Yuji Naka has left Square Enix following the disastrous launch of Balan Wonderworld, a platformer that was subject to dire sales and mediocre reviews, failing to secure an audience even amongst the hardcore faithful who desperately wanted this game to succeed. To put it simply, it was just bad, failing to possess any qualities that might have helped it rise above the awkward position it found itself in. Despite all this trouble, Balan Wonderworld and Yuji Naka deserved better, if only to secure a stronger future for one of the genre’s brightest creative talents.
When Balan Wonderworld was first unveiled, all of the hype centered around Yuji Naka’s involvement. The man responsible for some of Sonic The Hedgehog’s finest outings was finally home, returning to the genre he had helped evolve so many years ago. The trailer had my social media fawning over all of the possibilities, even if I sat there sceptical about the unusual visuals and less than stellar movement on display. The writing was sadly on the wall, with a demo a few weeks before its final release sealing its fate and damaging the game’s image beyond repair.
The demo was a death sentence, with Yuji Naka and Square Enix scrambling to address feedback in the wake of an immovable release date. They were surprisingly honest, making it clear that it was impossible to address all of the major issues before release, and players would simply need to enjoy the experience as it was while the studio tried their best to patch things up. Well, now Yuji Naka has departed the company, I doubt we’ll see any further refinements to the strange, polarizing platformer. In case I haven’t made it clear, it’s bad. I really can’t stress that enough.
Despite my negative feelings for Balan Wonderworld, I truly think it deserved better, and was capable of so much more when you step back and analyse the creativity behind its level design, gameplay mechanics, and lovably sincere message of never giving up hope to help out those in need. Some additional materials, such as a novel released exclusively in Japan, shine a brighter light on the narrative, but even a more comprehensive story couldn’t save Balan Wonderworld from the fundamental problems that sit within its foundations. It plays, looks, and feels bad in its overall tone and atmosphere – like an unusual fever dream you willingly volunteer yourself for. I’d recommend playing it at least once, if only to see how such a project came into being in the first place.
Naka’s departure from Square Enix comes with a palpable melancholy, especially in the wake of his potential retirement. While many of his games have been mixed in their reception, the legendary creator’s impact on the medium as a whole cannot be denied. The platforming space wouldn’t be the same without Sonic The Hedgehog or Nights Into Dreams, two properties that challenged conventions and helped define an aesthetic that became inseparable from Sega as a company, making his decision to work alongside Square Enix all the more puzzling.
I’m unsure the publisher will ever take a chance on such an outing again, with Balan Wonderworld costing it time, money, and a slice of its reputation. Square Enix should lean into it like Sega, since the best Sonic games are the bad ones after all. All jokes aside, I hope this isn’t the last we see of Yuji Naka. Balan Wonderworld can lose itself to history, even if I can’t help but dwell on the unusual circumstances of its creation, and how on earth it ended up in such a sorry state to begin with. But losing Naka is like losing Kojima or Miyamoto, creatives that have defined so much of what I’ve come to love about the medium. Knowing that their talent might soon retire and never birth anything new is a bittersweet farewell of the highest regard. Come on – let’s crowdfund Balan Wonderworld 2.
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