Earlier this month, rumors started floating around that Yuji Naka had left Square Enix, where he spent the last few years developing Balan Wonderworld. That there would be blowback after the game’s failure isn’t surprising. It was released in March to a mixed at best critical reception. Our own Francis DiPersio gave it a 2/5, saying, “While Balan Wonderworld has a few interesting ideas tucked up its costumed sleeves, none of them are executed particularly well, which makes the game feel like a real chore to play.”
Sales weren’t going to save Balan either. It sold less than 2,100 copies during its first week in Japan, and sales in the US and the UK were no better. Naka later confirmed the news on Twitter. While phrased as a retirement, it’s hard to know how accurate that is. Naka had previously called Balan his one shot to make a game like this at Square Enix. Now, at only 55, his latest Tweet suggests he’s ready to end his career.
To some, it was the latest step on a long fall from grace for a creator who is most known as the father of Sonic the Hedgehog. Since leaving Sega in 2006, Naka has had mixed success. He founded his own studio, Prope, but after a string of mixed success, he joined Square Enix in 2018. With that over, many were calling this the end of the road even before Naka’s confirmation that his time at Square Enix is over. There was a lot of talk that he hadn’t made anything worthwhile in many years. That he has lost his way as a creative force. Some might see retirement as the best thing for him.
If At First, You Don’t Succeed
I’d like to strongly push back against that narrative. While it’s true that in recent years Naka hasn’t been churning out classics left and right over the last fifteen years, a closer look at his work over that time shows a creator with a singular vision, one which was clearly evident in his early work at Prope and which lives on in Balan Wonderworld. It’s a vision of gaming that is more immediate. That can offer challenge but which anyone can play. In an interview with Gamasutra back in 2010, Naka said,
“That is because I think games should be something that’s more close to us. Recently there are a lot of games that you need to learn what to do before you play the game, and I think that’s one of the reasons people step away from gaming.”
This continues in Balan Wonderworld even a decade later. The entire game is built around a one-button control scheme. The sort of thing that anyone could quickly pick up and figure out. This didn’t necessarily work. Our own review mentioned how this could almost make the game more difficult. Yet, the intention is clear. Naka was still working to make his games widely accessible. Every title may not be a huge success, but some have been stronger while they consistently reflect his vision.
While his latest effort may not have been a success, there’s definitely something to be said about making games easily accessible. After years covering the industry, I fell away from it for a number of years myself in my early to mid-twenties. With everything going on in my life, I had a hard time finding the energy to play complex things. During those years, when the rare urge to turn on my Xbox 360 would strike, it was almost always to play either a simple Xbox Live Arcade title or something familiar like the NBA 2K series.
Modern gaming so frequently dismisses simple experiences. They’re relegated to cell phones and casual devices. Yet some of the most satisfying games ever made are incredibly simple. Even Prope eventually found themselves making more and more of their games for phones, because that’s where these games can find an audience at all. To find any success even there though, these simple games have to twist themselves into a very specific sort of monster. There’s nothing wrong with a mobile game, and there are some truly excellent ones. Far too often, though, success only comes to those willing to make extreme compromises.
One Place You Can Find Simple Titles
While researching this piece, I downloaded Prope’s Legend of Coin, a 2017 release on Android and iOS. It’s a coin pusher RPG. Think of those weird arcade machines (if you’re someone who has been in an arcade in the last twenty years) where you drop a coin in and hope it dislodges other coins and allows you to earn back your coin and more. The last time I was at Dave & Buster’s, I put far too many coins into one.
As I started playing, I thought the idea of turning a coin pusher into a video game seemed strange, though it doesn’t seem that out of place on a platform filled with casino games that don’t use real money. The more I played it, though, the more it grabbed me with its addictive qualities. The RPG elements involved are actually interesting, and while the gameplay is simple, in line with what Naka’s been doing for so long, there’s depth hidden there once you get into the game. It doesn’t throw all of that information at you right away and challenge you to memorize a million things, though. You’ll figure it out as you go.
The problem with Legend of Coin, however, is that progress is absurdly slow. Especially in the beginning. It’s constantly pushing you to either watch ads or drop real money to speed up the process. Like so many other phone games, it takes a solid premise and locks it behind so many barriers to try to pull money out of your wallet that I don’t ultimately want to play it. Yet that’s how a game like this gets made in the first place.
Rodea: The Sky Soldier
Even outside of mobile games, Yuji Naka has had a hard time getting publishers to buy into his vision of simplicity. The most notorious case of that may be Rodea: the Sky Soldier. Rodea was originally a Wii title, designed around simply pointing where you want to go with the Wii remote and heading there with a single click. Completed in 2011, Naka couldn’t convince his publisher to put it out. Think about that. One of the creators of Sonic, whose Sonic Adventure 3D platformers had sold millions of copies, had finished a 3D action game and couldn’t get his publisher to release it. The game was done.
Rodea would finally see the light of day in 2015 when a reworked version for the Nintendo Wii U and the 3DS was released. Naka reportedly had very little to do with the conversions. I’ve only played this version on Wii U, and I revisited it for this piece. The game is an absolute mess. The controls are awful, and the camera barely works. I had trouble getting through the tutorial. The stages are garish and ugly, with everything blending together to make even seeing where you’re doing difficult. It’s about as far from simple as you can get. Our review at the time gave it a 2.5/5, and that may have been generous. It’s a bad game.
The biggest travesty, however, may be how much better the original version is, though. The Wii U release of Rodea included the original Wii version as a separate bonus disc. This is a treat and the only reason to actually buy the game. I won’t call this version a lost classic. It’s good, and it completely sells Naka’s vision, but it has issues. They’re not, however, the same ones the Wii U version has. The game arguably looks better. Perhaps a little lower definition, but the colors work much better, helping delineate what you need to be doing.
Controls are the most noticeable difference. Rodea was designed around motion controls, and they feel fantastic. It’s an absolute breeze to fly around and get right where you need to be. In the rare situation where you might slightly misjudge a distance, course correction is simple. It makes a 3D action gameplay comfortably with just the Wii remote, without nunchuk support. It isn’t perfect. This may be my hands, but I didn’t find moving between the d-pad and the motion controls as easy as I would have liked. I didn’t feel comfortable aiming precisely with the pointer unless I moved my hand down, at which point I couldn’t comfortably reach the d-pad. I spent so much time in the sky, though, that this was a minor issue. Just whipping around feels great, in the sort of way where you just want to keep playing it.
The camera controls work also, but they’re slower than would be ideal and may have benefitted from allowing nunchuk support specifically for that. Even just making this optional would have been nice. Another situation like with Balan, where being a bit less dogmatic about the vision may have produced a stronger game. Even as is, however, the Wii version of Rodea does a lot right. So much so that it only highlights how wrong the later versions which did see a standalone release were.
A Natural Home
While not having quite the same publishing nightmare, several of Prope’s other releases in that period show a similar dedication to creating a simple experience. Fishing Resort on the Wii is somewhat more complex in its overall design, with quests to be found, an island to explore, and an entire economy. Still, its core fishing gameplay is again accessible. It drops you into a tutorial teaching it to you before you can explore anything else too. It wants to make sure you immediately feel how intuitive its fishing is. This title does use the nunchuk to reel in your fish while the remote casts your line out. For my money, this is one of the most successful games on the Wii at emulating the feel of a real-world activity. I can’t imagine anyone who likes fishing not being able to step in and play this without difficulty.
The Wii obviously fit Naka’s vision well. In a world where we’ve moved past it, finding room for these simple titles gets harder. Yet, he also showed the ability to adapt games across platforms, even those that worked great on the Wii. Ivy the Kiwi? was originally a Windows Mobile release in 2009 before coming to Wii and DS the next year. A sort of auto-runner, Ivy is a small bird who, after hatching, is looking for her mom. She runs through levels on her own, but you have to use a series of vines to protect her from obstacles, enemies, and get her where she’s going. Unlike some of Naka’s games of this period, it gets the difficulty curve right. It ramps up slowly, but not too slowly. New elements are added to each level.
A Vision That Can Work On Any Platform
On DS, you play with the touchscreen, drawing your vines with the stylus. The phone version seemingly worked much the same, though I haven’t had the chance to play it. The stylus is a relatively smooth experience, though you do have to get used to Ivy’s speed and think a bit ahead. It’s easy to get behind and find yourself reacting to things that have already passed. Once you get the hang of things, though, it’s a fun, simple, experience and almost anyone can pick up a stylus and start drawing lines on a screen.
Playing on Wii is even better. The core gameplay is the same, only this time you’re drawing lines with the Wiimote. It may be the most smooth experience of this sort I had on the system. Everything feels great, and I actually felt the speed of the game came more naturally this way. I could better manipulate the vines and achieve some of the swinging effects the game is going for. Anyone who can hold a remote can have fun with Ivy. I think that’s pretty great.
A Voice We Still Need
Few voices in modern gaming are standing by to pick up this vision. Complex, deep, open worlds can be wonderful experiences, and I don’t want them to go anywhere. It’s also wonderful to disappear into a fun, arcade-style game that I can pick up for five minutes at a time. We shouldn’t have to slip onto our phones and deal with games pestering us for more money every five minutes to get that. Simple, intuitive gameplay is timeless.
Yuji Naka understands this. His modern titles may not be classics on the level of Sonic the Hedgehog. They carry on the legacy of creative, intuitive, earlier games like ChuChu Rocket! and Samba De Amigo, however. I hope publishers give him another chance to try his hand at the sort of easy-to-play game we need far more of. I hope he chooses to continue his career, providing a voice for a style of gameplay we need more of. If not though, I hope there are young developers out there ready to follow in the footsteps of his vision.