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SummaryHu-man? You, man!
The GoodI'll call this game Dragon's Curse, since I played the TurboGrafx 16 version (which, apparently, is also the best of the bunch). Nothing changes if you call it Wonder Boy III, Monster World II, or The Dragon's Trap: it's still the same great game that not only stands out among other platformers, but also brightly shines within the series it belongs to.
Dragon's Curse takes cues from classic games such as early Zeldas and Metroid, adding light RPG elements and exploration to the traditional platforming gameplay. Creating such a game is anything but an easy task (that's why there haven't been many games that even attempted that), but Dragon's Curse passes the test with brilliance.
The game has all the addictiveness of secret-gathering, power-up-finding that helped those other games rise to fame. One of the reasons why Dragon's Curse works so well is because it carefully balances various gameplay features and aspects without sacrificing one for the other; it gives you a little bit of everything, and sustains your curiosity by promising more. Dragon's Curse has exploration possibilities and gradual focused advancement in equal doses; it avoids the two pitfalls of aimless wandering and aggravating linearity, and has the best of both worlds.
After the prologue, the game puts you into its only town (which serves as its "hub") in your newly acquired Lizard-man form. From that point on you are theoretically free to go anywhere in the vast game world; however, much like in Metroid games, you can't access most areas because you lack the necessary abilities. Acquiring these abilities is pretty much the game's self-contained goal, since the whole point is to be able to get to the final area in order to remove your curse. I can't stress enough how well the game conveys the feeling of steady progress, and how expertly it masks its fairly simple objectives under the guise of a large explorable world.
Right after you find yourself in the town you see a tower you cannot pass through. Your curiosity is immediately stimulated by the natural conclusion that at some point during the game you will be able to enter and explore that tower. But how and when remains up to you to discover. There aren't many places to go to in the beginning, but even in the first area there is an optional room that you can choose to visit or ignore. Subsequent areas become larger, more complex, and host more secrets. The game never holds your hand yet never becomes disorienting, an achievement that very few games could boast of.
Your abilities are numerous and varied. The game's defining feature are the shapes the protagonist can assume. You start as a standard-edition human (Hu-man), but very soon turn into a fire-breathing Lizard-man (who looks more like a dragon to me). Later in the game you'll become the Mouse-man, who can cling onto walls and ceilings and go through tight passages; Piranha-man, who can swim; Tiger-man, who can clear his path by destroying bricks; and Hawk-man, who can fly. Each shape brings more gameplay variety and more excitement, revealing more and more of the game world, removing yet another piece of the puzzle. Imagine the joy when you finally acquire the tiger form and can bypass all those enigmatic structures that were blocking your advancement before, or the sheer fun of flying around as a large bird. But even the more prosaic forms provide plenty of entertainment thanks to their unique features and differences.
The animal forms are also distinguished by combat specializations; each one has its own way of attacking, as well as its own strength and weaknesses. In addition to being able to change shapes, the protagonist also has access to a vast array of weapons, armor, and gadgets. There is an advanced magic system that allows you to cast fireballs and strike your foes with lightning; arrows for dealing with those pesky flying enemies; and all sorts of enhancements and protection provided by equipment. The game is heavier on role-playing elements than early Zeldas (excluding The Adventure of Link) and Metroids, to the point of lacking only experience points system to be considered a true RPG.
To all this you should add excellent graphics (even on the 8-bit systems), catchy soundtrack, and an overall cuteness that fits the game very well and never deteriorates into the over-abundance of "kawaii" as in some other Japanese games. It is bright and slightly cartoony, but appealing and consistent in style.
The BadLike many other platform games, Dragon's Curse can get annoyingly difficult. In spite of its many creative ideas, the game can often boil down to making perfect jumps while fending off pesky respawning enemies that eat away chunks of your health. The areas can get pretty straightforward and "horizontal", meaning that you'll have to get past certain enemies and traps no matter what, and often it seems simply impossible to pass through unscathed. There is also backtracking involved, and I didn't find it particularly thrilling to walk all the way back to the town while being on the verge of death after having defeated a tough boss.
These trips are unfortunately essential, since the town is the only place you can save your game. In an open-ended game that relies so much on exploration, this is a fairly serious flaw. I don't think I will ever understand the necessity of the dubious challenges imposed by a limited save feature. This particular game wouldn't have lost anything if it at least allowed the player to save immediately upon the completion of an area.