Balan Wonderworld

"Balan Wonderworld" is a 3D platformer more in tune with "Mega Man" than the standard "Super Mario Odyssey" free-roaming collect-a-thon. Stages tend to be rigidly designed and mostly linear, with several small pockets of inaccessible areas you can only reach through a few of the game’s 80 costume power-ups. 

"Balan Wonderworld” has been a small-time internet laughingstock since well before its release. After going into the demo with wary hope in January (just like everyone else), my expectations were single-handedly dashed.

On the Switch version, movement was an excruciating crawl, everything was judiciously aliased, frames dropped like flies, and the lighting was just ... “off” in that special rushed-PS2-port way. Bosses T-posed. The composer was accused of plagiarizing a song, the final boss caused seizures for day-one adopters, and everyone who was once so cautiously optimistic essentially turned tail and ran. After having played through the main campaign, I can say with certainty that the raucous derision leveled at “Balan Wonderworld” is unjustified and pointless. It’s no masterpiece, but also no disaster.

“Balan Wonderworld” is a 3D platformer more in tune with “Mega Man” than the standard Super Mario Odyssey/Banjo-Kazooie/A Hat in Time free-roaming collect-a-thon. Stages tend to be rigidly designed and mostly linear, with several small pockets of inaccessible areas you can only reach through a few of the game’s 80 costume power-ups. Said power-ups are found in certain crystals, and can take one hit apiece. Some let you jump and use a special ability, some alter your jump, and others don’t let you jump at all. Some are objectively better than others and practically necessary to navigate later levels (namely the Frost Fairy and Soaring Sheep costumes). The main collectibles include the requisite progression-MacGuffins (Balan Statues), coins (Drops), and nonsense bonus fluffernutters (Rainbow Drops and eggs).

If any of this sounds bog-standard, it emphatically is not — in practice. “Balan Wonderworld” is a weird game in normal-games’ clothing.

First of all, jumping is weird. The normal jump and movement abilities in “Balan Wonderworld” are deliberately unsatisfying; the creators of Sonic would certainly know. The name of the game is stocking up on the right costumes and carefully working your way to the furthest reaches of each level. Second, the collectibles are odd. Drops function as feed for Tims, badly-named chicken-like creatures you can raise in the hub world to power what is basically a giant hamster wheel that slowly builds itself. There’s actually a very in-depth Tim-raising system that lets you discover different breeds of Tims, and mastery of it is required to get a secret costume, as are Rainbow Drops. There are twice as many statues available as are necessary to beat the game as well as a lengthy post-game with extra statues that serve literally no purpose. There are statues locked behind playing Balan’s Bout, a quick-time-event minigame bonus stage, entirely perfectly – and you only get two chances to perfect each Bout, with them appearing as often as thrice per stage later on. Rainbow Drops can be acquired by replaying levels and finding hidden bird sculptures. The bosses are easy to defeat, but in order to get every statue you can from them, you have to find and use all the major methods of attacking them.

Add onto all this its all-over-the-map soundtrack and paradoxical focus on film-quality cutscenes and bonus elements, and “Balan Wonderworld” becomes an odd experience too normal to be niche and too niche to be normal. It’s clearly the result of a team experimenting within the bounds of their pitch, and it entertained me for the entirety of its runtime; it’s too difficult for kids and too easy for the hardcore crowd because of its strange execution. Delayed gratification is an emphasis here, and it’s incredibly well-realized. When a lava-covered late-game level was flooded with water near the end, I grinned from ear to ear. When I got the Air Cat costume, I spent the next hour giddily unraveling several early stages.

“Balan Wonderworld” flopped, but it’s not a failure. The PS4, PS5, and PC versions have few if any of the technical issues the Switch version does. The only problems I encountered were mild aliasing and extremely-rare frame drops, and issues like the final boss’s flashing lights were resolved in the day-one patch. Once this hits the bargain bins, pounce on it.

Gaget is a student in Fairbanks public schools, and has developed a number of free games. He is a neutral game reviewer.