Hands-on: The Balan Wonderworld demo shows that a one button game can work in 2021

We like to say something along the lines of “retro game with modern design” a lot. Heck, we just used it to describe Cyber Shadow the latest release Shovel Knight developer Yacht Club Games. We use it to mean a game that looks like a retro game but that is designed with all the techniques and knowledge of modern game design.

But what about the opposite, a modern game with a retro design? What about a game that for all intents and purposes looks like it came out in 2021 but plays like it came out in 1990?

That, my friends, is Sonic creator Yuji Naka’s latest platformer: Balan Wonderworld.

A new demo for Wonderworld just came out on basically every platform, and it took us by surprise. It’s your standard collect-a-thon. You enter levels via a hub world and wander around open spaces looking for gems of different colors and Balan trophies to unlock new stages. There is nominally a boss at the end of some levels, and checkpoints in the middle, but the only real barrier to progression is what you collect. It feels a bit like the Spyro series in that way.

However, Balan Wonderworld is simpler than Spyro. Remember how Sonic only really had one button? The jump button? Well, Balan Wonderworld follows that exact same ethos. Nearly every button in the game does the exact same thing. What is that thing? Well, that depends.

If you aren’t wearing any of the 80-plus costumes, Wonderworld’s version of power-ups, then all it does is make you jump. When in this basic form, the game is a basic platformer. However, collecting a costume replaces your jump with some other ability. Some are just jump variations.

The bunny lets you hover in mid-air, the wolf lets you do damage on the way up, and the pig lets you ground pound after jumping. However, others replace your jump entirely. The dragon removes your ability to jump and replaces it with a fireball while the sunflower lets you stretch upward and snap back up but not actually jump.

In this way, Wonderworld has some Kirby DNA in it. Much of the game’s puzzles involve bringing the right power-up to the right location in order to make a jump. Break a box, or hit a switch, but that’s easier said than done. Take one hit and you’ll lose your power-up and get teleported back to a checkpoint. Balan Wonderworld demands perfection.

The only other function you have is to swap power-ups. You can keep three power-ups in stock and switch between them using the shoulder buttons. Pick up a new power-up and it will replace the costume in your “oldest” slot.

And that’s basically the game, at least on the surface. Balan Wonderworld really hits that sweet spot of simple to learn, hard to master. Making your way through the game’s many challenges with the correct power-up intact is easier said than done. None of the puzzles are too hard but add in the pressure of a little combat and they get a bit more intense.

One of the most interesting quirks of Balan Wonderworld is its co-op mode. In this mode, two players run through a level, side-by-side. “What’s the point?” you may ask? Well, it means that the duo effectively has access to two costume powers at once, one for player 1 and one for player 2. It makes solving puzzles and fighting enemies a lot easier but requires constant communication to work.

It’s worth noting how amazing Balan Wonderworld’s aesthetic is. The demo only had two levels to show, both based around a fairytale of a farmer working against a storm, but these levels with this simple premise were visual masterpieces. They unfold on themselves like a book as you progress through them. In fact, there was one point where you had to guide a giant ball into a hole by causing the world to curve as it folds.

Tiny pieces of the game’s aesthetics are always adding to the gameplay. For example, you can see fairytale creatures dancing around certain areas only to disappear when you walk toward them. This seems like nothing more than a neat graphical flourish until you realize that these characters are giving you hints as to what costumes to use to solve puzzles and unlock secrets. Keeping this in mind, every level becomes a mystery as much as it becomes a platforming and combat challenge.

It’s very impressive how so much can be packed into what is essentially a one-button game. It’s equally impressive that a one-button game can be this entertaining in 2021, the year of the PS5 and Xbox Series X. Think about that. This game could be played with a Joystick for the Atari 2600. That’s how simple it is. Sometimes, restrictions breed creativity.

Balan Wonderworld will release for the PC, PS4, PS5, Switch, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X/S on March 26, 2021.