Taking control with Jack Warren: Balan Wonderworld

3D platformers have dominated the video game market for a very long time. They started with “Super Mario 64” in 1996, but died down significantly around the seventh generation of consoles. So naturally, when I heard that Square-Enix was hiring the Co-Creator of Sonic the Hedgehog, Yuji Naka, to create a BRAND NEW 3D PLATFORMER, I had mixed feelings. On one hand, it was great to hear that such an icon in the gaming industry is coming back to develop a new 3D platformer, but at the same time, Square-Enix had never developed anything like it before.

On July 23th, 2020, Square-Enix unveiled “Balan Wonderworld” alongside a quick teaser trailer. Not much new content was shown off until January 28th, 2021, when they released a free demo version. “Balan Wonderworld,” immediately gained internet attraction, but in the intended way. There were only four total control options: run, move the camera, pause, and every single other button was assigned to “suit action,” which I’ll get to later. The main point we need to take away from the demo is how much it affected the game’s sales down the line.
“Balan Wonderworld” was released on March 26th, 2021, to horrendous reviews and sales. People mocked the game for the aforementioned terrible controls and the fact that there was a cut-scene that gave people seizures, resulting in a day-one patch. Even the name had people talking. Balan WonderLAND sounds infinitely better than Balan WonderWORLD. Side rant aside, let’s get into why “Balan Wonderworld” is renowned as a commercial flop.

The first major loss for most people when the game came out, was the story, and by story, there was none. In an interview, Yuji Naka said, “To be honest, I’m not really the type of developer who focuses on a game’s script. I always emphasize how the game feels and the action, while the story may be a bit weak. I wasn’t very good with stories.” So the plot of “Balan Wonderworld” is as follows… Whenever someone is in a dark spot in life, the Balan theatre appears. Everyone on earth visits it at least once in their lives to meet Balan, though nobody can ever remember it. However, if someone is in desperate need of help, Balan will transport them to “Wonderworld” to regain a good state of mind, then send the person back. But apparently, Lance the antagonist, takes over Wonderworld, forcing all of the people in Wonderworld to be his friend (and subsequently turn into monsters.) Finally, the main character comes in to save the day.

Now, if the main character is just a child, how on earth are you going to defeat all of these terrifying monsters? Well…the answer involves the 80 powerups (suits) the game loves to constantly introduce. The powerups range from actually useful, to “box fox,” which is a costume that will turn you into a box… whenever it feels like it. Other weird powerups include the “Lovely Lantern” which lights up your area in the dark… also whenever it feels like it. Unfortunately, all of these power ups are really the main problem with the game, and like mentioned before, there is only one action button. This leads to some powerups not being able to jump (an essential part of all 3D platformers), or only activating when you’re not moving. Also, a lot of the powerups are phased out fast, like the “Water Blaster suit” which is introduced in a level full of lava. The whole purpose of the water blaster is to create platformable mounds of obsidian when you spray water on the lava. But after using it for a few minutes, all the lava in the entire map is changed to water, rendering the whole powerup useless.

Even with all these major hiccups, I don’t think this game deserves all the hate that it gets. The soundtrack is endearing (even though there are accusations of the lead music director copying themes from “Back to the Future,”) and the CGI cutscenes are incredible. And with this, I will leave you with probably one of my favorite reviews of all time when I was doing some research on this game: “I came in blind, but wow! This is a masterpiece unparalleled in by anything else in industry. This really Wonderworld reminds me of playing second best game Shadow the Hedgehog. I feel like speedy little rodent in the field, pouncing upon all dancer who may dare intrude on my style. Gameplay is Mario Odyssey, but much more impressive than anything Baka Miyamoto could make… Balan has been affected by such a tragic fate, do not listen to those who are not sound of mind. Play this game to become abundant in fun!”