Interview: How Lizardcube hopes to bring Wonder Boy: The Dragon's Trap to modern platforms
Wonder Boy 3: The Dragon's Trap is considered being one of the most iconic platform games ever released on the Sega Master System and now the game is getting an HD remake. We sit down with indie game development studio Lizardcube to find out more about the game's development.
Back in 1989 Westone Bit Entertainment released Wonder Boy 3: The Dragon's Trap for the Sega Master System. In the game players play as Wonder Boy, a boy cursed by the Mecha Dragon, as he finds his way through the game's varying landscapes to find a way to lift his curse.
The game was rather unique compared to other platform games available at the time due to its nonlinear gameplay and vibrant level design. Players had to find items and clues in order to access different parts of the game to be able to make meaningful progress.
While the original arcade version of the game "Wonder Boy" released in 1986, it wasn't until 1989, 3 years after the release of the arcade version, that the franchise would enjoy worldwide popularity. In that year Westone released a port of Wonder Boy 3: The Dragon's Trap for the popular Sega Master System and Sega Game Gear consoles.
Many years later the game is still in the hearts of many, including Omar Cornut and Ben Fiquet. The two set out on a journey to recreate the nostalgic game in high definition glory.
Omar Cornut is a game developer who previously worked on games such as Tearaway and Dreams at development studio Media Molecule. Ben Fiquet is a comic & animation artist who previously worked on the game Soul Bubbles for the Nintendo 3DS.
In the fall of 2015 Cornut and Fiquet started an indie development studio in Paris, France, called Lizardcube. The remake titled Wonder Boy: The Dragon's Trap is the studio's first project. The game is expected to be available for PC, Xbox One and Playstation 4.
In late July the development team of the game sat down with ZeroLives to talk about the game's development, their history with the franchise and what it is like to bring a classic 8-bit title to modern platforms.
“I always wanted to do something with the franchise. When I was 17 we started working on a sequel with some friends, but my programming skills weren’t that good at the time so we gave up on it.
Q: What is your history with the Wonder Boy franchise?
Cornut: "We were Sega kids and played all those games at the time. It is a series that has stayed with many players, if you still own a Master System, PC Engine or Megadrive the originals are great to play again once in a while.
Wonder Boy 3 is challenging, yet not too long, so it is easy to get carried away into 'one more playthrough'. I always wanted to do sometimes with the franchise. When I was 17 we started working on a sequel with friends, but my programming skills weren’t that good at the time so we gave up on it."
Fiquet: "I grew up in the countryside and we didn't have access to lots of games at the time. My brother and I saved up most of our allowance to buy the Sega Master System. Wonder Boy in Monster Land was one of the first games that were available to us and it really stuck with me.
Later I used to borrow Wonder Boy 3 from a friend of mine and I spent countless hours playing both of them. I used to draw the characters on my school books. It’s definitely a dream come true to be able to bring back those characters alive."
Q: Walk us through the initial days of development. When did development start and what was it like knowing that you could start work on a remake? Were you already developing the game before you acquired the Wonder Boy license or was development started afterwards?
Cornut: "In 2013 I started looking into the [ed: Wonder Boy 3] ROM and reverse engineered its code and data. I was curious to see if I could find new doors or secret areas that people hadn’t found yet. Before I knew it, I had enough knowledge to browse all the levels and it revitalized this old idea of making a remake of that episode.
I had mentioned it to Ben Fiquet a few years while we were working on Soul Bubbles for the Nintendo DS, and contacted him around Christmas 2013 suggesting we should try making this game. He started doing early visual research to try to nail a style for the game. So at that time, of course, we didn’t have any license, and we were working toward building enough of a prototype to show Westone to try to obtain the license.
We showed an early proposal to Mr. Nishizawa of Westone mid-2014 and he was immediately supportive. Though, maybe at the time he didn’t know how serious we were about making this real! And we hadn’t signed anything, but at least we knew he would be willing to help.
It took a while to gel because we were only doing this in our spare time and we ourselves didn’t know if we could find the funding for it. Mid 2015 we started talking to DotEmu and as they agreed to fund the game and turn it into a real product, we also clarified all the licensing legalities together."
Q: What is it like creating a new art style that is based on the original 8-bit franchise? What are or will you be doing to ensure that the remake retains the game's original vibe?
Fiquet: "It took me quite some time to find the appropriate style that would befit the project. First, it can be difficult to pinpoint what the original team would have gone for if it weren’t for the technical limitations of the time [ed: 1989]. And there’s also a lack of art consistencies between the games, whether it would be on Master System or PC engine, the characters would look different for example and then there's also the official artworks.
I tried to focus on 'upgrading' the original to what I, in my opinion, would consider be the truest to the original art, but there is obviously a lot of interpretation when I have to fill a plain black background, you have to consistently make choices with your own sensibility.
And finally, I put a lot of time and efforts into the animations, which are created traditionally, frame by frame. It is something that I really miss from the old days. Games like Aladdin (on Megadrive) or Earthworm Jim were animated that way. It really makes the characters more alive and I think people tend to feel that the game will be more vibrant with it."
“The tracks are based on Shinichi Sakamoto's original tunes. We have rearranged all of them to sound modern and to take advantage of real instruments. It was actually an enormous amount of work as Michael found out.
Q: Will the game feature remastered versions of all tracks from the original and will it include new tracks as well? And how does this translate to sound effects? The game's announcement trailer lets us hear some of these and it seems the sound effects will stay very similar to the original, is this the case?
Cornut: "The tracks are based on Shinichi Sakamoto's original tunes. We have rearranged all of them to sound modern and to take advantage of real instruments. It was actually an enormous amount of work as Michael found out.
The originals are using 3 square wave synthesizers and, despite being catchy, sound very primitive when you try to adapt them to real instruments. Michael started working on the soundtrack in 2014 and he tried many directions - I must have about a hundred different demos that Michael made in attempt to nail all those tunes!
So our goal was to rearrange those tunes to sound elegant and 'premium' while staying close to the original. And they’d have to be working with Ben’s new visuals as well. We didn’t want to go the direction of those Japanese games, that utilize synths and saturated guitars.
Michael used dozens of instruments, some classical ones, such as the violins, cello, clarinet, oboe, guitars and a variety of flutes, and even some quite uncommon ones, such as khene, gadulka and accordion. We went and hired instrumentalists to record most of that. It will sound amazing."
While Cornut is focusing on programming and Fiquet on art and animation, the duo has joined up with two sound artists to try and recreate the game's unique soundtrack and sound effects. Sound artists Michael Geyre and Romain Gauthier are working on an extensive library of sounds, with Geyre focusing on remastering the game's nostalgic soundtrack, and Gauthier focusing on remastering the game's sound effects.
Gauthier: "For the sound effects, many are based on homemade recording. For example, for creating the sound of drawing the character's sword I am combining the sound of a kitchen knife and the "woosh" of a badminton racquet - I play a lot of badminton! I sometimes also use samples from soundbanks when I can’t figure out a way to make them myself. For example, even though I live in Barcelona, it’s hard to record the waves for the beach level here because there’s always noise from people and boats.
The sound effects are composite creations, assembled in Cubase Pro. Cubase is typically used for music but I am using it to sequence and create rich sound effects. We extracted sound effects from the original Master System version and I usually have them on one layer. It allows me to closely match the melody of those original sounds which are too iconic to stray away from. It’s actually a tough choice sometimes, deciding how much of the original "meat" of a sound I should keep."
“With the game being from 1989 some sounds are very dated in their concept and need to be modernised, but some of them are so linked to the 'Wonder Boy experience' that it is hard to give them a true makeover without losing something essential to what playing a Wonder Boy game is. It’s tough.
Gauthier: "With the game being from 1989 some sounds are very dated in their concept and need to be modernised, but some of them are so linked to the 'Wonder Boy experience' that it is hard to give them a true makeover without losing something essential to what playing a Wonder Boy game is. It’s tough. But at this stage I find that keeping the original 8-bit component of some sound effects and adding layers of 'physicality' to them works a charm.
The first sound I did that with was the opening of doors and it’s so satisfying that I find myself opening doors over and over again when I’m testing the game for some reason."
Q: While critically acclaimed back in the days, some consider the original game to be suffering from some minor control issues. These include slippery character movement and the difficulty with which a door could be opened to progress to another section of the world. Do you consider these to be shortcomings or do you consider these to be part of the "nostalgia charm" and should thus stay included in the remake?
Cornut: "I believe the character movements are very fine. We are, however, upgrading the physics to run at 60 FPS so it’ll run smoother than the original. We added a user interface to let the player understand how doors are opened and we are tweaking the timings for that too.
One of the reason doors open this way is that the game has lots of secret, invisible doors scattered. It needs a timer otherwise players could brute force the environment a little too easily. The timer also comes in effect in some locations, when opening the jungle tower door there’s usually a flying will-o'-the-wisp chasing you so that timer usually means you have to get rid of it first. We might tweak it further on."
Q: There are some sections in the original game that were quite annoying to manoeuvre through, this was mostly due to enemy positioning. Will the remake feature the exact same level designs or will it also feature improvements?
Cornut: "Level design for anything that exists in the original will be roughly the same. We’re tweaking lots of small things here and there and we are adjusting the difficulty, but our intent is to make a game that feels the same. The Lion stage definitively needs some difficulty readjustment tough! We are also changing the charm stone system which was too grindy in the Master System version."
“We frequently exchange our work in progress with Ryuichi Nishizawa and he gives us feedback on that.
Q: In the announcement you list that the original creator Ryuichi Nishizawa is involved by consulting during development. What can you tell us about how this works out during development? Does he play beta versions of the game and give feedback afterwards or is it a constant crisscross of communication?
Cornut: "Since he validated the initial pitch and prototype, he’s been trusting us. So it isn’t a constant crisscross of communication. Ryuichi Nishizawa mostly has been working on his own game, Yuba no Shirushi, with the DMM team in Japan, so he doesn’t have time to fully direct any other project. However, we frequently exchange our work in progress and he gives us feedback on that.
When we aren’t sure of the intent of something in the original we also consult with him. He also helped very directly with negotiating the license for both the game's content and the name. Last week [ed: End of July] we were in Kyoto to spend time with him and we showed the game at BitSummit. It was nice because most of our cooperation had been over the internet until now."
“We don’t want to put out a substandard experience to mobile players. So we’ll have to experiment with controls and see if we can get it to feel great. If it feels great then we can release it.
Q: The press release lists both PC and consoles as release platform. I noticed several forum posts on SMSpower where users are asking for a mobile release. Are you also considering releasing a mobile version?
Cornut: "We aren’t planning mobile versions at the moment but we will consider it. The biggest problem here would be to get the controls right, with the game being so reliant on D-pad and buttons. We don’t want to put out a substandard experience to mobile players. So we’ll have to experiment with controls and see if we can get it to feel great. If it feels great then we can release it.
Another thing to watch out for is performance. The game uses lots of parallaxes and blending effects to create subtle coloring and lighting variations. So the game is quite taxing on the GPU and not all portable platforms would be able to afford that amount of blending. I mean, I haven’t tried yet! Maybe the newest mobile devices are so powerful that won’t be a problem at all!"
Q: Will the remake include settings or features that the original game did not have? A remake to modern platform would open the way for the inclusion of an overworld map and online or splitscreen multiplayer. Are these things you are considering or is it off the table?
Cornut: "It is too early for us to discuss and announce any extra features, as we aren’t settled on them. For now our focus is to get the original game experience done, before we can consider additions. What we can say is that the PC version will definitively support gamepads."
Q: What are your plans for distribution? If it is coming to Steam, will it include Steam achievements and collectibles? Are you also looking into distributing through DRM-free platforms such as CD Projekt Red's GOG service?
Cornut: "We are coming to PC and consoles. So Steam is most likely for PC, yes. Since consoles require achievements to be in, they will exist in the Steam version as well. GOG would also be great, although we haven’t started talking to them. We will when the time comes."
Q: Some media consider the upcoming title "Monster Boy and The Cursed Kingdom" to be the successor to the original Wonder Boy games. That game's developer has, according to a press release, also acquired a license from LAT and also has Nishizawa consulting on it. What is your take on this?
Cornut: "It is great that they are doing Monster Boy along with our game! As it happens we know each other quite well, as David the programmer of Monster Boy was in school with me, and we both live in Paris. So maybe that idea was floating in the air?
We both coincidentally decided to make somehow related project at the same time. I don’t think either of us sees a problem with that. I mean, who doesn’t want more Wonder Boy? We have different gameplay and art styles. Ours is a take on an 8-bit classic so it is a fairly simple, accessible but challenging game, that is really meant to transport us to another time. Theirs, I suppose, is more in line with later 2D titles, with more combinatory elements and perhaps more types of action. I only played Monster Boy for about an hour and it played great!"
Geyre: "There’s enough love in gamers hearts to enjoy both games!"
Cornut: "Yeah, I imagine most fans will want to play both."
“I hope that it inspires people to think about future remakes that could be made. Whether it is the use of traditional animation and diverse art style or from all the heart we’ve put into it. In the end, love and respect for a game will always show.
Q: What are Lizardcube's ultimate goals in terms of this project? What do you want fans to take away from the remake?
Cornut: "What I’m hoping above all is that with this remake the game could reach an even bigger audience. With the popularity of the NES at time, not as many people played Wonder Boy The Dragon’s trap as, I think, the game deserved. [..] Perhaps with this new version out, more players who didn’t have a chance to play it then will give it a go!
So I suppose this is the goal for this project: put the game into more people’s hands. If players like it then perhaps we can consider doing other similar things. For fans, I’m hoping they will love what we are doing with the art and music! For me, it is a bit of a closure as I’ve been thinking about doing something with the license for such a long time now.".
Fiquet: "I hope that it inspires people to think about future remakes that could be made. Whether it is the use of traditional animation and diverse art style or from all the heart we’ve put into it. In the end, love and respect for a game will always show.".
Wonder Boy: The Dragon's Trap is currently being developed by Lizardcube and is published by DotEmu. The announcement trailer for the game was released last June. Photos of the game's presentation at BitSummit can be found on the game's official Facebook page.
Special thanks to Omar Cornut, Ben Fiquet, Michael Geyre, Romain Gauthier and Jessica Iragne.
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