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The Real Reason Balan Wonderworld Bombed

"Balan Wonderworld" reunited Yuji Naka and Naoto Oshima, the creative team behind classics like "Nights into Dreams" and "Sonic Adventure," but it failed in a way that its predecessors didn't. There are a variety of reasons why games don't perform as expected on the market, but "Balan Wonderworld" is a stranger case than most. It had everything going for it, including a great creative duo, tons of marketing from its publisher Square Enix, a co-op mode, and even a lengthy demo with exclusive costumes. 

However, once "Balan Wonderworld" appeared on shelves, and the reviews started pouring in, the much hyped game turned out to be a dud. Critics almost universally disliked the game, though some saw its potential. While no one can calculate all the reasons that a game succeeds or fails, some key issues with "Balan Wonderworld" could have shown gamers that the game might not live up to all the marketing put behind it.

Balan Wonderworld had bad sales numbers and delayed reviews

The quirky and colorful style of "Balan Wonderworld" isn't for every gamer, but there's definitely a market for mascot-fronted platformers. After all, "Super Mario Bros." games still perform well on sales charts. "Balan Wonderworld" didn't sell well, even in Japan. 

According to Cartridge Games, "Balan Wonderworld" only sold 2,100 copies when it debuted in Japan, and didn't appear in the top selling games for the week at all. Even though that figures only accounts for physical copies, "Balan Wonderworld" didn't perform well on online storefronts, either. Metacritic listed Balan Wonderworld as one of the 4 worst games on the Nintendo Switch. "Balan Wonderworld" didn't make a splash on the UK charts, either. In fact, "Super Mario 3D All-Stars," which was discontinued at the end of March 2021, ranked above "Balan Wonderworld."

Complicating matters was the fact that Square Enix didn't send advance review codes of "Balan Wonderworld" to game reviewers. IGN's Tom Marks tweeted that he did not receive a code before the game released, and that the game did not live up to his expectations. Some fans speculated that Square Enix mismanaged "Balan Wonderworld," releasing it before it was truly ready. It would be over a year before fans learned what had gone down behind the scenes of "Balan Wonderworld."

Balan Wonderworld's director was removed from the project

In April 2022, legendary game designer Yuji Naka publicly slammed Square Enix over its handling of "Balan Wonderworld," providing more context into what happened to the once-anticipated game. In a lengthy tweet thread (translated from Japanese by VGC), Naka came clean about what happened in the months before the release of "Balan Wonderworld," as well as why he was so quiet about the game's reception. According to Naka, he didn't get to oversee the final product as it prepared to launch, and couldn't supervise the final bug fixes or last minute changes.

Naka wrote, "Game creators are supposed to improve their games until the very end, and I believe that it is wrong to prevent them from carrying out this goal." Naka claimed that he asked for his lawyer to work with Square Enix and come to an agreement that would let Naka work on some final issues in "Balan Wonderworld," but the company allegedly didn't respond. This led Naka to pursue legal action against Square Enix. 

"Balan Wonderworld," according to Naka himself, is a lackluster title because it's not a finished project. Naka also revealed other issues going on behind the scenes on the game's development.

There was a legal tussle happening in the background

While Naka didn't go into too many details about his lawsuit against Square Enix, it would be fair to assume that the legal proceedings didn't create a favorable environment for "Balan Wonderworld" to complete development. In his Twitter thread, Naka said that he filed a lawsuit as soon as he was fired six months before the game's release. Though Square Enix has not commented on Naka's tweets, the legal battle going on in the background, in addition to the director's departure, couldn't have been helpful for team morale.

Fans have speculated that Naka's tweets might not tell the whole story, however. One gamer noted that Naka might have had differences with Square Enix's vision of "Balan Wonderworld," which may have led to his removal from the project. Whatever the case, Naka was not allowed to publicly discuss the case until it had come to a close, which may account for why some fans are unsure of the timeline of events.

The development team may not have been on board

Additionally, Naka said that the "Balan Wonderworld" team's relationship with Arzest broke down after the developer neglected to correct some errors in the game. Naka is connected to Arzest through Naoto Ohshima, the co-founder and C.O.O. of Arzest and co-creator/character designer of "Balan Wonderworld."

Naka alleged that the relationship between himself and Arzest became strained. "The business relationship with Arzest fell apart due to my comments about Arzest submitting the final build without fixing bugs ... and I was pushing for further polish," Naka wrote. Naka said that after he requested another round of edits, Ohshima brought the matter to the producer of "Balan Wonderworld." Naka didn't explain what his co-creator said to the producer, but he did suggest that Square Enix seemed eager to push the game forward regardless of its state. Judging from the final product of "Balan Wonderworld," which (as already mentioned) was full of half-baked mechanics and glitches, some fans think claim might have some validity.

Something strange was going on with the music

While it's not entirely clear what was going on with the music in "Balan Wonderworld," Naka explained that he and Square Enix didn't quite see eye to eye about how to handle the original score in promotional materials. Naka said that a clash with Square Enix over promotional music created an even greater rift among the senior team. "One point was when a YouTuber was to perform and publish the score of in-game music for promotional purposes," Naka wrote. "We got in trouble because we believed it was odd that a ghostwriter would write an arranged song for a brand new game, so we asserted that the original song should be used rather than an arrangement."

Naka alleged that he was removed from "Balan Wonderworld," in part, because of this disagreement over the use of the promotional music. While the music debate might not have been the entire reason Naka's senior staff chose to remove him from the game, it seems like a contributing factor in the behind the scenes unease. Plus, as Naka said, fans can often feel drawn in by a striking original score — maybe refusing to use Naka's preferred score had a negative impact on the game.

Square Enix rushed the game

According to Yuji Naka, Square Enix simply wanted to release "Balan Wonderworld" quickly, even in an unfinished state. Naka claimed that "something didn't seem quite right" with the production timeline, but it wasn't his decision when the game would be released.

Naka described an alleged incident where "Balan Wonderworld" co-creator Naoto Ohshima told the game's producer, Noriyoshi Fujimoto, that the game's trial phase would be delayed. The team was apparently excited about this delay, hoping that it would mean the finished product would be better for the extended development. Despite these hopes, Fujimoto allegedly continued to push the game forward on its original schedule, leaving little time for developers to correct bugs.

Naka said that Square Enix's rush showed how it felt about the people buying its games. "I believe that Square Enix and Arzest are companies that care about neither games nor their fans," Naka said. He also claimed, "I believe that if they don't care about games nor their fans, Square Enix is a bad company." 

It's true that "Balan Wonderworld" was released in what seems to be an unfinished state, but with the company remaining mum on Naka's comments, it's still unclear what the whole story is. Fans may never know everything about what made "Balan Wonderworld" flop, but it may remain a cautionary tale for future adventurous platformers.