Omar Cornut may be one of Europe's biggest Sega fans. His extensive collection purportedly includes every Master System game ever made, of which Wonder Boy 3 is his favorite.
"I was a Sega kid," Cornut laughs as a throng of Japanese gamers remark on his remake's gorgeous hand-drawn animation.
The French developer, whose previous credits include the critical darling Tearaway and Pixeljunk Shooter, has been working on and off on the remake since at least 2013. In an effort to discover some of Wonder Boy III's deeper secrets, Cornut began to reverse engineer the ROM, which helped him to understand its physics and design. The next thing he knew, he was working on a remake with the blessing of its original creator, though it took some work to get hold of the name.
This isn't just any remake, though. Cornut is building the game in his own engine - a rarity in this day and age. When I ask why he isn't using an established toolset like Unity, he answers jokingly, "Because I'm masochistic."
After a beat, he adds, "It keeps me awake and forces me to learn new things. It's a lot of work, but I keep getting better at programming."
It helps that he's building Wonder Boy III on an established framework, which narrows the project/s focus somewhat and makes it easier to deal with issues like timing and direction sets. The fact that they are building on top of the original game also means that they can draw every frame of animation by hand. The overall effect is like that of a storybook; and its best, it even matches the likes of Cuphead.
Cornut's partner on the project is Ben Fiquet, who has worked for studios like Dreamworks on animated projects. He cites Aladdin for the Sega Genesis and Dave Perry-led projects like Earthworm Jim as his inspiration in doing a hand-drawn game of his own. "People enjoy it. It's something that you don't see nowadays in games. You see a lot of 3D, a lot of clipart animation, but not a lot of hand-drawn art."
So far, the team's ambition for the project appears to be paying off. The effect of the hand-drawn art is tremendous when seen in person - a look that also manages to enhance its feeling of authenticity. It also makes it easy to appreciate even if you didn't play the original game. Like most Americans, I didn't own a Sega Master System, and my experience with the Wonder Boy series is preciously limited. But the remake's art helps it to stand on its own.
It also helps that the gameplay has also seemingly stood the test of time. Wonder Boy III is often called a Metroidvania, a genre that has been in vogue since the explosion of the indie scene, and its open-ended level design fits well with modern sensibilities. In addition, Wonder Boy III incorporates a number of gameplay styles, which keeps things feeling fluid and interested. One minute you'll be a mouse with a sword and shield that can run along walls and ceilings; the next, you turn into a dragon that spits fire as its primary means of attack.
The demo I saw had its difficulty turned down to facilitate the hands-on gameplay; but the final version should reflect the difficulty of the original, which was reportedly quite tough. It's easy enough to see how hard it can be when fighting the bosses, which are both huge and have difficult to reach hitboxes, usually on their head. With a relatively limited life bar, there's not a lot of room for error.
All told, Wonder Boy III is a very interesting game, and it should definitely be on your radar, even if you never played the original. Cornut and company have only been working in earnest on it for about eight months now - after years of planning - but even with placeholder art and sound effects, it's looking really good. And despite being more than 25 years old at this point, it fits in with existing games rather well.
When it comes down to it, Wonder Boy III is a passion project, and it's unlikely to engender the same sort of nostalgia as a more familiar retro game. But that makes it to view Wonder Boy III with clear eyes; and with eyes open, it looks very impressive indeed.