory mechanics in step with the rapidly maturing home console industry.
The resulting purity of design that resulted from this dual focus did a world of wonder for the series. Both Wonder Boy IIIs play far better than the first Monster Land did. Monster Lair works well as a straightforward action game, uncluttered by the intricacies of role-playing ambition. It’s not the finest game of its era, but it fits nicely with the horizontal shoot-em-ups that would come to define the PC Engine in particular. Its large, colorful graphics and impressive power-up schemes feel right at home amidst the Super Star Soldiers of the day (albeit weighted toward the Air Zonk end of the cartoonishness scale). The occasional run-and-jump segments keep things interesting, and the inclusion of two-player cooperative play is welcome as always… even if the second player character, a princess, gives lie to the “Wonder Boy” title. So it goes.
Meanwhile, The Dragon’s Trap can give any side-scrolling action-RPG of the era a run for its money. Faxanadu? Maze of Galious? Zelda II? Bring ’em on. Aside from an opaque maze section near the game’s end, Westone nailed the action-RPG right in its heart. The Dragon’s Trap spans a huge, interesting world full of challenge and interesting powers to acquire—not least of which being the alternate forms into which Tom-Tom can transform. Although the game’s ultimate goal is to restore the hero to his human body, his animal forms are so powerful you almost wonder why he’d bother. On top of that, the game did the whole “final battle of the previous game as prologue to the adventure” thing that Symphony of the Night would make famous… and did it almost a full decade before that game’d debut.
Gamers often like to wonder “what if?” about their favorite games. The nice thing about Wonder Boy III is that we don’t have to wonder how things could have been different: Westone explored both the series’ possible outcomes for us. And they both turned out to be pretty great.
Article by Jeremy Parish
GameSpite Journal 12: The Two Wonder Boy IIIs