The Sega Master System, for all its faults, had some truly excellent games available. Despite its relative obscurity in North America, where the NES reigned supreme, it was very popular in Europe. Nintendo were less than pleased with Mattel's distribution of their 8-bit system, having to take over themselves, whilst Sega built up an impressive fan base, many of whom would later go on to buy Mega Drives.
Much of Sega's popularity stemmed from their arcade ports, and Mega Drive games which had been re-written for the Master System's limited hardware. Some games, however, flourished on the Master System of their own merit, often being sequels of previously-ported titles. Sonic the Hedgehog, for example, features in an impressive collection of games which were Master System (and, later, Game Gear) exclusive.
Another excellent example of this is Wonder Boy. Many new gamers won't have heard of him; he hasn't featured in any games since his last release on the Mega Drive, Wonder Boy V, but was originally a character from the arcade game of the same name. This was a simplistic, run-and-jump affair, but before long had evolved into a true RPG, complete with a shops, weapons, magic, and a proper end goal.
However, the series reached its peak on the 8-bit systems with the fourth game in the series, Wonder Boy III: The Dragon's Trap. (Sega had already released a Wonder Boy III for the 16-bit Mega Drive, which is a wholly different game, just as the 8- and 16-bit versions of Sonic the Hedgehog are quite different beasts.) The storyline was different to most - there's no princess to save, no ancient civilisation to plunder, no noble kingdom under threat. The Dragon's Trap is a story of changes, and one which utterly consumed this young gamer one Christmas, and has continued to fascinate me ever since.
The game starts, uniquely, with the most powerful character you could imagine. Essentially carrying on from Wonder Boy II, the player character has maximum statistics, the most powerful equipment in the game (the Legendary Sword, Shield and Armour), a Recovery Potion (which, as the name suggests, refills the character's health fully) and all eight heart containers (much like in the Legend of Zelda series, hearts must be found to increase the character's total health).
Charging through a castle's inner chambers, every enemy you face dies with a single touch of your sword. Every wound you suffer takes away the merest fragment of health; for all intents and purposes, you are invincible, just as all good action heroes should be. Eventually, you enter a chamber different to all others. The walls are metal, not stone, and buzzing with electronic equipment. Behind the door lies the MEKA Dragon, a robotic nightmare with wings and firey breath. For all its intimidating looks, you make short work of it, eventually slaying it and leaving only a spiritual flame behind. Plundering the gold the dragon leaves behind, you don't notice until the flame touches you...
This is where the game really begins. As soon as the fire touches your character, he is suddenly transformed into a dragon-like creature himself. This is Lizard-Man, the first of five alternate forms the character is transformed into as the game progresses. From the second your character is transformed, all his equipment and statistics are removed, leaving you with the paltry Ivory sword, shield and armour. Fleeing from the now-collapsing castle, your quest is made clear: you must find the legendary Salamander Cross, guarded by the Vampire Dragon, in order to restore yourself to your human form.
Wonder Boy III is undeniably fun to play. Played from the traditional side-scrolling perspective, the gameplay is simple but at the same time quite deep, juggling platform adventuring with statistics-juggling and an inventory. Every weapon, shield or suit of armour has its own unique stats, with many hidden or optional items to be collected from various locations throught the game's comparatively huge world. You'll visit a desert land, complete with sphinx and a huge pyramid. A dark and dangerous forest leads you to a maze that could well be your death, whilst after adventuring through the caves you may well be suprised to emerge in Feudal Japan. You'll learn how to fly as Hawk-Man, after looting sunken wrecks as Piranha-Man.
As said before, different equipment will alter your character's statistics - offence, defence and charisma. Of these, charisma is the most interesting. Throughout the game, there are many shops, selling weapons and other items. Often, however, you will find a shop selling items you cannot even see. This is where charisma comes into play. By equipping certain types of armour, transforming to different forms, and by finding the mystical charm stones, you can raise your charisma sufficiently enough to buy items such as the Legendary Shield.
Add to this the many interesting and useful items, such as the Magical Sword which can create bricks from thin air, or the Hades Armour, which will prevent the wearer from ever dying (but at a tremendous charisma penalty), and equipment-juggling soon becomes an integral part of the game. Luckily, all statistics can be seen from within the game's pause menu, from which you can equip items and see their effect.
Like any good fantasy-themed RPG, Wonder Boy III features magic, which must be bought or collected through the game. Magic ranges from the mundane, common-or-garden fireball to the more interesting boomerang (which can be kept almost indefinately, as it always tries to come back).
Wonder Boy III is a game I will always love, for its depth, playability, and surprising difficulty even all these years on. Little nuances, such as being able to climb certain walls as Mouse-Man, or the different attacks of Lizard-Man (who breathes fire!) and Lion-Man (who chops his sword downwards, damaging anything in that arc), or even little things such as Hawk-Man's inability to swim, versus Piranha-Man's competance, make me smile every time I pop the cartridge in. For those who would like to give it a try, the ROM is undoubtedly available - but I'll always be happy to dust off the Master System, pop in the cart, type the password and get playing.
Sneaky bit: There are many Master System games which act differently if nudged or knocked while starting up. Sometimes, although I wouldn't recommend doing this deliberately, a Wonder Boy III can be convinced to start up in the 'hub' village, part-way through the game, as Hu-Man with full equipment.