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Monday, March 29, 2021

The Yuji Naka BALAN WONDERWORLD Astroturf Cult

By LUDWIG VON KOOPA - There's a contingent of fans trying to rewrite reality. Warning: This article spoils one of the story reveals of the game to demonstrate the point.

You might not have realised it, but BALAN WONDERWORLD is out on all the major platforms right now for $60. You know, the game I wrote was everything bad about 3D platformers based on its demo. I think that demo totally broke MOST people's hopes for the game. You can see that the Nintendo of America Twitter account tweeted multiple times at whatever opportunity prior to the game's release... but not on the launch day itself, preferring instead to promote the significantly more promising Monster Hunter Rise, as well as an update on their non-genocidal Super Mario Bros 35 3rd World Count Challenge. (By comparison, Sony and SQUARE ENIX promoted the game on release a whole bunch, so people in the PlayStation ecosystem probably know it's out. Microsoft instead promoted significantly better SQUARE ENIX game Octopath Traveler, now available on Xbox Game Pass.)

Now, I said most people, because there are still a few people that will stand by BALAN WONDERWORLD, and more accurately, anything associated with Yuji Naka. BALAN WONDERWORLD is directed by Yuji Naka, but he's better known for when he was a member of SEGA, programming/producing the Sonic the Hedgehog series and NiGHTS into Dreams. This was in the 1990s/early 2000s. He worked with Naoto Ohshima, character designer for Sonic the Hedgehog, and later founder of Artoon (known for the terrible Yoshi's Island DS) and then Arzest (known for the terrible Yoshi's New Island). Because Yuji Naka wanted to work with Naoto Ohshima again—it's been decades—Arzest and their team are the co-developers of BALAN WONDERWORLD with SQUARE ENIX.

That was a dense few paragraphs full of names. But the point is that the game is out... and there isn't that much organic coverage of it—besides a report that the base version of the game (without the day 1 patch) will induce seizures, even in people not normally prone to epilepsy. Most people, like myself, played the demo and were repulsed by it. Nintendo and Microsoft read the room and considered the game dead on arrival. SQUARE ENIX, despite their social media, seems to privately consider BALAN WONDERWORLD dead on arrival as well, having not sent most reviewers review codes until the game released, which is leaving the review aggregators very empty as media outlets are scrambling to torture themselves on who can get through the game the fastest to get reviews out. Right now, there's just very few reviews and not much activity for people actually playing the game, which probably means everyone's scared of buying it. Or they're too busy reading the $10 280-page novel that SQUARE ENIX published explaining the game's story, since apparently the game itself doesn't have dialogue and doesn't try to explain all of what's going on. (And to be fair, there are a lot of really neat ideas with the game world/environments and story and lore if you browse through the chapters on the official website, which unfortunately performs as poorly as the game does so it may take several refreshes. Those ideas just don't manifest well in-game.)

Well... they are either busy with the book (or the game, I guess), or they're making fake reviews on Metacritic.

There are dozens of fake 10/10 user reviews on Metacritic made by single-use accounts on all of the different pages for BALAN WONDERWORLD, and those reviews are being promoted by a number of users as helpful, while any truthful (low score) reviews are being deemed as not helpful. This could be the work of one person, or a group of coordinated individuals. Some folks think that the fake accounts are actually made by Arzest developers. (Others think the fake accounts were made by SQUARE ENIX people.)

BALAN WONDERWORLD fake bot user reviews Metacritic Xbox Series X
All of these accounts have only reviewed BALAN WONDERWORLD.

Those possibilities would not surprise me besides the Arzest one (‘cause they didn't do that for, say, Hey! Pikmin)—I guess it could be SQUARE ENIX employees because there's history of that for Left Alive—because devotees to Yuji Naka (and they really think he can do no wrong, blaming every other possible party but him) want to keep clinging to that. Like, their whole existence is tied to his creations, apparently, outright publicly posting their suicidal ideations on social media when people don't give BALAN WONDERWORLD the respect they think it deserves. (Note that both the archived Twitter hyperlinks in this paragraph are from trans-rights activists/transgender people and both, in their posts or their biographies, are suicidal. There's probably a correlation between that and the happy dream fantasy escapism worlds Yuji Naka has with BALAN and NiGHTS.)

By the way, I've found one community of actual BALAN WONDERWORLD fans: tumblr. When I wrote that there's a correlation between mentally ill people and liking BALAN WONDERWORLD, I had a hunch to check tumblr to see if they would like the game, and as of writing this, I'm right. However, even they don't think it's perfect. Their number one problem seems to be—and this is where the spoilers come in—Balan's skin colour. They think Balan should've been black. He's not.

Balan Wonderworld twink white boy black coded design whitewashed tumblr
(The poster is also grappling with non-traditional sexualities and enough anxiety issues to point it out under Rules.)

At least one tumblr user (with ve/vem/vir pronouns, which I don't know how to use, so I'll skirt around them—this individual is also 16 years old, which I'll talk about shortly) redrew Balan as not “whitewashed,” which really is adjusting reality to meet their fantasy conception. Another (trans) tumblr fan looked at Balan's actual look and said, “There’s no way we’re accepting this, right? THERES NO WAY WE’RE LETTING THEM GET AWAY WITH THIS, RIGHT?!”

I just want to know why anyone in Generation Z would have an attachment to Yuji Naka or NiGHTS or whatever, since Naka's glory days happened before Generation Z was born. It can't be childhood nostalgia. But I can't ask because this person has a DO NOT INTERACT banner that I guess I must respect!

Anyway, I don't know where or how they ( got recruited to the cult, but the attachment between Yuji Naka's works and... let's call them “marginalised” and unhappy communities makes some sense. Yuji Naka's games aren't typical, focused on young'ns that try to overcome personal problems to bring joy into their lives with the assistance of a magic dude that they look up to. His career isn't typical either, with his products as of late being panned by the mainstream media. There's a lot to identify with and hope for there for the marginalised kids, which is why fans, like Heather Alexandra (who is also trans) want Yuji Naka to be happy on a personal level. He gets to be an honourary member of the marginalised community, so they'll defend him as one of their own.

...That's my theory, anyway. I still don't know if Naka's cult is the responsible party for the fake Metacritic reviews.

Perhaps it's related to the president of SQUARE ENIX saying that Yuji Naka has “one chance” and that's it to make a successful platformer while he's an employee of SQUARE ENIX. To any objective observer, Naka blew his chance. But maybe people feel that with enough fake reviews and astroturfed support, they can salvage his reputation and fool SQUARE ENIX? I don't think any real person will expect that to work, but this cult doesn't really live in reality...

Quick reminder you can buy SQUARE ENIX's book version of BALAN WONDERWORLD and the entire mainline Ace Attorney series for less than the cost of just BALAN WONDERWORLD the game... only for a very limited time!

Let Ludwig know in the comments section if you think he's onto something, or if he's totally off-base and wrong. This article isn't intended to stigmatise people's mental illnesses or identity, but if that's the entirety of a work's fanbase, it's definitely something that should be noted and not ignored for the purpose of honest analysis.

Based on information from Yuji Naka, those fake reviews really did come from his cult, not from SQUARE ENIX or Arzest.
Yuji Naka was later arrested in November 2022 for insider trading.


  1. Next time put a toxic contents warning, I accidently read something from tumbler and now I've got a strong headache. I'm really interested in the president of square saying Naka had one last chance, if he did say that. Perhaps it would be best if Balan wonderland failed, maybe Naka just needs to go somewhere else. Either way those fake review can't save the game sales, and that's all that really matters.

  2. Never in a million years would I have guessed that Balan's race would be a controversial issue.

  3. what does the tumblr user being trans have to do with this ??

    1. I'm noting the common theme of people having non-heteronormative lifestyles and being fans of BALAN WONDERWORLD.

  4. Former Balan fan here.

    I somewhat agree with what you think, but shitting on Balan's pretty boy form is just... sad. After the leaks, it just took me more than a few days for me to get used to his form at the end.

    This fanbase is just taking things way too far.


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