Lizardcube’s Ben Fiquet reveals how he updated the graphics of a childhood classic in Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap.
There are video game remakes, and there are video game remakes. Last year’s update of the cult 1989 Sega Master System classic, Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap, is one of the very best.
Lizardcube’s remake has been widely praised for its hand-drawn graphical treatment, and thrilling orchestration of Shinichi Sakamoto’s original soundtrack. The end product – retitled as Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap – respects the timeless gameplay of the original, but is also vibrant, and appealing to modern tastes. It made our games of the year list, and, in our review, we called it “a gift that keeps on giving.”
In his talk at GDC 2018, Lizardcube artist, Ben Fiquet, spoke about process of reinterpreting the original game’s art, animation, and characters.
“There have been many Wonder Boy games, starting from a young caveman on a skateboard, to slowly shifting towards a fantasy, action-adventure platformer,” says Fiquet. “This was a big licence at the time, giving birth to numerous games on various platforms, but what mattered to us was Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap. It’s considered one of the best games of the platform genre.”
Revisiting the original
When Lizardcube’s Omar Cornut suggested remaking the game, Fiquet was initially unsure how to approach the project.
“How do you start? How do you transform nostalgia into something artistically relevant?” he says. “I really wanted to re-imagine the game to the best of my abilities. Even if I had to do a lot of interpretation, I really wanted to mirror the original inspirations that were projected into the game at the time.“
Fiquet looked to some of his favourite artists for inspiration. The work of European comic artists, Janry and Gazzotti, and the character design work of Dragon-Ball creator, Akira Toriyama, whom Fiquet believes was an influence on Westone, the original game’s developers. He decided to employ a hand-drawn line art style with thick lines and subtle colours, rather than use pixel-art.
With modern game development having few constraints in terms of creating 2D visuals, Fiquet emphasises that there is still a need to create concept art, and continually refine ideas and prototypes.
“With 2D the only constrain is your imagination. Good art will help your game not be overlooked, and will ultimately bring more sales.”
Respecting the source material was all important, however.
“I would like to praise the art of the original game. There were beautiful choices made, despite the constraints of the Master System,” Fiquet says. “The sky, for example is rarely blue. This indicates delicate taste and the work of colour theory. It’s simple, but it makes everything rich and vibrant.”
As work began, Fiquet’s initial approach to redesigning the characters was fairly loose, but over time his work began to reflect the original game more closely, despite being heavily stylised.
“The mind-set I was in for this project was to make it look as I saw it when I was a kid. I decided that the Master System’s sprites were the right starting point.”
There were restrictions, however. Fiquet had to respect the physical boundaries of the original sprites, for example. However, because it was remake, one benefit was that he knew the full scope of the assets he need to create from the start.
“One thing I tried to do was add a sense of unity between the character and backgrounds,” he says. “This is why the lines are equally thick in the background and on the characters. I wanted it to feel like we had created scenery, not just gameplay assets.”
Another challenge was pin-pointing what the characters were originally meant to look like. The design of the Wonder Boy, for example, changed considerably across the original series of games, and there was very little contemporaneous key art to use as a reference. Fiquet met with the game’s original creator, Shinichi Sakamoto, to seek guidance on how to approach the design of the game’s characters.
“He told me that at the time they really do those kind of things, as they didn’t have the time. They drew everything in pixel art, straight into the game.”
Because the game has the option to switch between modern and original graphics, Fiquet had to carefully consider animation design and transition length. But even with these limitations, there was an opportunity to breathe new life into the game.
Fiquet took inspiration from the games he played as a child, including Street Fighter II and David Perry’s work on Disney’s Aladdin.
In Lion Man form, Wonder Boy’s animation shines a light on how modern techniques can complement retro design. Each swing of Lion Man’s sword is slower than the collision hit box at the start of the animation, but catches up at the end. It’s almost imperceptible to the player, but the effect is a feeling of weight and impact.
“We didn’t change the physics behind it because you can still play the original game. But even then, just adding squash and stretch can give you a different appreciation for how the character looks on-screen,” says Fiquet. “In my opinion, even if the control stays a bit stiff, you now have a better sense of your character.”
And next time you play the game, look out for how weapons swap hands when a character switches direction. It’s a brief, but effective, sleight of hand that makes no physical sense, but nor does it look peculiar to the player.
“Omar managed to create a splendid engine where I could put everything I needed,” says Fiquet. “All of it running in real-time, on top of the original game. If you feel like a tinkerer, you can access that tool in the Steam version.”
Considering the game started out as a fan project, its success and reception has left its mark on Fiquet, and the Lizardcube team.
“I feel incredibly grateful. Not only did we get to work on a dear childhood memory, but we managed to do it the way we wanted, and it resonated with players.”
Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap is now available on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows, Mac, and Linux.