The game I got a WonderSwan for, based on a random YouTube video on the WonderSwan. It’s an original WonderSwan game owned by Bandai and outsourced to Koto Laboratory, releasing near the end of 1999, which means it’s purely in monochrome. Still, the off mention of it on YouTube caught my attention because it certainly LOOKED fun and interesting and the more I looked into it, the more I wanted to play it. Especially because there’s basically no text whatsoever and where there is, it’s in English.
So what is it?
Well, it’s a racing platformer. As for the story, buckle up, because there is a LOT of misinformation. It’s not a post-apocalypse and there’s no gambling ring as you might hear elsewhere. From the manual itself, as run through fairly reliable OCR and Google Translate, the story is that in a future where technology has made lives for humans ever more convenient, cyborgs, as one of the earliest servants of mankind, are considered all but obsolete. Despite extolling the virtues of cybernetic tech, the rule for a cyborg seems to be "not a human" from a footnote that unfortunately does not OCR well, with human modification being prohibited. In that regard, giving a humanoid robot body an organic animal head seems to have been a way around this if one reads between the lines. Cyborgs are quickly ending up in junkyards, but a new purpose for them has been devised: racing. Maybe SKETCHY racing, being delivered into a course with electrified bounds by a pod and then forced to navigate as quickly as possible to a pod extraction for the entertainment of the masses, potentially collecting all 10 parts required to build some helpful device from repair stations and potentially finding 3 hidden parts for a not-so-secret "secret" upgrade in each course, but racing nevertheless, and this seems to be sold as an excellent new use for their superhuman physical performance, earning them the title of "Buffers." The opening makes it clear that people are quite enthusiastic about this, with crowds fist pumping at as little as the repair status for the junkyard finds on a series of Jumbotrons, one punk guy already wearing a leather jacket with one of them or a similar competitor on it. As for our trio of repairees, the manual seems to leave a question mark dangling over whether being repurposed this way is a blessing.
The completed rewards offered by collecting all 10 parts in a level can be equipped to one of 2 slots that you can cycle through in your future endeavors to help you go faster and/or reach places you couldn’t before. There’s no actual time limit to do all this in, but you’re competing for the best time on a scoreboard and achieving certain times can gain special rankings. In your way are some mild hazards and enemies that more or less stay in one spot. Enemies harm you if you get caught in their explosion, unless you’re transformed into basically what looks like a pair of wire cutters where the handle is also wire cutters and this allows you to safely ride the explosion to otherwise inaccessible areas, as does just not timing it wrong. This is actually an intermediate form between your normal state and the devices you can equip. As to how this transformation takes place… Well, I mean Samus manages the Morph Ball without breaking every bone in her body and these guys are at least 90% robotic, so whatever. Being mostly robotic, if they take damage, they turn gray and will suffer sporadic shorts that freeze them up for a split second with a small spark around their midriff or so and make them enter this transformation state as an interface screw.
So in short, no shady gambling ring, no post-apocalypse; just a bright, shiny late stage capitalist dystopia where the first acceptably artificial slave race has been mostly discarded and someone found a way to repurpose them into profitable entertainment through the power of dumpster diving. It’s otherwise a prosperous time where life is easier than it’s ever been and a great time to be alive for humans specifically. The game’s premise is basically one part Japanese game show and one part I, Robot with gameplay that splits the difference between Mario and Mega Man. The title could be read as the changing purpose for the cyborgs, though in all honesty it’s probably more just because it sounded cool, with scant justification on why they’re called "Buffers" in the first place other than their performance delaying their extinction or because their transformation buffers against damage.
(Dumpster) diving in
The game begins with a quick expository cutscene that shows our trio of playable characters being beamed up out of a massive junkyard by a flying saucer apparently coming from the distant city in the background. The junkyard itself might be almost as accurately described as a graveyard with all the apparent robotic limbs around, and it’s at this point I rather much call shenanigans on the "cyborg" assertion, because for all intents and purposes it looks like the trio are simply the most complete selections out of a mountain of mechanical parts with no discernible means of survival for any organic being. This has… unfortunate implications, to say the least, because all of them are missing at least one limb, perhaps from the process of being dumped if we’re being generous, but given everything else is in far more parts than they are, the question becomes whether these runs are made regularly to rescue folk from the brink of death and, if not, the incredible moral failure of dumping the living into a mass grave, if their survival wasn’t already a complete accident given their injuries could just as easily speak to whatever machine they were thrown into failing to chop them up into quite as many bits as intended. Basically, though, there are two possibilities and they’re both horrifying: 1) living beings with organic components are being murdered and/or incapacitated and left for dead, or 2) living beings are suffering injuries that render them inoperable and that’s considered "dead enough" to throw them out rather than undergo the seemingly perfectly viable process of restoring them to full functionality. Either way, the game neglects to show us the organic skulls of any who weren’t so lucky.
This is something that would be slightly more comfortably explained if they were purely robots. I’m an advocate for robotic life, but a robot can die if their brain is destroyed and simply be outfitted with a new brain while salvaging the body, which no one is likely to take exception to seeing as it’s a junkyard, or even perhaps recovered in whole or sufficient part by advances in technology or simply having better tech than anyone who previously knew them to be restored to life with their essential personalities intact, never mind backups. These guys get no such benefit of the doubt. Their heads are (thankfully) intact and assuming the whole point of this was to use an organic brain to bypass limitations of A.I. in the early stages of the servitude of artifical life, there is little to no reason to think they weren’t fully aware more or less the entire time unless some chip was implanted to prevent that. A robot can in theory fall into a failure state that could be mistaken for unrecoverable in innocence; an organic being largely cannot, and if it does, well, without intervention, that doesn’t last long. Maybe this is but one outing of a daily run, but even that really doesn’t bode well that volumes necessitate this kind of search at all. That’s before we get to the implications of dumping the bodies of intelligent beings in junkyards rather than observing any kind of proper burial rite.
TL;DR: the fact anyone with an organic brain would end up discarded in a junkyard is evidence of a gross failure of society. That it happens often enough to make it lucrative mining grounds is nightmarish in ways few writers would tread intentionally, much less any writing for a game that’s otherwise an easy E for Everyone, E10+ at most.
Our three salvaged stars are Simba (a lion (of course)), Boma (a rhino), and Shaga (a "hawk"). The "hawk" bit is a "surrre…" thing, since it’s obvious from the box/manual art and his bay door art that he was supposed to be a rooster because hawks are neither yellow nor have combs, but the smaller sprite loses his comb and looks more like a bald eagle, probably because that artist had a more solid idea of what a hawk was supposed to look like and nobody compared their homework before the game shipped, given additional discrepancies on his bay door vs. the title screen vs. the manual, along with everyone else to some extent. Regardless, they give themselves somewhat of an out by declaring their apparent species to only to be their "type" like there’s some wiggle room of what falls under it and a sufficiently cool rooster might qualify as a "hawk" somehow, much like how Medieval Christians were able to eat beavers and sea birds as "fish" during the many days a year meat wasn’t allowed because someone saw one fall into the water once. Humans: stretching definitions to render words meaningless since forever.
But that aside, really, the play sprites differ quite a lot visually from the larger art, which looks like that one comic geek kid you knew in middle school who was totally going to work on Spawn someday started replacing Mega Man X characters’ heads with American college sports logos and just never stopped drawing, with the same ridiculous number of lines everywhere, whether it’s extreme detail on an overly flowing, long, luxurious mane or a million hair spikes on what’s actually a bald character in-game, which just seriously feels like the game is in on the joke for its own marketing purposes both to the consumer and within its own canon. The manual takes it a step further and depicts them with plenty of sharp details, with a hard metal lion’s mane that looks like Super Saiyan Vegeta in a full gale, a massive and rubbery comb with corners at every turn that’s swept up and over and back and still somehow ends in jagged points, and a shaggy mohawk running down to mid-back, and all of them are leering red-eyed over their noses with evil grins except Shaga, who can’t grin because of his beak, but can leer just the same. All of them have mismatched thigh details that even the box art cuts them off at the waist to avoid having to redraw on-model. For extra points, Boma has TWO biceps humps on each arm, because he’s the strong one. Meanwhile, in-game they’re just these wholesome little beans who you’d expect to shout things like "winners don’t do drugs!" and show up on Wheaties boxes, with frankly a lot less hair and much friendlier poses and just a lot less of the ridiculous detail their larger versions have even though there was plenty of sprite space to add at least some of it. But most of all, they’re actually allowed to have smooth lines instead of everything having to change direction after a couple inches because anything that isn’t curved has to be a zig-zag. The whole thing reads like everyone except the sprite animator was already working on the American version, or rather more like they wanted it to look like it was imported from the US despite being a couple years out of date with what the US was actually producing.
The manual presents the trio each with a typical Japanese 5-stat system where the corners of a pentagon indicate the levels, though having taken the time to Google Translate them since they’re helpfully written in katakana English with any kanji spotting some hiragana pronunciation hints above them for some Japanese, their Jump Power and Speed stats are all identical at 3, so there are really only 3 effective stats: Power, Durability, and Flying Distance (which is effectively the inverse of their weight for the purposes of how far an explosion might throw them). Even so, this isn’t entirely accurate, since the manual otherwise states that Boma has 6 "Armor" where his Duability is only statted at 5, matching Simba, reaching the last tick on the axis, but not the edge of the circle or end of the line, so who really knows what other inaccuracies might exist or really if the scale is even linear for every stat.
The manual also spoils the reward for collecting all the parts from each level for the first half of the game, with such varied devices as a Helicopter, a Caterpillar (as in a bulldozer), a Wheel you ride, and a "Board," which seems a bit more of the snowboard variety, but works on any slope and quickly sends you down it at terminal velocity. How a simple board with only one curled end requires 10 individual parts to build or can’t be made suitably complete even missing 1 or 2 bits is beyond me, but whatever. One is also hilariously simply labeled "Fish" and turns them into a merman for underwater use. All of these are named in English, by the way, using katakana. I can’t help it; I legitimately love this stuff. The mutual cultural fascination of the time is just so endearing in retrospect, both countries looking at the other side of the ocean with wide-eyed wonder and newness with a formerly niche novelty gone mainstream. English was cool and by gum, they were going to use it, right along with an American comic book inspired art style, answered by the likes of Magi-Nation in animu stylings, the mutual filter of the other culture’s lens through one’s own meeting charmingly close in the middle in a rough-spun sincerity sorely lacking from our irony-poisoned present, like a macaroni Mona Lisa.
An aside down Memory Lane
If this all sounds like this is essentially a ’90s Saturday morning cartoon exec’s wet dream, it’s because it totally is. This feels like it was intended as a franchise starter, what with the bit of kid-friendly edge, the trio of endlessly marketable adult stars, and the toy-friendly gadgets they can build. It would have been perfect to air anywhere through the mid-’90s and again in the mid-2000s in its edgier forms, though for its release year of 1999, it would have wanted to focus on its more wholesome elements for a US release, which, to be fair, they already had pretty much down pat with Digimon. Sadly, this is a JAPANESE game and Bandai likely either never had or quickly scrapped any grand designs for the franchise. The biggest issues I see with it being a good American franchise are that 1) American Gladiators had fallen out of popularity by that point, which other than Nickelodeon offerings like Legends of the Hidden Temple that had peaked in ’95 and petered out by ’97 was the closest thing at the time to the Japanese obstacle course game shows this is so clearly based on and 2) so had any kind of sports cartoon that wasn’t related to NASCAR and Hot Wheels, though that could have been flexible. That said, around this time Bandai was also bringing Gundam to the US as a much grittier depiction of war and political intrigue with the help of Cartoon Network and that ended up being so successful in all age groups that something like this would have been easily left in the dust, since Bandai already had Gundam merch on Japanese store shelves ripe for the American market, where a new IP would have been a risk due to just basic logistics. Bear in mind, they already had Digimon running by that point and were not doing poorly overall. Bandai was instrumental in kickstarting the American appetite for unapologetic anime and helping reintroduce some edge after cartoons had begun to trend more wholesome, but not the same kind of edge as the comparative camp rife with furries and social issue messaging that was a hallmark of the mid-’90s, changing sensibilities toward a greater realism and sociopolitical cynicism that picked up in the early ’00s with a staunchly human focus.
On the other hand, if the trio had been given a chance and, say, used all the devices they’d accumulated to maybe engage in heroics or been pitted against some clearly evil rival team like Zoids managed to run with a couple years later or like NASCAR Racers banked on contemporaneously (or later in the early 2000s escaped their sporting overlords and shifted to an anti-"pick a topic, seriously" message as the pendulum began to swing back) it could have gone down as a fondly remembered artifact of the times that would maybe be ripe for a nostalgia reboot like Biker Mice from Mars got in 2006, or heck, just became the comfortable franchise Digimon did, evolving with the times, switching out characters periodically to spice it up or letting them return to the scrapyard from whence they came to recover and rebuild new allies and equipment to supplement the action figure sales. I mean it’s not like Transformers hasn’t found a way to stay relevant for decades using the same characters, minus the blip that was the Beast Wars and Beast Machines era. You can’t tell me in times like now where we have to buy all the Batman figures to build a freaking horse that it wouldn’t be almost disturbingly appropriate to sell a series of these guys where each of them has various parts of a broken ally or some simple, but large accessory like the Glider. Or even pack a vehicle with a main body to all the random bits that came with the others. That basically sells itself. "MOM! If we buy the Helicopter, we get the main body for the broken Shasta! She’s the girl bird!" "So if I buy this helicopter we can get rid of the Zip-Loc bag of dismembered pink limbs AND you finally let your sister play? Awesome. Birthday plans: solved."
Given basically any major toy franchise either keeps it fresh with a new look periodically or takes frequent breaks from TV without necessarily leaving store shelves, I could see with the couple art styles this has already that it could have been basically anything it needed to be to ride with the times given the right adjustments. The absolute worst thing you can be, though, is the right thing at the wrong time, much like the WonderSwan itself. The edgier aspects would have been well received in 2003 when dystopian edgy was in or in 1995 when the market favored furries with social messages, but 1999 was the middle of a time when furry mascot camp was 2 years trailed off and Bandai’s focus was elsewhere. It had the potential to stand next to the likes of Static Shock or NASCAR Racers, but the manual would have actually needed a pass to friendly it up for a US market given the material, and the names would absolutely have to go (especially Simba to avoid Disney’s wrath). Never mind that Bandai would have needed to find a way to sell it as something unapologetically Japanese when it was nothing but apologetic about being a Japanese game by all indications. Given the laws surrounding toy commercials that were in play at the time, it’s hard to say whether they’d have fit under what I’ll admit is a modern collector’s model of toy distribution rather than anything popular at the time. A lot of things could have happened, but none of them did, even though it feels like Bandai didn’t go into creating the whole thing as a disposable single game. Ultimately, it’s just one of those interesting dead ends that would have been great at any time other than when it was immediately relevant.
But to get on to the hands-on experience, it plays well! It feels responsive and even though someone else already has played the first 6 levels to completion, it really opened up the thing just to play with it a little. The game only has one save slot, but can be reset, and I’m inclined to maybe not do that while I poke and prod at it, since most of the game is left to see and nothing stops you from replaying any accessible level. In fact, it’s encouraged. Many levels will reward you with devices that are useful for them specifically, allowing you to get better times.
So to get more specific about the controls, people will say sliding is hard, but I have yet to see anyone say why. To answer that, there is no "slide button" like in Mega Man. In fact, it’s a lot more akin to the speedrunner tactic of "zipping" in Mega Man and if you’re not familiar, well, okay, let me just explain how it works here, because while they’re fundamentally the same, in this case it’s been extended intentionally. To slide, you have to basically crouch while you’re moving fast enough to let the couple pixels of skid carry you into the thing you want to slide under, and as soon as you force this clip by standing, the game knows well enough to force your character down into a slide and out the other end, honoring the collisions of the passage. As long as the game knows you’re taller than the passage, it will continue to shunt you in the direction you’re facing. (Mega Man in contrast has a bug in one direction of normal collisions that makes it abusable to similar effect in the other.) So the slide in this case requires you to be able to time your actions in such a way that, however it happens, either with a crouch or a transformation, you can get into a passage you couldn’t otherwise fit. Otherwise, the controls are directional buttons for left, right, and crouch, with the A and B buttons being used to jump and change, respectively, with "change" cycling through your forms. As such, timing is suprisingly important in this game, more so than most other platformers and more akin to fighting games due to working in frames for some light pixel-perfect platforming.
And while people talk about how getting hurt and shorting out breaks your flow, I don’t think most of them cover just how much. The more damage you sustain, the darker you get, and the more frequently you short and reconfigure. This can and will as much as interrupt your actions as you do them and especially as you get right next to dying, it can make the game nigh unplayable. It actually took significant effort TO die, with Shaga no less, because the controls got taken away faster than I could jump back into the next explosion. The entire thing became like trying to run track and field with your shoelaces tied together. And by the way, when this happens, it will knock you out of whatever device you’re using and back to normal form, so if you’re speeding along with the Wheel, expect to be unceremoniously dumped back to normal speed. It’s actually a fantastic system. The electrified edges of the course don’t hurt you, by the way, but they do basically force a short. And dying has you basically kneel, white out, and get picked up by your pod, which kind of surprised me given they had damaged sprites from the intro and the likes of Mega Man are certainly not quite so generous in rubbing your face in your failure. It at least goes to show these guys aren’t engaged in a bloodsport.
The three characters do have some subtle, but very important differences in how they play. Boma as the heaviest will almost immediately break destructible blocks he jumps on, which are marked by a different appearance than normal, while Shaga takes quite a few jumps in comparison. Boma is also significantly taller than the others, who otherwise are only of subtly different heights, so there will be places Boma seems to either have much more trouble or may simply be excluded from sliding due to his larger size. For that matter, there’s a spot I managed to slide with Shaga that I couldn’t with Simba, so Shaga, while shorter by only a pixel, may simply be able to access areas neither of the others can.
The amount of sprite work on display is actually pretty surprising. Normally in plays on YouTube you don’t get to see it all, but the characters have a breathing animation for their idle and the way everything holds its shape is phenominal. Even the static bomb "enemies" have several frames of animation for what they display on their screen. The characters will subtly duck below enemies in Wheel form and the Caterpillar’s treads will sling about when you jump in a way that’s very physical. Each of the trio also poses on selection and makes an animal noise and while the most notable thing about Shaga or Boma’s poses is that Shaga appears to be a lefty, Simba splays his hand forward and it is a fantastic splayed hand, especially for the sprite size! Someone really had anatomy fundamentals in this production!
In fact, the game, despite being monochrome, has an excellent use of color and just graphics in general and I really have to wonder how good it would look if they weren’t forced to ape a style they clearly weren’t familiar with. The game often looks quite 3D on SwanCrystal – shockingly so – as if there were physical layers within the screen itself. Even though the screen is not backlit, this game almost makes it look as if it is by making most "whites" a light gray, which you get over the dinginess of by the time the intro hits because of very smart transitions, allowing your eyes to adjust so the game can hit you with the actual white coming off as a super-white for sparing details, really hitting home that those graphics are brightly lit. This being the SwanCrystal, of course, the screen is silver, but being as highly reflective as it is, playing even in dim light is possible and it still looks fantastic. They knew exactly what they were doing. Even on the original WonderSwan, they took advantage of the screen’s ghosting to make some fantastic logo effects and everything, insasmuch as I’ve managed to get the screen to behave in the number of times I’ve opened it up because some bit of detritus managed to get in, looks pretty good.
And in terms of sound, the music is fantastic and could easily stand up to anything in a Mega Man game. The level of stuff where you can play a level before bed and wake up the next morning with the BGM stuck in your head. This is one case where you can look up the OST on YouTube and I’d actually recommend listening to it on your phone, because the sound really was designed for a smaller speaker. Not to say it doesn’t sound good with headphones on the system, but this sound wasn’t intended for your massive audiophile weight-of-a-small-child headset. They knew what sound response they were working with and the music works well within the limitations.
Ultimately, the most important question is "is it worth playing" and in my opinion, that’s a solid "yes," with me having had quite a lot of fun with it poking around and trying to figure it out. Normally, WonderSwan games get pretty pricey for any of decent quality, but from my own purchase and indications from others, it seems this one is easy to get a physical copy of on the cheap.