Category Archives: Game Analysis

Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap | The Retronauts review

Remaking a beloved classic forces developers to grapple with their own pixellated version of the Ship of Theseus paradox: How heavily can a game be altered while remaining fundamentally the same work? What parts should be altered? To what degree should those modifications be allowed to reshape the underlying work?

LizardCube’s new remake of SEGA Master System metroidvania Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap is one of the rare instances in which the developers were able to sidestep this question altogether right at the outset. This remake began as a programming exercise for an enthusiastic fan (Omar Cornut) who wanted to dissect the tech behind the game and rebuild it for new systems. Rather than taking broad liberties with this new rendition of The Dragon’s Trap, Cornut prioritized fidelity first and foremost. This is a remake in the most literal sense: Not a reimagining, but rather a genuine recreation of the 8-bit work from the ground up.

Much as with Saber and 343i’s Halo Anniversary Editions, The Dragon’s Trap gives players a visually upgraded overlay that sits atop the original game, modified to run on new hardware and containing a handful of bonus secrets, but ultimately unchanged. The world layout, the physics, the enemy movements: They’re all the same as they were way back in 1989 on Master System. In fact, as with the aforementioned Halo remakes, The Dragon’s Trap allows players freely toggle between the new look and the original game sprites with the press of a button. The 8-bit visualizer mode isn’t simply the original Master System game running under emulation, either; the graphics have been modified to fill the widescreen layout of modern devices like Nintendo Switch (the version I’ve been playing) or PlayStation 4.

It’s a stunning exercise in digital archaeology, the programming equivalent of unearthing a dinosaur fossil and reassembling it perfectly… then allowing viewers to observe it as either a bare skeleton or with a detailed new skin. It almost seems excessive, but in the best way possible. How many remakes allow you to take a password into the original version of the game to play for a while, then seamlessly carry the progress you made there back into the new rendition?

This scrupulous fidelity to the source material comes with both benefits and drawbacks, of course — the developers’ pixel paradox in action. On the plus side (and this is an enormous plus), it means the extravagant new visuals don’t compromise playability. The Dragon’s Trap looks absolutely gorgeous, with elaborate, stylish, and above all fluid animation fleshing out the game’s sprawling world. Purists can opt to play with the original bitmaps, garish color palettes and all, but I can’t see why anyone would. The remake looks as good as any other 2D platformer I’ve ever seen, and possibly better.

But LizardCube’s core design philosophy — that is, change none of the game’s substance — neatly sidesteps the biggest issue that normally arises when a game looks this nice. Beautifully animated games tend to prioritize animation above responsiveness, an issue you’re especially likely to experience in other hand-drawn games of European origins. Think Rayman: Games that look great and move with visual grace, but which insist on playing out a full animation cycle on-screen before responding to player inputs. Because The Dragon’s Trap is ultimately running on a reconstructed 8-bit framework, it moves like an 8-bit game. When you tap the controls in a given direction, your character immediately moves in that direction. Perhaps the greatest accomplishment on display here (in a release that sets several technical standards for future classic remakes) is the way in which the characters still manage to animate fluidly within those limitations. There’s a whole lot of in-betweening work that plays out between the stilted animation cycles of the Master System original, and each of your protagonist’s five incarnations manages to pull off a variety of moves without ever breaking the illusion. It’s truly extraordinary, all the more so for the impression that every frame of every character and bad guy was drawn individually rather than relying on Flash-style “puppet” animation that many other best-of-class 2D developers (e.g. Vanillaware, WayForward, or Klei) sometimes use as shortcuts.

Taking such a faithful approach does present its share of problems, though, and The Dragon’s Trap unfortunately falls afoul of the biggest of them: Namely, by holding so faithfully to a game from nearly 30 years ago, LizardCube chose to forego any opportunities to refine it.

Now, some may hold to the idea that new developers have no business monkeying around with someone else’s classic, that the point of a remake like this is simply to reproduce the source material, warts and all. I disagree. Game design has come a long way in 30 years; back when Westone first created Wonder Boy III, developers were still tinkering with fundamental concepts of balance and fairness. To their credit, this game feels far less punishing than other contemporary nonlinear games. Wonder Boy (or Girl — one of the more thoughtful cosmetic elements of this remake is the option to chose your protagonist’s gender) can soak up quite a bit of damage from foes. If you venture into an area and find yourself hopelessly outclassed by the bad guys there, you shouldn’t be in that area just yet.

That said, the original game still had its share of minor frustrations. The physics can feel a little odd for those accustomed to the elegant jump mechanics of other games, and there are a few places (especially late in the game) where enemy placement feels needlessly punishing. The world desperately needs a few reverse shortcuts, too. Every area has a door to warp players back to the main village that serves as the game’s hub, but you need to trek the whole way on foot when you want to venture out to the hinterlands. If you lose to a boss, you can look forward to slogging your way back from the start. Likewise, the one shop that sells precious life potions is a good five-minute jaunt through a mouse-sized maze, even for a powered-up hero. You’ll get to know that route quite well, since you have to bumble through it any time you want to restock your potions.

It’s a testament, then, to the excellence of the original game that it still plays well in 2017 despite these quality-of-life issues. The third chapter in the sprawling Wonder Boy series (along with the other Wonder Boy III, Monster Lair — yes, it’s confusing, but we’ve sorted it out for you in podcast form) built on the rudimentary action RPG elements that appeared in 1987’s Wonder Boy in Monster Land. Where Monster World had the brisk pacing and simplistic structure required for a game originating in arcades, though, Wonder Boy III appeared strictly on consoles and could afford to indulge in fully non-linear design. It’s packed with secrets, equipment, and pathways that you may spot right off but can only explore once you’ve acquired the appropriate power.

Those powers helped make the game so interesting. The journey begins at the finale of the previous game, with the final boss encounter working as a sort of prologue; once you defeat the last game’s boss, Wonder Boy is cursed to become a monster. With each new boss you destroy, you’re cursed anew to become a different creature: A lizard, a mouse, a fishman, etc. Each form has both advantages and drawbacks. The mouse, for example, has absolutely awful attack range, but can slip through tiny passages and climb certain walls. In time, you gain the ability to swap between your cursed forms at certain key locations, and learning when and how to make the most of each curse becomes a huge part of completing the game.

Original developers Westone put together one of the most advanced and interesting action RPGs of the ’80s, one that could stand toe-to-toe with hits such as Zelda II and would go on to exert some very obvious influence on the likes of Castlevania: Symphony of the NightShantae and Little Samson. Its problem was one of obscurity. Wonder Boy III appeared on multiple systems back in the day, but they were all the least popular platforms of each category: Master System, TurboGrafx-16, Game Gear. Hopefully the fact that this visually stunning (and still quite entertaining!) remake is showing up on the most popular platforms of the era — PlayStation and Steam, as well as being one of the first notable releases for Switch — will allow this 8-bit masterpiece to finally receive the acclaim it’s due.

The remake’s changes are literally skin deep… but what a great-looking skin they’ve created. And that skin been fitted over a game that didn’t really need much corrective surgery in the first place. I wouldn’t have complained about a few minor gameplay refinements, especially options to make navigating back to conquered areas less time-consuming, but I can’t fault LizardCube for creating a brilliantly, beautifully faithful take on this 8-bit classic.

Verdict: Highly recommended

Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap
Developer: LizardCube | Publisher: DotEmu
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Steam, Switch, Xbox One
Release date: April 18, 2017

This review was based on software provided by the publisher for review purposes.

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Alundra is 20 danged years old

Yesterday, a classic action RPG designed by Sony and Matrix turned 20 — interestingly, just two days ahead of the 25th anniversary of the U.S. release of the game it shamelessly imitated. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past debuted 25 years ago tomorrow in America (April 13, 1992), and its greatest and most fascinating clone appeared in Japan just shy of five years later (April 11, 1997): Alundra.

I love Alundra, though I admittedly haven’t played it since it was a first-run feature. Who knows, maybe my opinion would change with two decades of hindsight. But at the time, it played like the follow-up to A Link to the Past and Link’s Awakening that I dearly wanted but no one else was making. I was as excited as anyone for Ocarina of Time, but even then it was clear that game would play pretty differently from the 2D Zelda games. Alundra fell into the same category for me as Symphony of the Night: The kind of experience the entire industry was eager to move away from, but which I still wanted to exist. Technical progress doesn’t mean having to slash and burn everything that’s come before, and I hated the frustrating universal media consensus at the time which demanded all games had to abandon any visual vestige of the past in order to be acceptable.

It wasn’t just a media consensus, come to that. Sony, who by mid-1997 had already taken a strong lead in the console race, had an infamous policy of disallowing 2D games on PlayStation. It wasn’t absolute law, but certainly bitmap-based graphics were frowned upon and expected to take a seat at the kids’ table. Alundra, being a Sony-published game in Japan, seemed doomed to face the same unhappy fate as other first-party “relics” like Arc the Lad. That is to say, denied a visa into the U.S. I distinctly recall reading a massive import preview blowout on Alundra in (I think) GameFan magazine which made it clear that this game was a rad adventure in the style of Zelda, and also doomed never to come to America. For the moment, this restriction didn’t burn too badly, because I was in the midst of experiencing my very first import game (the aforementioned Symphony of the Night), but still the thought that such a fantastic-looking entry in an underserved genre I deeply loved would be dangled beyond my reach… it chafed.

As it turned out, Alundra really did suffer the same fate as Arc the Lad: It was picked up for U.S. release by Working Designs. The company did a solid job with the localization — aside from the spacey surfer dude Bonaire, who felt increasingly out of place and inappropriate as the game’s plot grew darker and darker, it largely eschewed Working Designs’s trademark approach to localization (e.g. throw out most of the original text and cram in a ton of jokes). You can probably attribute that to the fact that Alundra simply wasn’t as slight as most of the RPGs WD tended to localize; it came wrapped in a pretty intense storyline. The eponymous hero had the ability to enter people’s dreams, but even as he did so an evil force was also stealing into those dreams and murdering the dreamer. By the end of the game, a whole lot of people are dead or emotionally devastated. There’s not a lot of room for levity.

Working Designs also didn’t apply their usual dramatic rebalancing to the game’s difficulty, either. While they made a few tweaks, they felt smart and welcome. For example, they made the final boss hit harder while reducing the amount of damage he could withstanding, which resulted in a shorter, more intense fight. Alundra has a reputation for being a seriously difficult game, with some tough battles and brain-bending puzzles, but that wasn’t my experience. It’s one of those games that simply clicked with me for whatever reason, and I sailed through it… even the notoriously complicated sliding-block puzzles in the ice palace.

Funnily enough, I didn’t actually buy the game at launch despite my enthusiasm for it. I somehow won a copy from IGN in a contest they had right before the game shipped… and then, months later, I still hadn’t received my copy. (Now that I’ve worked in the press, I can definitely see how that happened; no hard feelings.) I wrote one of the editors an email, and he promptly called me, apologized, and promised to get the game sent out ASAP. He was true to his word! Within a week, I had the game and the PlayStation console that was also part of the contest, along with a few random trinkets and (inexplicably) a military grade beef stew meal-ready-to-eat. So whenever I think about Alundra, I think about… army rations.

You know, 20 years later, there still aren’t very many people making high-grade 2D Zelda clones. I should probably revisit Alundra.

Images courtesy of VG Museum

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Breath of the Wild restores a long-lost sense of uncertainty to Zelda

One of biggest through lines in Nintendo’s promotional hype for The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has concerned its connection to the original Legend of Zelda, which debuted in the U.S. almost exactly 30 years ago. That’s a spiritual connection, mind you; the new game looks nothing like the primitive pixels of the NES classic, and if the story shares a direct link (or, perhaps, Link) to the older adventure, Nintendo’s keeping it under wraps.

I’m always a little leery of publishers making too much noise about how a new release gets back to a franchise’s roots. Generally it creates a too-obsequious air of apology for the direction of a franchise, throwing a lot of hard-working contributors’ hard work under a bus. And while it’s not unheard of for a long-running series to go off the rails and somehow right itself again further down the road, it doesn’t happen as often as one might wish.

The back-to-the-roots approach can work, but it demands a tricky balance. Sometimes developers take an overly literal approach, as with, say, Mega Man 9 — which I love, don’t get me wrong. But I do think Capcom could have taken Mega Man back to his roots without actually turning back game and graphical design two decades. And sometimes you have the Tomb Raider series, which has its ups and downs but (despite its overlords’ promises to return to the spirit of the original game with every sequel to come along since Tomb Raider III) never quite seems to recapture the sense of isolation and grandeur that made the very first Tomb Raider so captivating.

So, I’ve taken a cautious, if hopeful, approach to managing my Breath of the Wild expectations since playing it (and coming away deeply impressed) back at E3 last summer. Would Nintendo really get back to the spirit of the NES, or would this be another example of game creators promising to go back to a long-ago, cherished standard without quite grasping what it was its fans really loved about the older game in the first place?

Surprisingly, so far, the answer is: Yes, they got it.

I say “so far” because I haven’t even hit the 10-hour mark in the game. For that matter, I haven’t even left the opening area, which demands players complete a set of minor challenges spread across a fairly expansive area that nevertheless appears to comprise only a tiny fraction of this version of Hyrule. I mean, I could have moved along by now, but I’m more interested in testing the limits of what I can accomplish straight away. These early hours have already given me confidence that Nintendo really is looking back to the oldest Zelda here by deliberately breaking from the Link to the Past formula that has been the foundation of nearly every sequel beginning with Ocarina of Time.

A Link to the Past set a lot of standards for the Zelda games, but the greatest of these was in the way it locked down the dungeon-and-tool formula. In each sequential dungeon, Link would acquire a new tool or weapon to allow him to overcome specific obstacles throughout the game, with that dungeon serving as a sort of training course. Nintendo designed each labyrinth as a spatial puzzle that could only be solved by mastering the tool within, with the dungeon boss serving as the final exam of sorts. For instance, you needed to collect the Hookshot in order to traverse gaps in the dungeon that contained the Hookshot, and then you had to defeat the boss at the end of the gauntlet by using the Hookshot to reveal its weak point. It was a deft, thoughtful approach to game design… and after being reiterated in half a dozen different sequels, it’s become stale and predictable.

In the opening hours of Breath of the Wild, I’ve already acquired what appears to be the bulk of the main gadgets I’ll be using throughout the adventure. This is not a case of sequence-breaking; you literally can’t move beyond the opening area until you round them all up. And while you acquire each one in a purpose-built dungeon, those dungeons are small and simple — smaller than any story dungeon in any 3D Zelda to date. I don’t know how the dungeons and shrines in later portions of the game will work, precisely, but it could be that the 1:1 ratio of gadgets and dungeons won’t be the case with this game. More likely you’ll need to complete each shrine or lair by combining and applying your permanent tool set in increasingly complex ways.

So yes, in this sense, Breath of the Wild really does feel like a reversion to the original Zelda. You acquired a number of tools and upgrades in the dungeons there, as well, but in only a handful of cases did you actually need the item in question in order to reach and defeat the boss. And even then, you’d usually need a treasure from a previous area of the game in order to complete a task, e.g. the bow from Level-1 in order to beat Level-6’s boss, Gohma.

Nintendo experimented with breaking from the Link to the Past cycle with the most recent single-player Zelda, which somewhat ironically was the direct sequel to A Link to the Past: 2013’s A Link Between Worlds. There, you could simply run out and rent (or buy) the tools you needed; the challenge became managing your finances and knowing which tools were needed for each given dungeon. Worlds didn’t suffer for separating tool acquisition from dungeon solutions, and I suspect now that it was something of a dry run for what Nintendo hoped to do with Breath of the Wild.

If the Zelda games were finally extricating themselves from the very classic but very familiar rut into which they had worn themselves, Breath of the Wild would deserve praise. But Nintendo has reached back to the franchise’s origins in an even more meaningful way: They’ve given players the freedom to go about the quest however they like.

Make no mistake: Breath of the Wild still has a certain linear path of quest progression to observe. As I said, the task of moving beyond the isolated plateau on which the adventure begins requires you to complete several shrines… but once you’ve cleared the first one, you’re allowed to tackle them in any order. Now, you’re likely to complete them in a particular general sequence simply as a matter of expediency, as two of the shrines sit in areas covered with frost. This time out, Link has to be mindful of the temperature of his surroundings; stray too long into the cold and you will freeze to death. But you don’t need any special quest item to venture into the frozen wastes — you just need to know how to prepare food and potions, and have an eye for the botanicals and fauna that will result in warming recipes to temporarily insulate Link from the elements. So if you really want, you can head to the shrines in frigid areas first.

This freedom begins literally the moment you set foot outside the cave in which Link awakens after his hundred-year sleep. The game gives you several prompts to nudge you in the proper direction to get the story rolling right away. Once Link surveys his surroundings, the camera swings around to a mysterious old man keeping vigil near Link’s Shrine of Resurrection… but nothing is forcing you to speak to him right away. In fact, you can ignore the old man until you run out of things to do (which is quite a lot, and can allow you to stock up on some pretty useful collectibles and weapons).

A couple of minutes after you spot the old man, Link hears a disembodied voice and gets a waypoint marker on his in-game map. The action freezes as this plays out, and my first thought as this transpired was that the game was going to railroad me back to the main quest and constantly hound me with a bossy voice, a la Navi/Midna/Fi. But this turns out not to be the case at all. Once the waypoint appears, you’re free to go back about your business and do as you please. And the voice rarely intrudes, content to allow you to take the quest at your own pace.

It’s a pleasant surprise in a series that has demonstrated an almost pathological need to hold players by the hand for the past 20 years, but producer Eiji Aonuma has said that he’s spent a lot of time taking notes from open-world games, mostly produced outside Japan. Perhaps those games’ willingness to sit back and allow players to do as they will helped Nintendo’s designers to realize, at last, that people who play video games really do have the deductive reasoning to sort things out for themselves and don’t need or want to be constantly nagged back onto the critical path.

So just how much freedom does Breath of the Wild give you from the outset? Well, I’ve put together a slightly goofy dramatic recreation here of my initial experience with the game (pardon the pantomime). This is footage from a single session from the beginning of the game, slightly edited for time, and it simulates my initial reaction to being given obvious and obtrusive guidance… as well as the disastrous nonsense I got up to after I decided to blow it off.

What ultimately makes Breath of the Wild feel like such a change of pace for the Zelda series — almost like a spiritual reboot — is not that it offers an open world, or that you have the sort of freedom that comes with an open world, or that it contains a huge number of undocumented systems (like recipes and temperature), or any other single element. It’s that it does all of these things at once. Nintendo probably could have put out two or three Zelda games featuring one or two of these changes in incremental amounts, but by taking the time to create a game that does all of them at once, they’ve created something that — at least here at the start — feels like a massive and much-needed leap into modernity.

The most impressive connection Breath of the Wild has to its 30-year-old ancestor is that it improbably recaptures that game’s sense of the unexpected. The original Zelda was like nothing we’d ever seen in 1987, and by definition it’s practically impossible for a sequel to reproduce that sensation. What made Zelda amazing in the early days is that for its first decade of existence, the series alway brought you something new and unexpected. Zelda II was somehow a side-scrolling action game as well as an RPG. A Link to the Past existed as this intricate puzzle box of a game whose convolutions somehow spanned two dimensions of time and space. Link’s Awakening gave us a Super NES-sized adventure on Game Boy, while adding in Mario elements. And Ocarina of Time reinvented A Link to the Past as a game that spanned decades and whose added unique, dimension was the third dimension.

Breath of the Wild has hit me with an urge to explore and discover, to figure out what possibilities await, that I haven’t experienced so profoundly since Ocarina of Time. Yes, a lot of the concepts here come straight from open-world action games we’ve all played over the past decade; but here, those elements have been framed within the workings of the Zelda series. Breath of the Wild moves and sounds like Zelda, which means it’s far more polished in its movements and interactions than your average Elder Scrolls adventure (which, again, I love, but the phrase “Bethesda jank” exists for a reason). And its structure already demonstrates a certain thoughtfulness characteristic of the series. In short, it’s a modern sandbox action RPG, but crafted with the world-class care we’ve come to expect from this franchise.

It would be easy for this Zelda to fall flat on its face, to feel like some wannabe attempting to bite off the most successful games of the generation. So far, though, it hasn’t. And fair enough: Zelda basically created this style of game, and it’s only reasonable to think it should be able to reclaim a place and make a mark on the genre on its own terms.

And perhaps most importantly, Breath of the Wild gives the impression that its open design and many systems have purpose. I half-expected the need to forage for resources (including replacements for Link’s oh-so-fragile weapons) would be a drag, but it, too, gives a the impression of purposefulness. I think carefully about each and every arrow I loose at an enemy, because I don’t know how soon I’ll be able to replace it. And thorough exploration is its own reward. Take as an example my proudest free-roaming accomplishment yet: Stumbling upon a den of bokoblins, including a moblin chief, living in a massive skull-shape cave. My first encounter with them went poorly to the point of fatality… but eventually, I stumbled upon a cache of fire arrows elsewhere on the plateau. With those in hand, I returned and detonated the explosive barrels (yes, they even exist in Zelda) inside the cave, instantly clearing out all but the moblin. The wounded chief rushed me, and I had to defeat it in melee combat. This was hardly a gimme: The flames I sparked ignited his spiked wooden club, upgrading a single successful blow from it from “painful” to “instantly fatal.” But I dodged, persevered, and survived. It was even more exhilarating than the moment in the video above in which I crept up silently to steal a bokoblin’s discarded weapon only to have the bad guy hear me at the last second and snatch his weapon away a split second before I could grab it myself.

These little moments have happened throughout the time with the game so far, and while you can definitely see the video game logic and limits working beneath it all, Breath of the Wild might actually combine freedom and dynamic systems as well as Metal Gear Solid V. If my time so far have been a true preview of the experiences that lie ahead once I get on with the plot and descend from the Great Plateau, Breath of the Wild should be 100 or so hours of pure pleasure in the style of the original Zelda, but with modern scope and style. That sounds like the greatest link to the past I could hope to ask for, really.

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