Matters Of Import: Wonder Project J2 Brings Masterful 2D To The N64
Posted by Kerry Brunskill
Making cute robots girls cry
The N64 never did get much 2D love when it was around, but games like Wonder Project J2 — as well as Treasure’s Bangai-O — show that other developers were missing a trick by ignoring the untapped potential of this side of Nintendo’s hardware. First published by Enix in 1996, Josette’s adventures on Blueland Island remain a memorable experience for anyone brave enough to explore the N64’s import library.
Life on the island is a distinctly Miyazaki-like (My Neighbour Totoro, Spirited Away, Laputa, etc.) mix of low-fi technology wrapped up with a fantasy bow. The main character in the game is Josette, a humanoid robot who finds herself learning how to integrate into human society with nobody to guide her other than her robotic bird, Bird (not the most imaginative name), and you.
Wonder Project J2 goes out of its way to integrate the player seamlessly into the game, and it largely does this by breaking the fourth wall and making the player a central part of the story. You, the player, can see and hear Josette via your TV screen, although the only way you can interact with her is through Bird – pointing out objects of interest, handing her books and other items to learn or practise with, and by giving yes or no responses to her frequent questions. So when Josette runs up to the screen to ask a question, it isn't because the animators wanted to give you a good view of her face, but because she is directly addressing you, the mysterious person on the other side of the glass, and she wants to know what you think. It’s a simple technique, but a powerful one.
You can respond (via Bird) to Josette’s puzzlement about the world in which she lives in a few ways depending on the situation; questions can be given a straight yes/no reply, or if she needs to do something you can buy her the relevant book to read from the shop on board her submarine home (although it’s unlikely she’ll understand it the first time through), or you can point out objects of interest that you want her to notice or interact with. Being such a cute character, your first instinct will be to agree with everything she says and load her up with her favourite pudding, but as with real people the response that makes them happy and the response that helps them learn aren't always the same thing.
The first part of the game is pretty free form, allowing you to help Josette grow in a natural way as she learns both from you and the people she meets on the island. This starts off simple enough with actions such as greeting people in an appropriate way or learning the importance of cleanliness, but as she becomes more human she starts to ask about more complex issues such as emotions, life, and death. Some of these scenes can be truly heartbreaking as you watch this cheerful and innocent character, one who comes to you for answers and advice, break down in tears once she starts to comprehend the enormity of these events in other people’s lives – and her own.
The second part of the game is much shorter and has virtually no player interaction whatsoever, but it is also where the story comes to a head and both you and Josette discover exactly what’s been going on and why the Siliconian Empire’s crawling all over the island. It would be a shame to spoil the climax, so we'll say this instead – do you remember how we mentioned Miyazaki at the start? Well, just like Studio Ghibli’s best work, Wonder Project J2 is a powerful story where evil empires are toppled by the most unlikely people – but it’s a personal story too, and every character Josette’s befriended on her journey is important in the way that all normal people are to those that rely on them. Your time with Josette may come to an end but it’s clear that her adventure has just begun, and you leave her not as a humanoid robot that struggles to walk without falling flat on her face but as a brave and kind person in her own right, even without your guidance.
Some games only stand out because they're a little bit different on a system starved for such titles (in this case, 2D games), but Wonder Project J2 remains an excellent title that would have been praised on any console, and an underappreciated highlight in the N64’s generally well-trodden library.