Balan Wonderworld recently came out on all major consoles as well as PC. Hailed as Yuji Naka's latest title, the art style and 3D platforming signal a definitive spiritual successor to Sega's NiGHTS: Into Dreams... for Sega Saturn. Known for being a driving force behind Sonic the Hedgehog throughout Sega's time as a first-party developer, Yuji Naka also created his own mascot characters and titles across systems.
You can try out the demo here. For the record, Balan Wonderworld is largely marketing on Square-Enix's dedicated social media accounts to the game. Their Twitter account can be found here. Square-Enix will relegate much of their marketing to separate accounts based around the games as opposed to marketing it on their home account.
Creating spiritual successors to old favorites is nothing new in the current era. Koji Igarashi developed Bloodstained as a throwback to Castlevania while Playtonic Games did their best to recreate Banjo-Kazooie in the form of Yooka-Laylee. Unfortunately, given the low reviews on Metacritic, Balan Wonderworld seems to draw more similarities from Keiji Inafune's attempt to revive Mega Man: Mighty No. 9.
While the development of Balan Wonderworld was thankfully not tainted with controversy and ripoffs via the Kickstarter campaign, this game seemed at first to be a big surprise. People were thrilled to see the return to the form of NiGHTS and Yuji Naka's works being published by Square-Enix.
Known for developing Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts, Square-Enix has become known as well for publishing thanks to their acquisition of Crystal Dynamics. They published the Tomb Raider reboot trilogy, Hitman, and also published Platinum Games' NieR: Automata. Currently, they're set to publish the remaster of NieR: Replicant.
Unfortunately, it speaks volumes about what Square-Enix is capable of publishing. For some reason, I feel that Square-Enix's social media presence speaks louder than most. With as many projects as they're publishing, they're always ready to tell you to buy their next game. Whether it's a half-baked remake of Secret of Mana or a brilliant RPG like Octopath Traveler, Square-Enix's ability to market is second to none as far as the major Japanese developers go. Unfortunately, it seems that their reputation for pumping out major successes, like Final Fantasy VII Remake, gets to their heads and enables them to spread equal levels of advertising for unfinished games like the first release of Final Fantasy XV. Naoto Ohshima's character designs might be the game's only highlight.
Speaking of Secret of Mana, let's not forget how the Mana Series account tried to make it a special, touching nostalgic moment just to end up failing in the end. Thankfully, the remake of the sequel, Trials of Mana, fared better in terms of critical reception and sales.
Square-Enix is also known for making a dime at any chance possible. I've seen them sell titles on their site go for more than you could buy them for on Amazon or Best Buy. Their merchandise also sells at a premium even outside of plushies. I can't fault them for doing business but they stand out like a sore thumb when they charge such an uninvitingly high amount for all of their merchandise They're so energetic at marketing but I wish the developers cared as much about polishing the game before release.
Perhaps it's from all the money people throw at Square-Enix for their supreme marketing at games like Kingdom Hearts III, which received decent reviews, despite the hype treating it like the second coming. Even Bravely Default II, which released on a system that's no stranger to JRPGs, received good reviews but not the standard 9+ you might expect from the highest caliber title from the developer. But whenever Square-Enix sees an opportunity to grab the money, they will make their next published release look like the best game you ever played. It takes more than charming aesthetic and enthusiastic marketing to make a good game.
Unfortunately, that type of marketing is toxic in the gaming industry. It simply leads players to believe that certain games are even remotely better than they are. While quality lies in the eye of the beholder, this isn't as much to take apart Balan Wonderworld itself as much as speak about Square-Enix's reputation for publishing and heavily marketing mediocre titles. I would sooner just market a mediocre title every so often but certainly not try to hype it up any more than it deserves to be. But as with past games that bombed, it's worth noting that daily updates to advertise the game won't make it a more popular title. This culture of generating forced hype is exactly what's wrong with the gaming industry.
But what brings this home is Square-Enix did the same thing last year with a prominently forgettable title. I'm talking about Marvel's Avengers. I saw Square-Enix Facebook and other social media pages try to build hype around the game while fans continuously threw it back in their faces in the comments. I know no one who plays this game and maybe 1 or 2 people that said they were buying it. If you want a decent Marvel title, play Ultimate Alliance 3 for Nintendo Switch. It's not perfect but it has its moments.
Neither Nintendo nor KoeiTecmo ever gave it remotely the level of hype that Square-Enix did for Avengers. We saw them market the game a few times close to its release, let us know about the DLC, and we got a decent game out of it. No one ever expected this to be some groundbreaking mega-title because it wasn't shoved down our throats with daily to weekly updates on social media platforms.
Granted, all companies are guilty of this to some extent. Let's not forget Capcom released Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City and Resident Evil 6 in 2013, both of which released to failed reviews. Nintendo has marketed and released its fair share of mediocre or divisive first-party titles, too. Look at Super Mario Sunshine and The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, the latter of which is getting a remaster on the Nintendo Switch. Yet Square-Enix would swear up and down that this is the Yuji Naka successor title you've all been waiting on because they seem to function on a different level than most.
Though, now that brings up another interesting point. Can we talk for a moment about the games Yuji Naka has worked on in the past? Sonic Heroes, Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg, and NiGHTs: Journey of Dreams all scored below a 75 on Metacritic. While Yuji Naka's name is listed as the Producer, he also worked with Dimps to deliver the enjoyable 2D platforming series, Sonic Advance, for the Game Boy Advance. Sonic Advance 3 in particular was one of the console's better platformers thanks to its high-speed blend of velocity and clever platformer stage design.
As a programmer, Yuji Naka brought us the classic Sonic trilogy on Sega Genesis. As a Producer, he gave us middling 3D platformers or worked with third parties to create good ones. As a Director, we get Balan Wonderworld. With that being said, you might want to take another look at Naka's resume and wonder what comes from a name. Were we expecting something stellar from the likes of Hideo Kojima or Shinji Mikami?
No one is perfect and that includes legendary game developers. Look at how Tomonobu Itagaki struck gold with Ninja Gaiden on Xbox just to lose it all when he developed Devil's Third. It's always worth taking, with a grain of salt, how good a game will be despite the name tied to the development. Even Shigeru Miyamoto's pet project, Star Fox Zero, the first new game in the Star Fox series in roughly a decade, crash-landed onto the Wii U just before the console's end. Using a developer's name to sell a game will only go so far if the title is rushed, unpolished, and released unfinished.
Square-Enix goes through excessive lengths to shill out a game. Whether it's a polished wonder like Dragon Quest XI, a criminally underrated gem like Bravely Second, an old classic like Star Ocean: First Departure R, or a dedicated flop like Balan Wonderworld, you'll see posts on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, for days at a time, shilling these games out. They're consistent if nothing else. But I wish they would take the time to focus on more important and prominent releases and just divert away from the attention from a game doomed to fail when it becomes apparent that it's going to fail. It's okay to admit your game sucked. It's also okay to back away from it and pretend it never happened.
Capcom advertised Devil May Cry 2's release on Nintendo Switch until it released and then that was it. They got to pretend once more that it never happened. However, Square-Enix also needs to remember that their players have a brain. Mass-marketing isn't going to make the game better nor is it going to make players believe the game is worth playing.
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