Wonder Boy: The Dragon's Trap sets a precedent for remakes. While the 1989 Sega Master system title manages to hold up itself with a semi-linear world, great enemy variety, and a neat animal-morphing mechanic that were astounding in their time, it's the mastery in the revised art style and audio department that elevate the game to new heights. It's a feat that developer Lizardcube is being appropriately recognized for, but how did this remake get started? What were some of the principles and directions guiding the studio? We managed to get in touch with lead programmer Omar Cornut and lead artist Ben Fiquet, asking them these questions to find out how they made Wonder Boy wondrous again.
TechRaptor: Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap is not a 2D platformer game that you hear about often. After all, the last new title released in the franchise was Monster World IV in 1994. What were the origins of your studio that led you to remake The Dragon’s Trap? How did you go about acquiring the rights and blessings to go through with this?
Omar: Well, I’ve been a big fan of the Master System for a long while myself. I wrote an old emulator for it in 1999 and have created a community in 1997 that is still alive and gathers all sort of hobbyists, players, programmers, musicians, historians. I’ve spent lots of time finding games, documenting and studying them. And many people love the original Wonder Boy III, and while it didn’t reach as many players as Mario or Zelda did, the game has many fans in Europe where the Master System fared decently.
I have always wanted to do something with the series. For a decade, I would tell anyone, “One day I would like to work on a Wonder Boy!” Back around 2013, I started reverse engineering the original game ROM in my spare time. My aim at that time was to try to find if the game had any uncovered secrets that fans have not found. So I looked into the old code and data, mapping out and building an understanding of how the game worked. At some point I had enough of an understanding that I realized I could attempt to make a faithful remake of it.
This is when I contacted Ben Fiquet, with whom I have worked almost a decade ago on Soul Bubbles. I knew Ben was a fan of the series, and his art has always been beautiful. So we started poking around and experimenting with building a small prototype of what that remake would be. One day we presented it to Mr. Nishizawa (exactly the day of his 50th birthday) who at that point owned the Westone IP, and his reception was extremely positive. We sort of knew at that point that we should make this project a reality.
Fast forward, we improved the prototype, started pitching it to publishers and met with the DotEmu team, who are in Paris and also specialize in retro games. So DotEmu was quickly on board. They became our publisher and accepted to take the risk of funding the project. They also helped with securing the rights. The confusing thing with this license is that although the game contents (IP) were owned by Westone (who developed the game), the trademark for the brand “Wonder Boy” was a property of Sega. So we had to get into a talk with all those parties to get the project secured. It helped that we already had a decent prototype that we could show them. Lizardcube was founded a few days before we signed with DotEmu as we waited until the last minute when it became a requirement to start a company.
TechRaptor: No approach to remakes is the same since there are unique factors weighing into what should be done. Some developers will retain original gameplay quirks or errors if they made the game memorable, while others would see this as an opportunity to fix and improve upon them. Some developers would recreate the graphics with new vistas and elements, whereas others might keep the original visual composition to a tee. In regard to your remake, what was your overall guiding philosophy? What do you believe most remakes should strive to be like?
Omar: Each project is different so I can’t really say what others should strive for. For this project we wanted to make something that was particularly (and unusually) accurate and faithful in terms of gameplay and game feeling. For us, this is a classic that is ingrained in our childhood memories, and we couldn’t mess up with that. It’s like if you were to remake Super Mario Bros: those games are so reliant on their controls and physics, so you would risk breaking the game if you changed any of it. But it is also interesting to see this old gameplay being covered in a new beautiful coat of art and music, and being allowed to compare both versions during gameplay. We started from this low-level base of understanding and studying exactly what the original game is doing, and we tried to never depart from the original accidentally. All changes and departures from the original were conscious decisions on our part and come from a point of knowledge.
Aside from the obvious graphical and audio re-overhaul, we actually made a lot of tweaks and fixes to the game. We made the physics 60 fps instead of the original 30, we made it widescreen which required adjusting lots of screens and interface, and we made hundreds of corrections and improvements. Many of them are probably invisible to a casual observer looking at both versions side by side, but the truth is that this version plays much better than the original because of the sum of all those changes. When reviewers and commenters are saying, “Wow, this stills plays very well for a 1989 game,” well...there is a big amount of truth in it, but it’s also because we fixed a lot of small things.
TechRaptor: Extending this line of questioning, many of the alterations made to backdrops are quite drastic. What once was a straight line of trees is now an expansive valley with a large statue in the background surrounded by gravestones. When it comes to music, visiting the Nurse has a new slowed-down, jazzy version of the Shop song. Wonder-Girl is an entirely new character. What prompted you to make changes like these?
Ben: Well, for me it was first and foremost trying to paint what I saw as a kid. I didn't see pixel art at the time but a whole world unfolding before my eyes.
With this game particularly, there was a lot of blanks to fill. Even if this was beautiful and imaginative for its time, the visuals were not very detailed due to technical limitations. And this opened up a vast territory for a remake. I certainly tried my best to capture the essence of what I perceived of the game but in some areas, I had to use a lot of imagination. And doing so, I can't help but use my art style. Behind all that, I really wanted to respect the original as much as I could but also try to improve it in a way that has not been seen before.
Omar: That’s the thing: the fact that the game is so old makes it a prime candidate for a remake because the quality difference can be very big. If we were to remake a game that already had detailed background and animation it would make a lesser impression. The recent Day of the Tentacle Remastered gives this impression. It’s perfectly executed, but the original DOTT was so miraculously beautiful and stylish that it is hard to make it better.
For the music, we worked with Michael Geyre who is an old friend of mine and also a fan of the original game. He created all those tracks including new variations of the dungeons, boss and shop tracks. The original used the same tracks in many different sections, but when you’re using 8-bit square waves for sound, it’s easier to fit them everywhere. When you start using real instruments, a track becomes quickly grounded to our reality, to a time, or a location. For example, we can’t really use the same track in both an Egyptian pyramid and a Japanese temple, so we adapted those tracks according to the location. It adds variety and allowed him to explore many different musical styles - sort of mimicking how the game takes you to very random places. The shop theme, hmm, it was such a short loop getting on everyone’s nerves, so Michael thought it’d be fun to have it play in the radio. So it is a track that the Pig shopkeeper is listening to, which also explains why it is done in a different style. As for the Nurse scene, we adapted this melody to make a more jazzy, almost an elevator music version to reflect the waiting room.
As for your question regarding Wonder Girl, there are two reasons. The first reason is that early on during the project we weren’t sure if we could secure a license for the trademark from Sega, so we had to consider making the game with a different title and a different character. Just calling it Wonder Girl was a possibility, and we did some early research for a female character. Eventually we got the right to use the brand “Wonder Boy”, and of course from this point we were pretty stuck with using a male character. The second reason is mostly...why not? We just added both.
TechRaptor: The art direction truly does bring the game's environments and character models to life, as if this is how it should have always been. Ben, what are some of the inspirations behind your attractive, inviting art style?
Ben: Thanks. I guess it comes mainly from the fact that I have not been in the industry for long. People are not used to seeing that kind of style. It might be more common in French comics or animation. I've been raised with French comics, and with manga/anime by my side, I suppose it pours in when it comes to design. I studied fine arts and traditional animation, and in doing so, I've been exposed to many different visual styles.
When starting the remake, I really wanted to add something fresh to the video game landscape, something unique. We've seen so many games or remakes not even trying to bring something new visually, it's easy to forget that art can take a lot of different forms. I also believe strongly in frame-by-frame animation, as I see a real beauty in it, something that I don't find in 3D or cutout animation. I loved David Perry's work during the Genesis era; the animation in Aladdin, Cool Spot and Earthworm Jim are really beautiful but somehow, due to technical constraints, it has been lost for many years. I'm glad people are responding very well to it.
TechRaptor: What were some of your favorite stages or character models to revise?
Ben: Well, the good thing with that game is the fact that it was still limited in terms of graphics. There was a lot of places for me to add more. Some stages were just plain black and I could fill them just as I desired. That would not have been the case with a game from the Genesis or SNES as they were more refined. However, I really wanted to capture the essence of the game. I wanted to draw what I saw as a kid on my screen. So I took some liberties but still in the canvas of that game that I love. I really like mouseland, just left to the village. I like the scenery there and also I've added a lot of parallax with give an impression of depth that you don't see that much in the game. For the characters, I like the dragons, they were really cool to draw and animate.
TechRaptor: What was the process like of having your hand-drawn environments and animations implemented into the game?
Ben: It's no magic really. I usually started by drawing a mockup of an area (a picture that look like a finished screenshot) and then gradually cut the image into different parts that I would put in the engine. A tree there, the ground, the sky, etc. Then I added some parallax and a few light/shadow effects. Nothing crazy. The engine Omar built is actually really dedicated for that work. So it was built around having big and numerous textures, so kudos to him for implementing it.
TechRaptor: Were there any additional stages, beast characters to play as, or new mechanics you considered implementing that were scrapped? How much did Ryuichi Nishizawa-san influence the direction you took with the remake, and what ideas or recommendations did he give that you took to heart?
Omar: We added some secret challenges, mostly for more experienced players, but overall we stayed close to the premise of recreating the original, already well-balanced game. I’m glad that is what we did. With the resources we had, adding too much new content wouldn’t have been a judicious trade-off, so we focused on keeping the quality high for the main game. This is not to say that we won’t revisit it and add more things in the future! Nishizawa-san gave us his feedback on a few things when we talked with him. But from the moment he approved the pitch to be made, we already had a clear direction of the art style and the game intent, so it didn’t require much day-to-day steering on his part.
TechRaptor: Being able to switch the original game’s visuals, sound effects, and music with the reworked versions is an absolute treat, especially for someone like me who has never experienced the 1989 version. It allows the player to better understand what has been removed, changed, and added to your remake. How hard was the process of recreating the original game from scratch to allow for this? What were some surprises or unique challenges you ran into during development?
Omar: The retro switches are an absolute joy for many people, and it historically grounds the game. But the truth is that from a technical point of view, that wasn’t the hard thing. The hard thing was to make the gameplay accurate and improve upon it within the narrow canvas of how the old game engine worked. That was stupidly hard. But once that was done, the next step was setting up selecting between two sets of graphics. Imagine rendering the game twice with two different skins. It just happens that the modern skin is computing, maintaining and taking advantage of much more data than the original. For example, in the original game, the player character only remembers simple states such as “being on the ground” vs “being in the air," whereas the modern counterpart takes note of extra transitions, such as “starting to jump," “landing," “landing on from a high-spot," etc. We used that data to add new animations and effects.
TechRaptor: Michael Geyre’s work on the soundtrack is stunning with the use of live instrumentation and more layers of music to embolden the original score. Did you consult Shinichi Sakamoto-san in revising the soundtrack? What liberties did you take in this area?
Omar: That process of creating the new tracks was way more iterative and difficult than expected. When you take a simple three-track melody that everyone loved and start playing them with real instruments, it just doesn’t sound great. You can’t just change a composition from using 8-bit sound generators to using, say, a violin and expect it to sound any good. You need to compose for a violin, but you need to compose while not straying too far from the original track, or else fans would feel that they aren’t the same track. He worked from there to add depth and variety on those compositions, and it took lots of trial and error. The art style has this hand-drawn, traditional, sometimes crafty quality, and we wanted the soundtrack to follow on that idea so that we would have a soundtrack that feels acoustic and real. To reduce the use of synthesizers and instrument sound banks, I think Michael made over 100 demo tracks for a final selection of maybe 30. It doesn’t help that demo tracks need to use sound banks because we couldn’t just go and record everything live. We could only go to the studio once we had very solid demos.
TechRaptor: Have you considered reviving Wonder Boy with new titles in the franchise? Either way, what do you hope players take away from the remake?
Ben: For the moment, we’re gonna have to relax a little and take a step back to figure out what to do next. There's a lot of games that could benefit from what we like to call a “remaster’s cut” like we did on Wonder Boy. But the world of Wonder Boy is certainly rich and vibrant, and I would love to come back to it if we have the chance. I hope players will enjoy the original game and the improvements we made to it. I’d like to think we have a good example for remaking a loved game.
TechRaptor: Where can our readers find out more about the game? What platforms can they find it on?
Omar: The game is out on Switch, PS4 and Xbox One now. We are working on a Steam version which we hope to release in June. People can also follow our blog where we post news and sometimes "Making of" stuff. We are also on Twitter, Facebook, etc.
TechRaptor: Thank you for your time answering these questions!
Omar: Thanks for having us!
Ben: Thank you.
We'd like to thank Omar and Ben for speaking with us during the post-launch craziness of releasing Wonder Boy: The Dragon's Trap, and hope that you enjoyed finding out more about the remake!