Red Entertainment, A.I and Atlus for Turbografx-16 – Action – 1990 – Rating: 7/10
Let’s just get this out of the way: Bonk’s Adventure isn’t in the same league as Super Mario or Sonic the Hedgehog. Those are the giants, the premier “A” list. Bonk is a very solid and entertaining side-scrolling videogame. It inhabits a lot of charm and humor. It’s certainly a must-have for Turbografx fans. But it belongs squarely on the “B” list.
I think you’ll get into trouble if you expect Bonk to perform as a “killer app” mascot title. You can become overwhelmed by the hype, just as so many cartoon mascots were overwhelmed. You expect perfection from Bonk, Acro, Zero, Ristar, Socket, Sparkster, Mr. Nutz, Jazz Jackrabbit, Boogerman, or any number of characters who crowded the 16-bit scene. And when they reveal themselves to be less than perfect, flawed, or the dreaded “good, not great,” all hell breaks loose. The gamers throw fits, the prozines stick up their noses, and, well, this is how we end up in a world where the only viable videogame hero is an armored, steroid-fueled space marine.
So there’s a strong case to be made for the virtue of “good but not great.”
Bonk’s Adventure has a number of qualities I enjoy. First and foremost are the character designs, which are inventive, crazy, zany, irreverent, and just plain goofy. When you beat the final boss, King Drool (a lumbering green dinosaur with a big shiny crown on his head), you are rewarded with a complete character roll call, and it’s a trip. A dinosaur with glasses? A swaying green cactus with google eyes? A hatchet-wielding dino with a round bone head..or is that a mask? I’m never sure. He looks like one of the Pac-Man ghosts. Whatever. He’s fun, whoever he is.
Bonk himself is quite the character, a cave boy with an enormous Charlie Brown head that he uses as a weapon. He climbs walls and trees by chomping with his enormous teeth. And he has a junkie’s addiction to meat, which drives him into a rage, smashing through everything in sight. His many facial expressions are a hoot. He’s definitely having a lot of fun.
The gameplay is extremely solid, and I’m impressed by the quick pacing and rhythm of the levels. It’s a fairly short videogame, but thankfully never lags or becomes bogged down. You zip along the varied landscapes with a graceful ease, slightly loose in the controls, but always responsive. Bonking enemies never gets old, stomping flowers reveal hidden surprises, and secret bonus rooms are hidden in nooks and crannies*. The boss battles are also very good, featuring large character sprites that showcase the Turbografx graphics chip. It’s a nice touch that Bonk is really trying to rescue them; your goal is to break the remote-control helmets that turned them bad.
Red Entertainment and A.I, the software developers, have a long history of zany cartoon videogames, including three Bonk titles on the Turbo, the shoot-em-up spin-off Air Zonk, and musical-themed platformer Tempo on Sega’s spectacularly doomed 32X. Its sequel, Super Tempo on the Saturn is an especially inspired piece of zany madness. Fluidly animated, richly colored, and densely packed with crazed brilliance, it remains a criminally overlooked 2D side-scrolling classic in a time when 3D polygons devoured all the attention.
So what grinds my gears about Bonk’s Adventure? Why does it belong on the “B” list? Because, at the end of the day, it remains a very basic, simple game. Strictly linear, and cursed with a simplistic layout design, Bonk lacks the rich complexity and depth of the Super Mario series, and lacks the brilliant layouts and sheer speed of the Sonic the Hedgehog games. It’s mostly a straightforward left-to-right stroll. There’s also a bit of repetition from one world to the next. Two different boss fights take place in the same cave! Was it so hard to come up with more locations? Perhaps the programmers simply ran out of space; the Turbo’s tiny HuCards proved to be a fatal weakness against the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo.
The graphics are colorful, so that’s good. But details and backgrounds are extremely basic, which is bad. The music is catchy, that’s good. The animation is virtually nonexistent; King Krool doesn’t even animate when he flies around the screen, like he’s a giant paper cutout. That stinks.
Finally, someone should just be honest and just admit that all three Bonk’s Adventure titles are more or less interchangeable. I personally enjoyed the third game the most, while many others prefer the second. These are much closer to the Adventure Island series, which is probably why Hudson picked Red and A.I in the first place.
(*You can tell someone from Minnesota wrote this essay. All that’s needed from me is a nod to Prince, The Replacements, Husker Du and indoor shopping malls. Yah you betcha, eh!)