Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap was a passion project for Lizardcube’s lead programmer, Omar Cornut. The original Sega game had always held a special place in the developer’s heart, and remaking it was, in fact, one of the developer’s first development ideas. Now, almost twenty years after initially wanting to remake the game with friends, Cornut is living through the wonderful achievement of having remade such an important childhood game.
Siliconera spoke with Cornut to learn about what it felt like to explore a game that was vital to them while growing up, what it felt like to see the game as a developer, and the connections they feel with its original developers now that they’ve worked so closely with its code.
After years of working in games, what made you want to explore a favorite from your childhood? Why move into doing a remake?
Omar Cornut, Lead Programmer for Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap: I was always very much a fan of Sega’s 8-bit consoles, so this game in particular has been a favorite forever; the sort of game I would replay every year like some people play Super Mario Bros or some people watch classic films during holidays.
The idea of doing something with the series has been a bit of an obsession for a long time now. Back in 1997, one of my first game programming endeavors with friends was to make a game based on The Dragon’s Trap. And, of course, I was terrible at programming back then, and it led nowhere. I even had a friend, Emilie Skog, who created cool music tracks for a hypothetical new game. I feel bad that her tracks were never used anywhere. Sorry Emilie!
So, the idea kept coming at me, and for fifteen years I would tell everyone listening (or not) that I wanted to do something with Wonder Boy. Then, I was planning to move back to France and decided that, at some point, I would want to start a company. Primarily because I am a terrible person to work with, so the only way for me to survive was to try doing my own thing. Now, starting a company is hard, making a new game is hard, and selling/marketing a game is hard. So my idea was: let’s try to make a relatively simple project, so that it gives us the mental bandwidth to care about marketing and running the company.
Doing the remake was my idea of a simple project because there’s little game design to do, and game design is very difficult. And, of course, like every endeavor, the project ended up being much harder than expected. But still, we found the time to care about those non-development things, make our trailers, talk to the community, and answer questions. I knew we needed a publisher, but I also wanted to be hands-on with many aspects of selling the game; small developers often omit developing those skills.
What made you feel confident you could do one of your childhood favorites justice with a remake? Why did you feel that this was the right point in your career to tackle it?
I’ve been tackling emulation of the Master System since 1999, and was always involved with hacking and reverse engineering games of this era. So, I built up that knowledge over time. A few years ago, I decided to use my spare time to start studying the code of the original game ROM. My desire, at the time, was to unearth unknown secrets. It is a game with lots of subtle secrets and behaviors. Players found and published lots of them, but nobody was quite sure that we had found everything. So, I started researching that from a low-level perspective, and eventually I understood enough about the game engine to consider making a remake from the angle of being extra faithful to it.
In 2014, I left my job at Media Molecule, and with that spare time I toyed around with loading data from the old game into a new engine. This was when I got in contact with Ben, who I had worked with years ago on Soul Bubbles (DS). I knew he was a fan of the series, and together we started experimenting with prototyping what a new version could be, and finding the right art style for it. Michael Geyre also joined us early, and he experimented with recreating the soundtrack.
What were you looking to do in remaking Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap? Why did you want to make it over?
I suppose we started from the angle that it was just a passion hobby project and we didn’t really have a master plan. The obvious answer is that the game – being old – could do with a new coating, and when you love a game you want to share it with other people. We also sort of knew that lots of people played the game in their childhood, so at least some people would be happy with a remake. We didn’t really envision the reception to be that positive and to reach so many players.
Because Sega consoles weren’t that popular in the USA and in Japan, it is also a case of us bringing back a game that many people may have missed in their childhood. When put in the context of people understanding this was the game that Sega kids were playing while others were playing say, Super Mario Bros or Zelda, they can appreciate it better. Video games have evolved dramatically, but this 1989 game, with a bunch of tweaks, fixes and, of course, the new art and audio, is surprisingly playable and enjoyable today. It is really a homage to this era.
How did you want to remake it? What things did you want to change about it, and why?
The starting point was to make something faithful that felt like the original. We always gave ourselves the option to change things about the game, but we wanted those changes to be done “consciously”, and never accidentally. Games at the time were programmed with different techniques and different limitations than those of today. In turn, those techniques and limitations had a strong influence on game designers.
The same way, modern tools such as Unity have a very strong influence on game designers today. And I say “game designers” and not “game design” here, because you can do anything with Unity. But it is shaping the mind of game creators in a certain way, which affects the end product. So, old games had very slow CPU, very little memory, and that has very direct influence on how monsters behave, how the game controls, and how physics is simulated. It’s hard to replicate those details without looking at the old code with a magnifying glass. And, on top of that, that we wanted to add the hand-drawn graphics and the acoustic music. Something that felt like an animated comic book in Ben’s style.
What was it like exploring the game from a developer’s perspective after years of exploring it as fans? What new aspects of the game did you see?
It feels like doing archaeological work. Sometimes we stumble on a coding or design decision that doesn’t seem to make sense, and we have to try make sense of it. And the answer is often simply that those games were made in a rush, using limited tooling, by people who had access to much less information that we have today (they had no internet!).
So, the end result, albeit a beautiful game, contains traces of human craft and human error. It is inspiring to remember that those 4 Japanese developers were just like us – learning stuff, making mistakes, and trying to ship their game maybe for a deadline, and in spite of all of this, they made an amazing game! And we are here playing a balancing act of being protective with what they created and also taking our share of responsibility trying to improve it.
Did remaking the game change your opinion on it in any way? Do you feel differently about the original now that you’ve worked on creating something of our own from it?
It just feels weird and fantastic to be part of that series’ history that we used to look upon with the eyes of fans.
How do you leave a mark on a series through a remake?
It feels like the main thing we did was to put the spotlight back onto a series that was expected to be dead and forgotten and breathe life into it. So, suddenly many people remember the Wonder Boy games, and it feels like the series is alive again, and new things could happen to it.
A lot of comments have been kindly saying that we have set a new bar of how to remake a game. Maybe it will inspire people to look at some of the cool games from the past and see how they could be re-imagined. In our case, what we made was more like a remaster, and I don’t think every old game would lend themselves to be straight remastered and be impactful. But, there are certainly many game designs and characters that are worthy of being made into new games entirely.
How does it feel knowing you may have made the next generation’s favorite game, one they might remake years later?
I don’t think we made a “next generation’s favorite game” in any way. It is a game that’s enjoyable, but it exists in a context. One thing that is very touching is to hear from people who were playing this game with their parents at the time; and some have unfortunately passed away now. And today, twenty seven years later, those people are sharing the game with their kids. So, in a way, it symbolizes a passage of generation. And maybe those kids one day will look at this game as something their parents were excited about, and it’ll be special for them as well.