Interview: Ryuichi Nishizawa on Wonder Boy – Asha in Monster World and the challenges of remaking a classic

Wonder Boy, or Monster World as it is otherwise known, has proven to be the most enduring of video game franchises. Indeed, the first entry in the decade spanning series debuted all the way back in 1986 as an arcade game. Later this year the remake of Monster World IV, Wonder Boy: Asha in Monster World, will be released. So, we thought it was an ideal time to have a chat with Ryuichi Nishizawa – Game Creator and Founder of Wonder Boy IP – and pick his brain on all things Wonder Boy.

TSA – Wonder Boy is a series that has been beloved by players for decades now, what is it that makes the franchise so enduring?

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Ryuichi Nishizawa – Opening with a hard question, I see. (laughs) Hmm… I don’t know if anyone has the “right” answer to that, but I suspect one important factor is that for many people out there, the Wonder Boy series was a formative experience in their youth. In Japanese, we say “gentaiken”, which, according to the Japanese dictionary, means “Early childhood experiences that exert an unconscious influence over the direction of an individual’s personality and behaviour”… so please give it a good translation. (laughs) When I was a kid, there were no video games yet, so my formative experiences were dominated by manga, anime and movies. In the same sense, I think the generation about 10 years younger than me encountered the Wonder Boy series when they were at that highly impressionable age, and it probably left a strong impression on them. Also, the enthusiasts of that era’s games are themselves now working on the frontlines within game development studios and game media generally; it’s likely that they’re spreading that enthusiasm to the people around them in their efforts to create things inspired and derived from Wonder Boy. I felt that when I met Omar from Lizardcube and Fabien from GameAtelier, and witnessed for myself their incredible passion for these games. It’s amazing how powerful a formative experience can be.

TSA – Wonder Boy – Asha in Monster World is a remake of 1994’s Wonder Boy 4 – how have you approached adapting the game for a modern audience?

Ryuichi Nishizawa – The most important thing was having a user-friendly gaming experience. If you don’t modernize the controls and overall experience, I think it will cause players today unnecessary stress. If you try playing MWIV on the Mega Drive Mini, I think you’ll see what I mean, but I feel Asha’s movements in the original lack a certain liveliness. Her movement speed is slow, and with her short sword, it’s scary how close you have to get to enemies to hit them. Because the standards of what constitutes “good controls” have changed over the years, I figured it would be difficult to find a large audience for this game without modernizing it. That was something I’d been thinking about before the development began. That’s why our very first task with this project was to figure out exactly how much we should improve Asha’s mobility. We did a lot of experimenting there. 

TSA – What has proved the most challenging aspects of the original game to update?

Ryuichi Nishizawa – That’s a good question. The controllers for modern consoles inevitably impart a certain feel to the games they’re designed for, so the most difficult thing in this remake was finding the right accommodation for that reality. No joke, up to the very end of the development, we were still debating about how to improve the controls. To be honest, analog sticks and analog buttons aren’t very suited for platformer action games. (laughs) That was something I learned very well with this development. Unlike the Mega Drive, where the controller input data is only 0 or 1, modern consoles allow for an infinite gradation of control between 0 and 1, and changing those data values also inevitably causes a delay of several milliseconds.  For those who started gaming after analog controllers had already become the norm, they might not even notice, but I worried that players of the original MWIV would be bothered by the difference. This is an action game, so you’re constantly jumping, attacking, thrusting your shield forth as soon as you land, jumping again, and doing upward and downwards thrusts. We want players to feel like they can perform any action they want, with crisp, accurate, and reliable controls. The moment you press a button, your character should respond on-screen: believe it or not, realizing something so obvious was unexpectedly difficult. It wasn’t something I expected at all. 

TSA – What benefits do those gorgeous 2.5D visuals bring, and whose vision created them?

Ryuichi Nishizawa – The person who made them wasn’t specifically trying to create “2.5D visuals” per se. I think it’s simply that, in the course of re-building the original MWIV world for a 3D space and applying movement and camerawork appropriate for an action platformer, it resulted in something resembling “2.5D” — but all those graphics and art were created exactly the same as any other 3D game. I think it’s better to create the graphics in 3D, with restrictions, and then display them on-screen in a 2D way. We had decided very early on that we’d create all the visual assets in full 3D, and I never even considered any other approach. By making those assets in 3D first, it gave us a huge amount of freedom for how we present and render them in-game (using LookDev, for example). Being able to adjust the size, facing, coloring, shading and animation of the character graphics and backgrounds, all in real-time — it’s an ideal working environment for a director. It vastly increases your ability to test out new ideas as they occur to you during the development. There’s no reason to develop your game in any other way, as far as I’m concerned!

TSA – How has having multiple members of the original development team helped in creating Wonder Boy: Asha in Monster World?

Ryuichi Nishizawa – I feel like the development progressed very smoothly. You’ll always be confronted with problems in any development. When that happens, our approach is to consult with the team to brainstorm and find the best way to move forward. Perhaps what’s most important in those situations, is the degree of consensus in the team on how much we agree on how to evaluate quality and what our values are. What are you putting the most emphasis on: Graphics? Gameplay? Length of play time or the story? These are all possibilities, but if there’s too much divergence within your team on what matters, not only will you not make progress, but the final quality of the game will be impacted. Thankfully, on that point, I don’t think there was much antagonism between the development members of Westone. When having to decide which things to revise or not, which ideas are good and should be further expanded on, and ultimately where the development resources should be invested, the fact that we have those shared values at Westone was a huge blessing.

TSA – What has it been like returning to the game after all this time?

Ryuichi Nishizawa – It’s certainly been awhile since I led the charge on console game development, but I worked on smartphone game development from 2014 to 2016, doing planning and directing, so it’s not like there were any major blank periods. For this project we used Unity as the game engine, and I created mocks for each stage of the adventure, as well as a timeline framework for the production scenes instead of a storyboard. I also created the data that governs Asha’s movement routes for every stage as well. Overall I was more involved in the direct day-to-day development work than most people probably realize.

TSA – Was there ever a concern about losing what was so loved about the original game in taking on this remake?

Ryuichi Nishizawa – Not in the least. (laughs) I had an image in my head, before the development began, of what I wanted the finished product to look like and I knew if we could reach that vision, MWIV fans would be pleased. In the end things turned out slightly different than I’d planned, but I think we managed to achieve something almost exactly as I’d first envisioned it. I expect some fans will be disappointed that we chose to go 3D, but adopting 3D also lets us add new elements to the game, which I hope they’re able to enjoy. 

TSA – This will be the first game in the series to be fully voiced – how did you decide on the actors to bring Asha to life?

Ryuichi Nishizawa – Asha was performed by Ai Fairouz, a Japanese voice actress who is fluent in Arabic. I believe her Father was Egyptian. As for why we selected her specifically, she came highly recommended by Producer Saito. For a long time he’d thought “if anyone is going to voice Asha, it has to be Ai Fairouz!”, so this was his chance to finally realize that. She also performed the voices for Pepelogoo, Queen Praprill, and 26 other characters. Axe Beak and Dark Pepelogoo were voiced by her too. 

TSA – Wonder Boy fans will be relieved to know that Pepelogoo will be returning – what can you tell us about how the little blue creature will assist Asha on this outing?

Ryuichi Nishizawa – Pepelogoo is Asha’s trusty partner who supports her on her adventure. Many of the dungeon puzzles and gimmicks we’ve prepared involve using Pepelogoo. For this remake, we’ve increased the amount of animation and amped up his adorableness. We also added the ability for him to grab items that are otherwise out of Asha’s reach. If you discover items along your way that seem unattainable, you can use Pepelogoo to get it for her.

TSA – A New Game + has been promised, what can you tell us about what changes this will bring to the core experience?

Ryuichi Nishizawa – In MWIV there are items called Life Drops, and if you collect 10 of them, Asha’s Blue Hearts will be permanently increased by one. The original game contained 150 of these Life Drops, but there seem to have been many players who enjoyed collecting them all, so we’ve added some extra features in this remake geared to those who want to do that. To wit, we’ve increased the total number of Life Drops from 150 to 200, and the Pause Screen shows you not only the total number you’ve acquired this far, but also how many you’ve collected in each individual area. The original MWIV also didn’t allow you to return to dungeons you’ve cleared, so if you missed a Life Drop the only option was to reset the game, but we’ve improved that and now you can replay those sections as many times as you’d like. If you collect all 200 and defeat the last boss, you get the “Perfect Replay” achievement and the Spirit of the Lamp will also sing your praises in the epilogue. Try and get them all! 

TSA – There has been some criticism of the game from media from early trailers  – how do you counter their opinions and have you taken note of what they have said?

Ryuichi Nishizawa – After we released the first trailer, we went and read through the feedback from users on various media sites. We compiled and organized their comments in Excel, and had a meeting where we went through each issue and discussed which ones we should try and address. One of the most common requests was to improve Asha’s movement. Some felt her movements looked sluggish, others said the motion didn’t look smooth, and some thought it just didn’t look like Asha. In regards to the sluggishness and general feeling that it didn’t look crisp and responsive, we as developers were actually in agreement; the movement is the foundation of any action game, so we took a very active stance on improving that. When you make 3D animation today, there’s a tendency to make it look realistic. So we set to work trying to remove unnecessary frames and introduce more dynamism in the animation like in Japanese anime aesthetic (which is characterized by using less frames). For a modern look you want to emphasize a sense of continuity in the animation by inserting additional frames in the motion blending tools in Unity. But if you overdo this, it can make the player controls feel sluggish, so you need to find the proper balance as you go. This is an essential bit of know-how for any action game development.

The one that was harder to answer was people who said the new character model didn’t “look like Asha”. This was something we continued to hear throughout the development and we did analyse the original pixel art animation and run comparisons, but… we came to the conclusion that most of those complaints had less to do with differences in Asha’s actual model, and more with the image people had in their head of the character. In other words, players see Asha’s 2D sprite on-screen, but they elaborate on and supplement it in their memory. Someone pointed out, for example that Asha’s hip shaking animation was different from the original game, but after comparing the two, I can only surmise that their impression of that animation did not come from the game alone, but is somehow augmented by and conjoined with the world of their imagination. That said, we know many fans have been looking forward to the hip shaking animation, so even up to the very last phase of the development, we continued to work on and refine it. After many revisions and rejections, we ended up with 5 animation patterns for that, and we decided to use each of them (they’re cycled through at random).

TSA – Do you have any parting words for fans waiting patiently for Asha’s arrival?

Ryuichi Nishizawa – It’s been 27 years now since the release of the original MWIV on the Mega Drive, and I feel so happy to have had the chance to re-make it after all this time. The freedom we have in our modern development environment today is like a paradise compared with the 16-bit era. No longer behold to any memory restrictions, we’ve been able to realize almost every idea we had. In fact, contrary to the old days where you needed the skill to work around all the limitations, you could say that the talent needed for game developers today is the ability to manage the manifold possibilities and choices that could otherwise overwhelm you. In today’s world, with game engines and the increasing democratization of game development, the very act of remaking a 27 year old game for modern audiences is an interesting phenomenon in and of itself, I think.

We’ve improved a number of areas in this remake in order to craft a game that will not only delight fans of the original, but will also appeal to those who never played it. We did more than just raise the visuals and sound to HD standards; we also optimized the controls for modern sensibilities, renovated the save system, and much more. On the other hand, aspects of the game closely tied to the original essence, such as Asha’s handling and controls, the dungeon gimmicks, working together with Pepelogoo and the story were all left unchanged (as much as we could). In this way we’ve been able to present a MWIV that is still very much the same game, but simply expressed in an updated style. And I think this is the best way to maximize the appeal and fun of a remake. If you’ve recently played the original MWIV on the Mega Drive Mini, I think you will have fun spotting all the differences. That’s a pleasure you can only get from a remake and I hope you will enjoy experiencing it for yourself. 

Wonder Boy: Asha in Monster World releases on the 28th of May 2021 for Nintendo Switch and PS4, and the 29th of May on PC.

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