For anyone who grew up playing the Sega Master System it is likely that Wonder Boy III: The Dragon's Trap will bring back fond memories. This was a Metroidvania-style title before the term was even coined; its superb combination of action platforming, puzzle-solving and exploration held its own against stiff competition on the NES and it is rightly regarded as one of the best games on Sega's 8-bit system. Let's face it, there aren't enough video games in which you get to play as a shape-shifting Lizard-Man who changes between six different forms, from a mouse to a piranha in order to progress.
Fast forward to the present and this long-defunct hero is coming back in the upcoming Wonder Boy: The Dragon's Trap thanks to the talented developers at Paris based Lizardcube, along with publisher DotEmu. This remake features gorgeous hand-drawn graphics and a fresh soundtrack, and even includes the Master System original, which you can switch to at the press of a button.
As it's heading to the Nintendo Switch eShop in April we were keen to sit down with the talented Omar Cornut and Ben Fiquet from Lizardcube to find out more.
Nintendo Life: When did the idea to remake the classic Wonder Boy III: The Dragon's Trap come about? Why did you choose this entry over the other Master System titles?
Fiquet: I think the game means a great deal for both of us. It is an important part of our childhood after all. It is also one hell of a game and being able to share it with gamers from today was a dream come true. So when the opportunity presented [itself], I didn't think much about it and started drawing almost right away.
Cornut: I've been wanting to do something with the Wonder Boy series for a long time now. One of my first bedroom projects 20 years ago was an attempt at making a new game based off Wonder Boy III. So it's really a simple case that we love the game and we think it still stands out and could reach new players today.
In reverse engineering the original Master System game code, did you learn anything that is not immediately obvious when playing it normally?
Cornut: The game is full of subtleties and secrets, so nothing is immediately obvious when playing it! For instance, every single monster of the game has their own setting for items drops. When you play the game you can feel some patterns emerging but it's really hard to identify the exact rules. The work we did allowed us to turn loose intuition of into something precise that we can repeat and tweak. In fact, I started the reverse engineering because I wanted to know more about the secrets of this game. For example, very few players of the original know that there is a correlation between how much you press buttons when you die and how much life the potion gives you. The way it was coded into the original game made me (intentionally) very unobvious.
We love that the game has a 'retro password' feature. Can you tell us more about how this works?
Cornut: At the time few games had a system for storing save into battery backed memory. So what the programmers did was to find a way to encode your play information into human readable form that you could scribble on paper. It takes everything that needs to be saved, such as your inventory, items your gold count, and mashes it into a unique password. Once the algorithms being the password encoding are figured out, from a programming perspective it is relatively easy to reimplement the system.
Growing up in France, what was the Master System scene like compared to the NES? How do you feel Master System games hold up in general compared to NES these days?
Cornut: Sega enjoyed better market share in Europe than the US did, so we got nearly three times the numbers of games. It's alright - as with every systems, there are some gems and many average games. Enjoying the average and even crap games requires a special love for the system that is often associated with childhood memories. But anyone can enjoy the great games! Where we stand with Wonder Boy III is that we also wanted to remake it so that people who had a NES in the day can play this classic they missed out on. The other kids in my class had Zelda and Metroid, we had Wonder Boy III, Phantasy Star, Zillion and so on. All those games were fantastic. So we hope with this game we will reach both old and new players.
The artwork in the game is beautiful. What were the challenges in translating the 8-bit graphics to a more contemporary HD look? Did you have to take any liberties with the original game animations to make the game play more fluently?
Fiquet: I'm the art director of Lizardcube and also the only artist on the game. For me, Wonder Boy: The Dragon's Trap has always been a very vibrant and colourful world. As a kid, I could imagine the scenery and characters beyond the pixel art appearing on screen. That's what I wanted to recreate with our remake.
I tried to stay very faithful to the original but at the same time, adding art that what was not possible in '89 due to technical limitations. We also tried to be faithful in terms of gameplay, which means I had to closely follow on the shapes and timings of the original. It's actually good to work with these limitations, it means trying to fit a vision into an already prepared canvas. Where I could, I added big textures to avoid the repeating patterns.
As I come from a traditional animation background, I wanted to add more by doing frame by frame animations. This is a very involved process in terms of production time but I also believe it's way more lively and fun. The original had about 7 frames of animation per character, we now have about 70-100 frames for the same characters. Everything feels smoother and fuller.
Cornut: It is a constant act of balancing and decision making. We added lots of animated transitions that didn't exist in the original, but for every of them we needed to make sure we didn't introduce latency or made the control less reactive. There's nothing worse than a beautiful game that doesn't react to your inputs properly! Being able to work within an existing canvas allowed us to focus on things that made the most impact and improvements over the original game, and we always had something to compare ourselves too. In fact, because the new version runs in Widescreen and 60 Hz, even when switching to the old graphics it is much more pleasant and smooth than the 1989 version.
Wonder Boy on the Master System uses a lot of blank backgrounds during certain events, such as boss fights, which you've filled in. Did you have fun fleshing out the backgrounds from your imaginations?
Fiquet: Yeah of course, it's one of those games that even if there is something, there is a lot of things that were left blank due to limitations. So I had to fill these blanks by adding a lot of details and colours. Nishizawa-san, the original creator, was really thrilled from what we showed him since the very beginning . He did not want to compromise our vision and didn't offer a lot of inputs art-wise. We were showing him our progress every chance we got and he has given nothing but praise.
Cornut: What I love with those old games is how carelessly surreal they were. You open a door in the sky and end up in the desert. We had to embrace this playfully and I believe Ben did an excellent job there. We had some rooms that are completely surreal. It is a testament to an era where designers didn't consider adding scaffolding under floating platforms.
The music and sound effects in the game have also been brought up to date. What was the process for giving this a connection with the original Master System sound?
Cornut: It was tougher than expected! Michael Geyre who made the new arrangements is an enormous fan of the original and knew everything about the tracks. But when we went and started replacing the 4 channels with real instruments it just didn't sound right. So he went and for nearly two years worked on finding ways to expand the tracks while keeping them faithful to the original.
We love that the player can switch between modern graphics and music/sound FX and 8-bit style on the fly. What were some of the challenges in making this work?
Cornut: From a technical point of view this was fairly easy actually. The hard work was creating the new music and sound effects. We added so many more sound effects than the original had. For instance in the original there's one SFX every time you hit a monster. In the new version we have multiple layers playing, depending on the type of monsters, the character you play and item you used, etc. So there's many more possible sound combinations.
Fiquet: Beyond technical, the art had to respect the canvas as much as it could. It would also be compared to the original straight away so I had to make sure this would definitely be an improvement in the eyes of the players.
In terms of the gameplay, can you talk about how the RPG elements work in this game?
Cornut: The game is fairly lightweight in terms of RPG elements. There's a lot of exploration and you can earn money and buy equipments to raise your attack and defense points, etc. In fact, every single damage in the game goes through a bunch of RPG-style dice rolls computations but you don't get to see the numbers as a player. It does creates this thing that is fairly unique for an action game, which is that a same monster may take a different number of hits depending on your luck. That seems like a minor thing, but it help to keep you on your toes because that makes the action less previsible.
One of the main features of the game is the animal transformations that allow you to access new areas of the world. Would you say this spin on what was later called 'Metroidvania' was quite unique for its day?
Cornut: Some games had done it before - and you could argue that the original Zelda was quite 'Metroidvania', with the exploration being enabled through your inventory. Wonder Boy III is one of the earliest game that got it right and it feels very natural. There's a much stronger sense of "places" than in previous games. It really feels like you are exploring various locations, whereas the very first Metroid was very contained. The multiple characters was probably a unique spin, too.
What steps have been made to make the game more accessible to today's players?
Cornut: We tweaked the difficulty and added various hints. There's no handholding tutorial but when the game notices that you are stuck in a situation you may get a hint if you visit the pig in the village. We added item descriptions which themselves are hints, and inventory is easier to use and access. We improved the controls - for instance, Mouse-Man is more pleasant to play with than in the original. We ran the game through many playtesters and found out those additions and the sense of exploration still worked great.
How do the new difficulty options work in your game?
Cornut: Easy mode is for more casual players. You get free potions and monsters are generally easier to beat and less damaging. Normal mode is close to the original but maybe a little easier and of course we rebalanced lots of things. For example the Japanese temple was too hard without using the Hades Armor glitch so we made that easier, but to balance out we made the boss last longer. Hard mode has an hourglass running - similarly to Wonder Boy in Monster Land - so you keep bleeding health and have to keep moving fast. Monsters are tougher and we added occasionally faster, trickier monsters.
What were the challenges in securing the license from Westone and SEGA for this release?
Fiquet: Discussing the rights has been a very long process and we have to thank our publisher DotEmu for all the hard work they did on that end, talking to LAT/Westone and Sega. The series is notorious for being a licensing mess. Initially we were considering obtaining a license for the game contents from LAT/Westone and calling it differently, but DotEmu convinced us to shoot for the stars and also talk to Sega, who owns part of the trademark.
What was the reaction from the original creator of the game when he saw your early prototype? Did he give you any insight into the development of the original game at all?
Fiquet: Nishizawa-san was really astonished when he saw the prototype. I think he did not think his game could be remade this way and it had such an impact on two little boys from France.
When we met him in Kyoto, he shared what he could remember from the development, like for example they didn't do much concept drawings, diving straight into making pixel art directly into the game.
What other classic Master System games would you remake if you had the chance?
Cornut: Fantazy Zone? Though honestly the guys at M2 already made an amazing Fantasy Zone II DX which would be really hard to top, so maybe we should avoid Fantasy Zone… so Aztec Adventure? Out Run? Zillion? Monster Land? It's hard to tell - we are so deep down in development right now to think ahead.
Do you have a price point in mind for the April release on Switch?
Cornut: We are finalizing the details and discussing with Nintendo, hopefully we will be able to announce it soon.
Finally, do you have a message for our readers on your hopes for Wonder Boy: The Dragon's Trap on Switch?
Fiquet: Well, I hope they'll like it. I hope new players enjoy one of Master System's gem and returning fans enjoy the new direction without feeling betrayed. But if that's the case, they can still play the original at the press of a button.
Cornut: We poured lots of love into it, we hope it'll show! I like to imagine old fans revisiting the game, maybe with their kids now? People who are interested in details can follow our development blog. Thanks for having us, Nintendo Life!
Thanks to Omar and Ben for their time. Wonder Boy: The Dragon's Trap will launch on the Nintendo Switch eShop on 18th April.