One of the more unusual things I personally tend to do in gaming is strictly follow a developer’s game creations and willingly buy everything they either produce, develop, or work on. Developers like SUDA 51, Keiji Inafune and Hideo Kojima are just some of the developers whose games I will purchase nonchalantly and without fail regardless of how the final product turns out. Sometimes that does lead to disappointment on a smaller scale (here’s looking at you Mighty No. 9 and Let It Die…) and sometimes we get a true gem of a video game. Seriously, Kojima has every major Metal Gear game and Death Stranding under his belt. The man is a gaming god.
Yuji Naka is no stranger to gaming and having his name amongst the many famous Japanese developers. His name is right up there with the likes of Shigeru Miyamoto, and being the forefather of the Sonic games, he is in an echelon all unto himself: He’s been part of Nights into Dreams, Burning Rangers and Chu Chu Rocket. He was also the creator of Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg and produced that title with Sonic Team, and it is perhaps the best GameCube game you didn’t play. His name is also recognized amongst the Phantasy Star series and PuyoPop Fever games. The man is a certified legend of gaming, and much like Inafune, Kojima and SUDA 51 before, he is prone to an eventual slip up in a game creation. Sadly, such is the case with his latest work, Balan Wonderworld.
Now that doesn’t mean Balan Wonderworld is a bad game; far from it. It does mean that a certain school of design is at play here and it is one that Yuji Naka seemingly hasn’t grown from. Whereas other developers adapt to the current generation of gaming and bring forth that school of design into their franchises, Balan Wonderworld sits almost too comfortably in an old school design mindset that feels better at home with something like the Sega Saturn than it does the current crop of video game systems. Balan Wonderworld is a love letter to the platformers of old, back when there wasn’t a ton of processing power and these kinds of games didn’t need to do much to wow us. We are in a different era and age of gaming this time around, and when even Mario games elevate their gameplay to meet the demands and expectations of gamers nowadays, Balan Wonderworld is at ease showcasing a look into the past. It is highly obvious this is a dated game with questionable design choices but at the end of the day, Yuji Naka was left to create his vision the way he saw it, and with so many games often changed due to publisher or developer interference, that is somewhat refreshing to see in today’s day and age.
Balan Wonderworld starts with you picking a character who is struggling with circumstances they find unfavorable. The boy, Leo, is down emotionally due to a lost friendship and the girl, Emma, is sad because her maids keep ignoring her and whisper to each other behind her back. As they run from their troubles, they stumble upon Balan’s theater and our adventure begins. Balan itself is this tall lanky character with green hair, a big hat, and a creepy clownish smile. He brings your character into the hub world connected to a dozen individuals who need your help being freed from whatever has them down. Why this clownish smiling creature who has borderline anime and superhero powers needs our help is beyond me, but that’s the adventure we set off on…one taking us through 12 worlds (with two stages in each and a boss fight to boot). Also, each character you free winds up doing some sort of musical dance number. I have no idea why this happens, but the music is glorious and cheerful and sets the mood that you’re doing something good and right. I say it like this because outside of a few cutscenes, there is almost no story whatsoever to this. I know there is a doppelganger of Balan threatening something and that it keeps trying to corrupt these people and turn them into shadow monsters, but the who and the why are glossed over for dance numbers and stages that make you feel like you took acid and decided to play a platformer with the screen glued to your eyes.
Most of the game you’re mainly finding golden Balan statues and other collectibles to progress through to the next area. There is also some sort of side thing that involves feeding these Chao-like creatures eggs to create more of them and they build a tower. I stopped doing it partway through because it didn’t seem like it was going anywhere, nor does the game give you a reason or incentive to chase that particular goal.
Doing all this involves playing through the stages for each world, and your powers are derived from costumed suits you obtain in the game. With 80 in total to find, they are the main way to get past enemy encounters and some of the game’s puzzles. The gameplay is intentionally simple, with a single button control scheme to handle what each costume does. The problem with this is that button happens to be your jump button…you know…the key thing you tend to do in all platform games. Some of the costumes have an ability to fire a projectile. This means that you won’t be able to jump in a particular costume and must run around, firing at the enemies that are more mobile than you, frantically switching to a costume that will let you jump so you can dodge the more craftier enemies. I’m extremely grateful that switching suits counts as invincibility frames, meaning you’ll be able to avoid damage by simply switching suits; a tactic necessary for some of the game’s cheesier boss fights. Yes, there are some suits that are so ridiculously overpowered you can just horde that suit and use special keys to unlock it whenever you lose it. I can’t count the number of times the Frost Fairy suit got me out of a jam and made it easier for me to collect statues due to its insane mobility or get out of a sticky combat situation. Probably the best costume in the game.
I also wouldn’t mind this if the level design wasn’t so tedious and boring: It’s mostly straightforward pathways and simple jumping puzzles. You have your typical platformer game list of locales: green farm fields, lava stage, ice stage….you get the picture. I wish I could say more about the stages, but none of them really stuck out for me. It felt like a “by-the-books” platform school of design with nothing fresh or innovative to keep me interested.
It’s heavily evident that this game was designed for a younger audience, but the marketing clearly skewed towards fans of the developer and those of us who were around to enjoy Nights into Dreams when we were younger. It feels like Yuji Naka attempted to make this be a spiritual successor to that game but missed all opportunities to push the medium forward as other platform games in the past have. It feels like a rehash of the Nights sequel that came out on the Wii, just not as good. What we are left with is an average 3d platformer that clearly shows signs that it could have been made better. The charm is there, but unless you’re like me and a fan of the developers prior works or like to collect shiny objects in your games, I cannot advise picking this one up at full price.