a review of Wonder Project J : Kikai no Shōnen Pīno
a videogame developed by hirano buncho do
and published by enix
for the super famicom
text by Brendan Lee
Much, if not most of the joy of life lies in figuring out what something exactly does, and then using that new skill (preferably competently, and in front of the easily impressed). As we somersault forward toward that glorious morning when we will have simply and utterly run out of Things To Do (i.e. direct withdrawal from your bank account means that the gentle geriatric hawking Atrocities In Vietnam postage stamps for your subscription renewal envelope to Elf Style Quarterly will soon be sucking peanut brittle from the stiffening confines of a rickety lawn chair) the only things that will be worth waking up for will be the things that you don’t know how to do yet. When you are able to subscribe to Mexico on Demand for 14 credits/wk and download tangy cheese sauce directly into your neck, you’ll no longer value that 3 a.m. run to the Taco Bell quite so very much. At that point, the living will envy the dead . . . though they may find themselves unable to precisely pin down why.
Wonder Project J gets this – – though in this case, you find yourself quietly envying a dead thing who envies the living. Why? Why, Heroism! Developed in 1994 by Hirano Buncho Do (who would later go on to fight the war against there not being enough officially licensed Bleach titles) and released by Enix, Wonder Project J does the wink/nudge soul-of-the-machine thing with nipple-stiffening amounts of taste and class. Much like Sandlot’s toothless-yet-busty Robot Alchemic Drive, the joy here comes not from the controls, but from the near lack of them: you play a scientist’s fairy assistant, and gently encourage a Pinocchio-esque robot named Pino toward both humanity and heroism through a carrot-and-stick approach. When Pino does something praiseworthy, you applaud his efforts; when he sticks his nose where it doesn’t belong you give him the intelligent end of a hammer. There are items all over the place: books to give Pino intelligence; free weights to help him sculpt his pythons. A boost in one area hurts another . . . make Pino read too much, and you risk having a Livejournaling emophile on your hands; make him pump too much iron, and he might take his ex-wife’s life in the parking lot of an Minnesota-area Perkins.
There’s stat grinding at times, and you’ll tire of watching the same animation loops eventually, but it’s still remarkably sharp, and it always feels purposeful. The lack of control never becomes annoying. Pino wanders blithely around with sparkle-eyed curiosity; you set him straight when necessary. You know what? You actually have a little relationship going there, you and the little guy. The point is, the game doesn’t give you everything. It would be easier in points to let you control Pino directly, but it would rob him of all the gosh-darn humanity you’re trying to give him. He’s no puppet, this guy – – whack him too many times with the mallet, and he’ll even begin to flat-out refuse any of your requests.
Figuring out where those invisible lines actually are make the game this really compelling object. Rather than choke our airways with arcing torrents of expository frass in order to describe every excruciating detail of your half-clever input checklist, Wonder Project J actually encourages you to – – you know – – play the hecking video game. We’re at a state in modern gaming (oh, hey Rare – – you’ve met Volition, right? They brought the Pabst!) in which players are treated like new hires at the local Hardee’s . . . you know, make sure you watch the entirety of the training video, and Mike will be over in a few minutes to show you how to work the Henny Penny. The only thing missing at this point is a hairnet and the opportunity to filch mozzarella slices from the walk-in cooler whenever Doris sneaks out back to call her lithium dealer.
Maybe it all comes down to a level of trust – – Wonder Project J lets you be a dick, if you like (go ahead and keep whacking Pino over the head, as much as you like! Boy, that’s rich stuff! HA HA HA ha ha ha ha . . . *cough*), but in the end you just won’t want to, because it just isn’t as much fun to betray as it is to guide. The malformed zeitgeist zygotes holding the sandbox up as the ultimate in Quality-Based Entertainment are missing some of the most important aspects of an actual physical sandbox: they’re fun places, they’re clearly defined, and they’re relatively safe. There’s plenty of freedom, but there’s always been freedom in games . . . you never had to take that sword from the old man in Zelda . . . you could just live there in that cave with him forever, imagining pleasant conversations between the two of them. It was just more fun to, y’know, be heroic and things.
Wonder Project J goes even farther than that – – you don’t just get to be the hero, you get to make the hero. That’s a very special thing; it’s warm, and it resonates.
It’s probably what it feels like to be the good kind of parent; the kind that doesn’t knock the kid’s ears very much.