Friday, October 21, 2011

The WonderSwan and Wonder Classic

I'm hardly definitive source of information on the WonderSwan series of handheld game consoles, seeing as I'm not Japanese, but I do consider myself to be something of a portable system connoisseur, so I recently made a point to track one down. I guess I'll start with a history lesson. In the late 90's the Game Boy was nearly ten years old and while the refinements of the Game Boy Pocket was nice, the improvements of the Game Boy Color weren't quite impressive enough to revitalize the aging market. There must have been the idea Nintendo wasn't quite as powerful as it had been because multiple companies tried to push devices into the market. Before this point there had been competitors, but they all ended disastrously.

I don't know if I'd consider the WonderSwan a disaster, but it was never hugely successful either. In a lot ways it is like SNK's Neo Geo Pocket, except the WonderSwan actually ended up with a decent amount of third party support and gained popularity outside of a niche market. After the failure of the Virtual Boy, Gunpei Yokoi, the original creator of the Game Boy, left Nintendo to form a new company that went on to design the WonderSwan for Bandai. The system displays a lot of the design philosophies of its creator. Yokoi often used older hardware in the products he designed, which not only made them relatively cheap, but made it easier for programmers to work with.

This was both a boon and an impediment to the orignal 1999 release of the system. The cheap hardware put the system at a price significantly lower than that of the Game Boy Color and allowed it to remain charged for a very long time off of a single AA battery, but the lack of color and the blurriness of the low quality LCD screen were not satisfactory to consumers. The first issue was corrected in 2000 with the release of the WonderSwan Color and 2002's SwanCrystal remedied the second. Of course, by the time the SwanCrystal was out the Game Boy Advance had already left the system far behind it in terms of power and popularity.

There are a lot of intersting things about WonderSwan that make it something of an oddity to people outside of it's native Japan. While many attribute the handheld's success to Bandai's ability to bring in third party support with titles from companies such as Squaresoft and Capcom, and though that was undoubtedly a large factor, Westerners tend to discount the fact that the system was made by Bandai, and therefore had a huge amount of first party support, with games based on their popular franchises. For the younger crowd that could afford the cheaper handheld there were tons of games based on things like Digimon, One Piece, Gundam, and Inuyasha, which is kind of a big deal.

Still, most people know the WonderSwan Color as that blurry handheld that was the first t get the graphically upgraded remakes of Final Fantasy and Final Fantasy II which the Game Boy Advance, Playstation, and Playstation Portable version were based upon. Those more interested in the system have found more unique titles such as the ridiculously expensive Judgement Silversword, a shmup that takes full advantage of the vertical orientation the system is capable of. There are interesting dungeon crawls with the Chocobo's Dungeon games and Dicing Knight Period. Gunpey, named after the system's late creator, is a great puzzle game. The library may not be super robust, but there are some entertaining titles out there.

I originally got my SwanCrystal because I was trolling eBay for weird systems and I saw a bunch of the black and white WonderSwans up there for really cheap. As I looked into it I kind of upsold myself, first on the Color, then on the Crystal, and I ended up spending about three times as much, but I don't really regret it. I ordered my system separately from my first game, and so when it came in the mail today I was sure I would have to sit around with a useless system for a few days. At least when that happened with my Neo Geo Pocket Color I could check my horoscope and set alarms. Anyway, the seller I got the system from was gracious enough to give me a free golfing game, Wonder Classic, that wasn't mentioned in the auction listing. I'm sure for him it was just a way to get rid of an unsellable game, but considering the nicely written note that was included, it seemed like a nice gesture, and it game me something to play in the meantime.

I don't know much about golf, so, for me, playing a Japanese golf game like Wonder Classic makes me feel like I don't understand two languages. On the positive side golf games haven't really changed since the NES days, so even if the menus take a bit of to blindly poke through, the actual golfing isn't hard. The player selects an angle for the shot, club, and spin to put on the ball based on the wind direction and speed and then tries to time button presses to maximize strength and accuracy using a bar at the bottom of the screen. The best I can say about the game is that it works, and the physics are forgiving. One time I hit a ball into the flag pole and it fell right into the hole.

The game seems simple, but the sheer amount of menu items contradicts that. Thankfully, someone out there has not only created a FAQ about the game, but even translated the entire user manual. As it turns out there are various courses and characters that can be unlocked, including that girl from Ridge Racer and Mr. Driller. It's a bit of a strange choice for cameos in a golf game, but I guess that is what Bandai had on hand without worrying about a bunch of licensing deals. It may not be a great game, but, hey, it was free and now I own a game that plays in the vertical orientation. The WonderSwan may not be the most historically important portable game system ever, but it is interesting, and that is why I'm glad that I've got one.

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