There’s a certain joy in seeing iconic names from the annals of video game history being given a blank cheque to start a new game studio, resurrect a cult classic game, and dress it up in spiritual successor threads. We’ve seen Koji Igarashi bring back the whip-cracking action of Castlevania’s glorious 2D era in the Bloodstained games, Frontier Developments hit the rollercoaster nail on the head with Planet Coaster, and Yooka-Laylee is a quirky riff on Banjo-Kazooie.
Balan Wonderworld, is not one of those games.
Positioning itself as a 3D platformer from Sonic the Hedgehog co-creators Yuji Naka and Naoto Ohshima, the game looks like it might be a long-lost sibling to Sega’s iconic blue blur and the beloved Nights Into Dreams, but the end result is a boring chore of an adventure. Beneath its colourful clothing, vibrant worlds, and madcap mascot, Balan Wonderworld doesn’t exactly leave a lasting impression on anyone who spends a few dozen hours with it.
It’s a pity, because the skeleton that it attempts to superglue more meatier content onto is at the very least competent in terms of exploring a zone, collecting currency, and uncovering a few secrets along the way. There’s also a story to all of this, but for the life of me I genuinely cannot tell you what it’s even about. You’re apparently a sad boy or girl, wandering around and staring at your freakishly massive hands before a Japanese version of Peewee Herman whisks you away to another world to do…stuff?
I have no idea, and even with these animated sequences having a production value that would give Pixar a boner, I can’t say I cared too much to even Google up a wiki to see just what the heck is really going on. There’s something more about a rot breaking out at the heart of the Wonderworld that you explore through a dozen levels, and it’s a downright shame that sequences that look so good have about as much depth as defective anti-submarine explosives.
Beyond that, Balan Wonderworld’s other claim to fame is its one-button control scheme. Everything you do, apart from swapping costumes which are tied to the shoulder buttons, is done via a single thumb-hammering of a button. Jump, attack, and interact actions mapped to a single input sounds just fine in an era where no part of the controller buffalo is wasted, but the restriction feels unnecessary.
It’s not like kids can’t handle extra buttons either, if that’s the excuse that Balan Wonderworld is going far, as I’ve seen the little bastards steal credit cards so that they can afford more stuff in freemium games. The problem here is that when you’ve got one button overseeing the entire experience, it’s bound to create a clumsy clash of actions once you start unlocking more costumes which gives your character new abilities to play around with.
Here’s the kicker: With your jump button and the action button of a new costume being assigned to the same input, it massively limits the meat and potatoes platforming action that Balan Wonderworld is built around. Some suits have workarounds for this problem, but a large number of them tether you to terra firma and instances where you aren’t wearing costumes are few and far between. It’s a bafflingly bad decision, compounded by the entire costume-swapping mechanic going through a small animation everytime you want to slip into something more useful if you have it.
That doesn’t just sap any fun out of the game, it slows it down as well. If your costume has an attack option, you’re going to be buggered when you come to a platforming section all in the name of unnecessary simplicity. Even the menu system is afflicted with the same one-button curse, as you need to scroll around to a back button instead of just being able to hit the B or circle button, an idea that every video game released in the last 20 years has done just fine with.
Some of these costumes don’t even feel worth the effort of collecting, as their special abilities require charging up or only activate when it feels like doing so. Seriously, go browse around for “box fox”. That these costumes are meant to be used to fight back against various enemies who can easily be dodged or flatout ignored, doesn’t say much for the game either.
But here’s the really wtf bit: Barely-usable costumes with lengthy changing animations is bad enough, but take a single hit and you’ll lose those threads. If an attack makes you drop a costume that you actually need, you have to work your way back to the point where you first discovered it just so that you can have it back in your inventory. Provided that you have a spare key to unlock the gem that the costume is inside of, which admittedly is never too far away but still. We’re approaching Quiet Man levels of frustrating here.
And that frustration is only reinforced by the need for simplicity, which becomes more aggravating over time. Boasting that it has over 80 costumes to collect sounds impressive, but in reality the game would have been better with an even dozen costumes and an extra button input for using them to their full advantage.
That despair over what could have been extends to the levels themselves. Colourful and whimsical? Absolutely. Designed in a haphazrad way that makes no real sense? Double-absolutely. A good platforming game, like the superb Kaze and the Wild Masks, knows that when you introduce a new gameplay mechanic into its world, it needs to create a linear path that educates you on that ability and then challenges you to use it to its maximum potential.\
Balan Wonderworld fails that test, sticking to a uniform design that seldom allows for imaginative use of its various costumes to unlock more interesting paths. They’re mesmerising to look at and yet somehow boring to explore at the same time, a paradox that makes no sense and feeds into a gameplay loop that feels unnecessarily restrictive in design.
I could go on, mentioning the boring boss battles you occasionally encounter, tedious mini-games, and the Balan’s Bout event being an S-rank bastard of unfair timing in its execution. I could wax lyrical about Balan Wonderworld’s endgame being absolutely broken and not worth running even if you’re addicted to getting 100% in video games, but after two weeks I’m pretty much done and dusted with this train wreck.
Balan Wonderworld is a game of missed opportunities. It’s simplified control scheme robs it of any of the subtle complexity that the genre is best at, its various ideas are half-baked at best, and its core gameplay is a taxing uphill climb through even the most basic of platforming principles. Amusing visual design aside, the only thing that Balan Wonderworld is good at is being consistently boring.
Last Updated: April 8, 2021