Balan Wonderworld director reveals the wild story behind 2021's biggest flop
A project that just went wrong.
Balan Wonderworld was an unmitigated disaster for Square Enix, released in 2021 to dismal review scores and equally dismal sales numbers, including just 2,100 copies opening week in Japan. It was incredibly disappointing to see a game created by Yuji Naka, one of the key people responsible for Sonic the Hedgehog, do so poorly. It seems like there may be more to the story, as Naka himself posted a lengthy thread on Twitter diving into a lawsuit he filed against Square Enix and a host of problems with the development of Balan Wonderworld.
What’s most surprising from the thread, translated by Cheesemeister3k on Twitter, is that Naka claims he was removed as director of Balan Wonderworld six months before the game’s release. This was ultimately what led to Naka filing the lawsuit.
“First, when a YouTuber's arranged piano performance of the game music was released in a promotion instead of the original game track, turning the composer into a ghostwriter, I insisted that the original track be released and this caused trouble.
Second, according to court documents, [Naoto] Ohshima told producer [Noriyoshi] Fujimoto that the relationship with Arzest was ruined due to comments I made wanting to improve the game in the face of Arzest submitting the game without fixing bugs."
Balan Wonderworld first began production in 2018, and in a 2020 interview, Naka said he convinced Square Enix’s president to give him “one chance” at making a platformer. The terminology there seems to suggest pressure was already being put on the project, and Balan Wonderworld would have been somewhere in the middle of development when developers had to start working remotely in early 2020. Game development was tremendously impacted, leading to multiple delays at Square Enix for games like Final Fantasy 7 Remake and Bravely Default 2. Surprisingly, Balan Wonderworld didn’t get any kind of delay, even after a mostly negative reception to the early demo. It seemed especially strange to not delay Balan Wonderworld, considering it wasn’t a major title for Square Enix, and the company had other releases coming up anyway, like Neo: The World Ends With You.
“I personally regret that Balan Wonderworld was released to the world in an unfinished state,” Naka wrote in the thread. “I wanted to consider all kinds of things and release it as a proper action game. I don't think that Square Enix and Arzest value games and their fans."
Taking a director off a project right near the release date seems like a drastic move. Naka points out that he wanted to work and improve Balan Wonderworld right up until the very end. “For Sonic the Hedgehog, 2 weeks before finalizing, the spec was changed so that if you have even one ring, you won't die. This now well-known rule was the result of improving the game until the very end, and people world-over have enjoyed it as a result,” says Naka.
Naka has dealt with a fair amount of criticism since the release of his latest platformer. He was the subject of a GameRant 2021 report about a canceled Dreamcast game called Geist Force. Mark Subotnick, a former producer at Sega, claimed that Naka came to look at the progress on the title and, assuming no one in the studio knew Japanese, said to fire everyone on the team but the engineers who knew how the tech worked, who would be brought into Sonic Team.
Naka’s Twitter thread elaborated on a project riddled with problems and opposing ideologies. Developing a game is a massively complex process, and it’s often hard to see how something like Balan Wonderoworld can go so wrong. The whole story is a testament to how even the most promising of projects can go south quickly.