Remember Balan Wonderworld? In a different universe, Square Enix putting out a game of that quality would have stuck in your mind for quite a while, but I can’t blame you if you forgot this one. It’s just one of many stinkers the publisher has put out in the last few years, so it’s not even special in how bad it is. Developed by Arzest and former Sega creative leader Yuji Naka, the game came out to massive raspberries and then everyone promptly forgot about it. Turns out, as is the case with many bad games, there’s more to the story than just a series of poor decisions.
On Twitter today, Naka posted a thread in Japanese outlining specific complaints he had about working with Square Enix and Arzest on this game. He later reposted these tweets in English using an automatic translation tool, but for the sake of readability, we’re going to be using the by-hand translation from @Cheesemeister, whose Japanese translations are often used for news.
“I was removed as the director of Balan Wonderworld about half a year before release, so I filed a lawsuit against Square Enix. Now that the proceedings are over and I’m no longer bound by company rules, I’d like to speak out.” #BalanWonderworld https://t.co/Ht0Zc9soBa
— Cheesemeister ???????????????? (@Cheesemeister3k) April 28, 2022
According to these translations, which more or less match up to the machine-translated ones Naka posted, detail an account from the veteran developer about being ousted from the Balan Wonderworld team six months before the game shipped. Naka believes that he was pointing out problems with Balan Wonderworld — such as uncredited use of fan covers of music used for promotion or an extremely tight development schedule — which caused Arzest and Square Enix to fire him. Naka says that, according to court documents, he was fired after a joint decision from the producer, the head of marketing, the head of sound, the managing director, and Human Resources.
While six months may not sound like a lot in the creation of a video game, Naka points out that some of Sonic the Hedgehog’s most iconic game design choices were made in the final weeks of development, such as staying alive with one ring. He stops short of saying Balan Wonderworld would have changed the world had he been able to finish, but he does apologize to players for having released an incomplete game.
So that’s probably it, right? Balan Wonderworld was bad because Naka was unfairly removed for pointing out how bad it was going to be, conversation done. Well, that’s his side of the story, but the truth might be more complicated.
For one, by Naka’s own admission, a lot of the team agreed to kick him out of project. Naka says this is because he was telling truth to power, but he lists the producer as one of the people who ousted him. While Naka leaves him unnamed, the game’s producer as listed in the credits is one Naoto Ohshima. As one of the founders of Arzest, Ohshima is also probably best known as a co-creator of Sonic the Hedgehog, both the game and the character as Naka’s original prototype was just a featureless orb. The pair have known each other for years and their reunion on Balan Wonderworld was a significant marketing point for the game, as evidenced by this video that was seemingly published just a few weeks before Naka was fired.
If Ohshima was involved in the decision to get rid of Naka, and given his position within the company and role on the game it is impossible to imagine he was not at least aware, then this implies it probably was not a personal decision. Naka is often described as difficult to work with, to the point where Peter Moore once told him to “fuck off.” Is there a situation where Naka was so living up to this reputation that even Human Resources had to step in and remove him from the game? Entirely possible. Is it also likely that Square Enix, who has made multiple terrible games with external developers in the past five years alone, made bad decisions with no oversight and minimal budget under a rushed schedule to exasperate this problem? Also very possible. The only thing we really have to go on are their own words and the very buggy, very bad Balan Wonderworld on store shelves as evidence for either side’s claims.
We’ll likely never really know the truth about what happened with Balan Wonderworld, but it’s a surprisingly eventful thing to see a developer trash a former publisher in public like this.