Balan Wonderworld
Image: Square Enix

Soapbox features enable our individual writers to voice their own opinions on hot topics or random stuff they've been thinking about. Today, Stuart discusses his love and admiration of a game dubbed 'the worst' of the past year...

Hello, my name is Stuart Gipp, and I think Balan Wonderworld is quite good.

Not only that, but the vast majority of criticism I see thrown its way doesn’t really strike me as especially valid. It is my firm belief that far from being “the worst game of the year”, Yuji Naka’s apparent swansong is, in fact, a remarkably enjoyable game that we all needed to see happen and will one day get the respect that it flipping well deserves.

But that won’t happen on the Switch. I’m not an idiot; I know a bodge job when I see one. Balan Wonderworld on Switch is a bit of a hopeless disaster, running at sub-30 frames per second and in laughably low resolution. I hold my hands up to the fact that almost any other option is preferable – Xbox Series S/X, PS4/5, or PC. All do Balan better. Meanwhile, Nintendo owners finally have a good reason to want a “Switch Pro” – to play Balan Wonderworld to an acceptable standard.

Nintendo owners finally have a good reason to want a “Switch Pro” – to play Balan Wonderworld to an acceptable standard

So what’s the story, here? What’s up with Balan being the industry punching bag? I personally put it down to “the Sonic effect” – Yuji Naka, as one of Sonic the Hedgehog’s de facto creators (tip of the hat to Naoto Oshima), tends to have his projects put under the same critical lens – that is, a bit of a disingenuous and often ill-informed one.

You see, like it or not, Sonic became a joke for years. The ongoing stream of confused, directionless games in the series (which admittedly would occasionally strike gold) made for such memes as 'The Sonic Cycle', and bad-faith reading of the worst corners of the fandom resulted in plenty of pregnant Sonic “humour”. A new game from the creator of Sonic, therefore, seems to be fair game to take swings at. And here’s the thing that gets me about said swings – you can critique Balan until the cows come home, providing your critique is valid and stands up to reality. And it so often didn’t.

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Image: Square Enix

One small but telling example is actually very recent – James Stephanie Sterling’s “S****iest games of 2021” video calls out Balan Wonderworld in a particularly directionless bit of ranting, but the smoking gun for me was the specific focus on what is admittedly a strange feature; in Balan, you’ll find dancing NPCs in each world, strutting their stuff to the background music. When you approach them, they fade away and disappear. Is it a bit strange? Yes. Does it make the game bad? No, of course not. It’s not even a criticism, and a moment’s thought presents two equally compelling reasons why.

When you approach [dancing NPCs], they fade away and disappear. Is it a bit strange? Yes. Does it make the game bad? No, of course not.

First, it’s a Wonderworld, a dreamscape. Strange things are commonplace. Oddities drift in and out of view. The terrain undulates before you. Ripples of pure energy spark across the landscape to the rhythm of the background music. The disappearing dancers are just part of that aesthetic. Secondly, and more practically, they’re also clearing out clutter from the area in which you’re moving your character. Many games do this! Many games make NPCs invisible or transparent when moving the camera into certain positions. Balan does this, too, but in a more noticeable and efficient way that fits the strange, ethereal world the developers have created.

That may seem like a minor thing to pick up on, but it is a microcosm of most of the issues I see cited with the game from reviewers – they either don’t really matter, are easily explained or simply don’t exist.

Another example: the much-derided single-button control scheme. See, in this game, you collect costumes that fundamentally change your abilities. By which I mean they give you an ability. Without a suit, you can only jump, but with a suit you have different powers – for example, a spider suit lets you climb walls, a pig suit lets you ground-pound à la Yoshi, and a dragon suit lets you breathe fire but not jump. That’s where the game’s strategy comes in – the costumes are extremely situational, yes, but the levels are designed around this. This is where the challenge comes from.

The whole single-button thing is a non-issue – for one thing, it isn’t really single-button, because you need to use the bumpers to switch costume. Taking a hit causes you to lose the costume you’re carrying, which can necessitate re-navigating the stage in order to get that last niggling collectable. Losing progress because you play the game poorly is a normal state for the medium and cannot reasonably be held against Balan Wonderworld. Sometimes you’ll need to bring costumes/powers in from different stages, because the outfit in question isn’t available in the level that you need it. Pretty standard, again – Kirby does this a lot. But, because it’s Balan Wonderworld, this is now bad.

The freedom to explore a title that recalled the platformers I loved in my younger years but with smooth, simple controls was, frankly, a bit of a joy

I was delighted when revisiting Balan Wonderworld for this feature because I discovered that I actually like it even more now than I did at release, which was a lot. With the AAA scene so resolute in continuing to hold the player’s hand, I was more than happy with Balan simply dropping me in a world and letting me get on with it. I find myself missing multiple collectables even when I’d absolutely rinsed the stages, which for a fan of exploration is enticing stuff. I’d also enact silly little athletic feats in order to scale parts of the level that didn’t seem like they were “supposed” to be accessible, only to find hidden gems – much like the very best Mario games, the developers were a step ahead of even your most outrageous moves.

None of this is to say that Balan Wonderworld is flawless. It patently isn’t. The Switch port, as mentioned, is diarrhoea. The single-button control scheme works in-game but can be a pain in menus. But besides this, it’s difficult for me to think of a new release game that I enjoyed as much. The freedom to explore a title that recalled the platformers I loved in my younger years but with smooth, simple controls – I’ll never understand the reviews that called it “imprecise” – was, frankly, a bit of a joy.

I fully expect the game to get a bit of a post-mortem rise in the community’s estimations, especially as it gets more scarce with time. Is it perfect? Of course not. Is it the worst game of 2021? Hell no. I’d take another Balan Wonderworld over another Bowser’s Fury.

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Image: Square Enix