WonderGirl and an alternative approach to non-linear platformers

don’t call it a Metroidvania

title screen of WonderGirl that shows up after starting the game with a girl character

These essays, and video essays, are made possible by contributors from Patreon by viewers like you. Thank you.

Fractured by licensing agreements, and hidden in the quiet history of lesser celebrated consoles, the Monster World series has never made the impact that you’d expect given our modern obsessions with expansive worlds. At its core, Monster World is a series of non-linear platformers, derived from the arcade lineage of Wonder Boy, with fluctuating amounts of RPG elements supporting each title. Each approached platformers in its own way, offering a unique perspective on the genre.

WonderGirl: The Dragon’s Trap returns to the second entry in the Monster World series, Monster World II. The Dragon’s Trap provides a modern update for the art and sound of Monster World II, but just as important is what it leaves untouched. The original design, structure, and mechanics are all left intact, down to the specifics of the physics and frame timings. By doing so it allows us to see the original with new eyes, but also appreciate what was missed at the time — that Monster World II contains an alternate history for non-linear platformers.

Between the RPG elements and the way The Dragon’s Trap gates new areas by abilities your initial reaction might be to draw immediate comparisons to the now infamous “Metroidvania” of design. But even this far removed from the series’ arcade origins, The Dragon’s Trap contains plenty of markers of its arcade roots, and important aspect for differentiating The Dragon’s Trap from other non-linear platformers.

WonderGirl’s movements have a certain momentum to them, requiring you to learn to control your speed and move with more intention than other, more controlled platformers. It’s something that’ll be familiar to anyone who played the original Wonderboy, which put a similar importance on controlling speed. And while the Metroidvania school of design emphasizes labyrinthine corridors, The Dragon’s Trap has a more straightforward, immediately readable level design. In some way this is a continuation of the design sense of the original Monster Land, the prequel to this game which also contained RPG elements, but was designed for the arcade and required players to be able to play through it under the pressure of a timer.

Wonderboy in Monster Land aka Wonderboy II

The Metroidvania school of design values winding caves and corridors for the way they lend a sense of sprawl and scale to the world. It lends density to compact spaces and can create the feeling of a larger world by requiring you to internalize its spaces through repeated trips. It also means you’ll most likely be unable to traverse them without the help of a map.

The areas of The Dragon’s Trap instead operate more as self contained levels. There is a particular sense of internal geography to it, but it’s also content to connect places to each other through magic doors and abrupt transitions, rather than attempt to create a singular cave system or castle structure. Its worlds are more akin to traditional platformer themes — deserts, forests, volcanoes, and beaches all make an appearance. The worlds also tend to be more flat that other non-linear platformers. While they’re not without verticality, movement tends to flow primarily east and west.

For those expecting the trappings of the Metroidvania, this can seem limited or even regressive. After all, the triumph of the genre is all about creating the sense of an ever expanding world. What The Dragon’s Trap offers instead is the ability to immediately read a space, keeping exploration snappy and preventing you from being lost. Areas are distinct and often have particular markers or patterns of enemies that make it easy to tell where they stand in relation to other areas. The forest is always to the east of the town, and the farther east you move the deeper into the forest you’ll be. Everything spokes outward from the village and expands from there. You’ll never need to use a map, simply trace your steps and head in the opposite direction.

What’s more impressive is how The Dragon’s Trap has you return to those places, and recontextualizes them each time. Your familiarity with each area is upset upon reaching and defeating each boss, who each cast a new curse on you and transform you into a new animal form. These forms don’t represent a strict upgrade. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses, and while their abilities can unlock new areas, they might also make others more difficult. This is largely thanks to the way that each animal changes your approach to combat.

The unorthodox physics prevent you from responding instantly to attacks, which means you’ll have to read patterns and anticipate attacks to be in the best position. On top of that, each animal form has their own unique attack arc. For example, the dragon, has a ranged fireball that can dissipate other projectiles. Upon turning into a mouse your range is drastically cut to a short distance immediately in front of you, and you’ll have to learn how to use their tiny shield to block incoming attacks. In exchange you’ll be able to fit into small places and climb walls you previously could not. This makes you fragile, but maneuverable. And because you can’t change back to your previous form, you’re forced to learn how to adapt to your new circumstances.

Each animal form requires a similar change in approach, and because combat makes up so much of how you navigate the world, this repeatedly changes how you move through the spaces you previously visited. Each new form isn’t a key for a gate, but a new approach to the existing world that also reveals more of it. It’s a stark contrast to games that follow the Super Metroid blueprint, which often signal an upcoming upgrade via their barriers. Think colored doors that don’t respond until the next weapon is obtained, or platforms set just far enough for a double jump to reach them. It feels artificial, and draws attention to the structure of the game.

In fairness, a few Metroid style games do occasionally pull similar tricks to The Dragon’s Trap (offhand I’m thinking of the spiderball from Metroid II), but for the most part they’re content with having a series of locks and keys. In the best cases they have you note unreachable areas, in the worst they’ll straight up color code them with unmissable barriers (I’m looking at you, Guacamelee). They also have similar issues to the Zelda series, where most of their tricks have been so heavily iterated on that they’ve become immediately obvious.

And therein lies the problem. The Dragon’s Trap has never had the chance to be built upon. Aside from a few sequels with different approaches, there hasn’t been much to follow it. Even a series like Shantae, which draws inspiration from it, often more closely follows the Metroidvania blueprint. That blueprint has become the de facto way to build and think about non-linear platformers, and it has been iterated and added to for years. At this point, every entry in the genre is crammed with side activity and extraneous corridors to get lost in.

The Dragon’s Trap is instead built on strict limitations. It manages to pack plenty of secrets in, but remains lean and easy to navigate. It works to constantly recontextualize itself, and makes old areas into new challenges rather than dead space to retread on your way to the new stuff. It’s a subtractive approach that takes the compelling parts of platformers and RPGs and uses what’s most interesting in its context. That approach is why almost 30 years later The Dragon’s Trap feels fresh and modern, while barely having its core design altered. It’s a design we could learn from, if maybe we were less obsessed with chasing the tail of the Metroidvania.

Amr is the Editor-in-Chief of deorbital.media (@deorbital), and clickbliss.net (@clickbliss).