When we think about the pioneer designers of gaming who are instantly recognisable just by their name alone, there are very few which come to mind. Irrespective of how loyal you are to the Xbox brand, the name Shigeru Miyamoto commands attention and respect, no doubt a true visionary with huge franchises like The Legend of Zelda, Mario, Donkey Kong, Pokémon and the like on his resume. Although he completely changed the video game industry during the 1980s, he still continues to be relevant in this gaming landscape. Even now, the occasional clueless gamer walks into a games store asking for Mario on Xbox. Miyamoto had a counterpart, at least during the 1990s – a designer and director known as Yuji Naka. He may not have been actively involved in the industry during the last couple of decades, but he was most certainly of the same calibre as Nintendo’s maestro.
Yuji Naka was part of SEGA, and during the great console wars of the 90s it was Mario vs. Sonic, Mega Drive vs. SNES, N64 vs. Saturn and, essentially, Miyamoto vs. Naka. Franchises like Sonic the Hedgehog, Nights into Dreams and Phantasy Star are all attributed to his genius, and when he left SEGA back in 2006 shortly before the disastrous launch of the now infamous Sonic the Hedgehog ’06 on Xbox 360 (perhaps the timing of his departure wasn’t a coincidence), he went on to form his own studio called Prope. The studio was able to launch a few modest projects here and there, most notable being Ivy the Kiwi? and Rodea the Sky Soldier on Nintendo platforms.
Xbox One owners don’t have to look very far to experience some of the best games created by Yuji Naka: all of the best Sonic and Phantasy Star games can be readily found on SEGA Mega Drive Classics. HD remastered versions of games like Nights into Dreams and Sonic Adventure (and Sonic Adventure 2) are backwards compatible on Xbox One, but fully optimised too. Although he wasn’t as consistent as Miyamoto, Yuji Naka continues to remain influential, as current SEGA hits like Phantasy Star Online 2 or Puyo Puyo Tetris 2 have their foundation thanks to his contributions early on. Furthermore, up and coming game designers continue to be influenced by him, a most recent example being Spark the Electric Jester 2 on Xbox One.
Around 2018, Yuji Naka would form a new studio under the helm of Square Enix called Balan Company. From this studio comes Balan Wonderworld, set to launch on all major gaming platforms on March 26th 2020. A demo is currently available for all on Xbox One and Xbox Series X, and it provides a strong indication of what players can expect from the full game. All signs look positive, and while it may not necessarily indicate anything groundbreaking, the game still looks to encompass the signature style of Yuji Naka in every aspect.
Balan Wonderworld is a platformer which feels like a spiritual amalgamation of the famed designer’s past projects – the most obvious connection is with Night into Dreams, especially in the character designs and the thematic presentation. Not surprisingly, there is a little of Sonic the Hedgehog in there too, with a throwback to the beloved Chao Garden from the Sonic Adventure games. There are also hints to rather obscure and inventive projects, the most notable being Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg (GameCube). It’s probably clear by all the comparisons being made that Balan Wonderworld doesn’t necessarily try to reinvent the wheel; instead it draws upon familiar ideas and elements to create a signature Yuji Naka experience. This isn’t a bad thing at all, and in fact it might just be the best way to introduce a new generation of gamers to the creative genius that created Sonic the Hedgehog.
The demo of Balan Wonderworld presents a clean and wholesome platformer, featuring an intuitive level design with simple, non-threatening gameplay. It has the collectathon appeal of 3D platformers, which can be quite fun and cathartic, where the slower pace of the action is certainly more Mario and Sonic. The core gameplay system here involves switching between various costumes, where each grants the protagonist new creature abilities such as a longer jump, spin attack, or fire breath. The idea is interesting, and you’re able to switch between collected costumes on the fly to solve some environmental puzzles and reach new areas for rare collectibles. Nothing terribly innovative here, but the familiar gameplay ideas come together nicely enough.
Even from the demo it’s clear that while Balan Wonderworld isn’t going to be a technical marvel, the game’s style and presentation is still charming. The graphics tend to get the job done, and depending on what Xbox system you are using, there are plenty of optimisations and enhancements too. Still, it is a little disappointing to see dated texture mapping and bland character models which resemble something from a 6th generation console, and not to mention the colour contrast being a little on the dark side. As a whole, however, the visual style still has charm and brings the game’s art to life. Furthermore, the music has the same dream-like vibe of the still famous Nights into Dreams soundtrack.
Balan Wonderworld may not change the world come March, when it releases on Xbox, and it may not bring famed designer Yuji Naka to the same level as Shigeru Miyamoto is right now, but in 2021 it is awesome to see a gaming legend return to the spotlight with a major platformer release under a big name publisher like Square Enix. If anything, Balan Wonderworld will be a reintroduction to one of the best minds in gaming, and for now that’s probably going to be good enough.
Balan Wonderworld releases on Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, PS4, PS5, Nintendo Switch and PC come March 26th 2021. Keep an eye out for our full review.