'Balan Wonderworld' Feels Too Much Like a '90s Game for Me

It's basically a lost Sega Saturn game

Key Takeaways

  • Balan Wonderworld feels like the modern remaster of a 25-year-old game. It's hard to believe it's new.
  • It has strong negative buzz due to a famously botched demo, but the retail version's been fixed up a bit.
  • If you don't enjoy it, maybe your kids will.
Screenshot of the title drop on the Balan Wonderworld game.

I'd probably like Balan Wonderworld more if it was the first video game I'd ever played.

That isn't a dig. Wonderworld is a bright and open-ended 3D platformer directed and co-written by Sonic the Hedgehog’s original creator, and I could see kids or newer gamers getting a lot out of it.

It's cheerful, optimistic in its way, not too complex, and full of hidden objects and challenges that reward exploration. I'd give this game to an 8-year-old without a second thought.

However, as an adult who's spent more time on video games than I care to admit, Balan Wonderworld mostly confuses me. There's nothing about the game that I wouldn't have forgiven if I played it in 1997, but in 2021, it comes off like it's deliberately making yesterday's mistakes.

"I'm particularly fond of how your reward for clearing each world is a short sequence where you triumphantly dance with the person you just helped."

Safety Note

At the time of writing, the final boss of Balan Wonderworld is bugged and flashes brightly during the last fight in a way that could potentially trigger an epileptic seizure. If you intend to play the game, make sure that you install its day-one patch.

Beating Up Mind Goblins

Leo and Emma are a couple of kids with social issues who stumble randomly into the Balan Theater. Its namesake, Balan, is a magical harlequin who diagnoses their problems as having "lost their hearts" and sends them on a journey to the "Wonderworld" to try and recover them.

Leo and Emma end up on an island inhabited by little fuzzy blobs called Tims. This is the "hub level" from which you explore 12 different areas, each of which represents a different person's phobia.

The first level, for example, is a trip through the mindscape of a farmer who's become scared of tornadoes after one wrecked his house; the second is the story of an avid diver who nearly drowned after a friendly dolphin accidentally knocked off her air tank.

A dance sequence in Balan Wonderworld.

In each stage, you collect Drops, a currency that you can feed to Tims to expand the island's features, and search for Balan statues, which are used to unlock the next level. You also face the occasional enemy, navigate various obstacles, and defeat highly symbolic bosses.

If Wonderworld has a single gimmick, it’s the various costumes you can find in each stage. Each one gives Leo and Emma a special ability, such as short-lived flight, fire breath, or swimming, although you do lose your current costume if you take damage.

Each costume's abilities are crucial to clear each level, and you can unlock secrets in old stages by going back with new costumes.

So far, so good. This is an old blueprint, but it's solid, and Balan Wonderworld has the charm to spare.

I'm particularly fond of how your reward for clearing each world is a short sequence where you triumphantly dance with the person you just helped, who then goes back to their life with a new sense of purpose. It's got that good Psychonauts flavor.

If You Do One Thing, Do It Right

What Wonderworld doesn't have, though, is responsive controls.

A screenshot from Balan Wonderworld.

Without costumes, you can't do much besides jump, and even most of the costumes' abilities are about augmenting your ability to jump somehow. This is a platformer, after all.

As such, you'd expect the jumping in Wonderworld to feel good, and it aggressively doesn't. It's imprecise, floaty, and awkward. I was able to muddle through, but I actively dreaded any time Wonderworld asked me to jump across a gap or onto a moving platform.

This isn't a new issue. I played a lot of games like Wonderworld in the late '90s and early '00s, back when 3D platforming was still figuring itself out, on the Saturn, PlayStation, and Dreamcast. And ultimately, Wonderworld feels like a lost game from one of those systems, rather than a full-price 2021 release.

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