The year 1987 marked the debut Where’s Wally? (localized as Where’s Waldo? in North America and Canada). Conceived by English illustrator, Martin Handford, Where’s Wally? helped popularize what is occasionally referred to as a wimmelbilderbuch, a German term roughly translating to, “teeming picture book.” Works in this genre are, for the most part, wordless, and instead typically feature full-spread images on gatefold pages. The biggest appeal of Where’s Wally? and other books of its ilk was that a game was made out of examining these illustrations. Each of them are richly detailed, featuring numerous humans, animals, and other assorted objects in everyday, yet lively scenes such as zoos, town squares, or amusement parks. The title character was hidden in every one of these illustrations, and the goal was to locate him. He is known for his simple, yet distinctive appearance, wearing a red-and-white striped shirt and round glasses, but the books often include several red herrings to make the task far more difficult than one would initially assume.
The books became a hit, selling more than forty million copies worldwide. Because its widespread popularity coincided with the rise of home console games, people in the industry naturally wished to somehow capitalize on this success. In 1991, THQ published Where’s Waldo? for the Nintendo Entertainment System. It would seem like a sound choice. After all, entirely new IPs on this platform often sold thousands, if not millions, of copies; it wasn’t unreasonable to believe that one bearing a famous, bestselling license would as well.
Analyzing the Experience
Usually when I write game reviews, I try not to make my stance too obvious right away. To accomplish this, I typically explain the most relevant mechanics to establish what kind of game it is before I delve into whether or not or they work. Should the situation require it, I then follow a similar process for story analyses by summarizing the basic premise before expressing my own subjective thoughts. Should the need arise, I use screenshots as visual aids to make my case for some of the more bizarre mechanics or writing decisions. My ultimate reason for writing in such a way is so the audience has a better idea about how I arrive at these conclusions.
You may be wondering why I’m starting off this review describing the process I go through rather than talking about the game. The answer is that this is a game where it’s difficult to remain neutral when discussing it for any significant length of time. This is because I think just by showing you just one screenshot, you will be able to precisely gauge this game’s quality. When examining it, keep in mind that the premise of Where’s Waldo? is, much like the picture books it’s based on, to locate the title character in a crowded setting.
As you can see, this is easier said than done. I usually try not to overanalyze the graphics of the games I review because I believe they’re ultimately irrelevant as long as it is fun to play or tells an engrossing story. I have no choice to but to make an exception here because Where’s Waldo? is a rare game where the defining flaw lies with its unpleasant visuals. Specifically, it’s nearly impossible to discern Waldo from any other character on the screen because his sprite only barely stands out. In some cases, he doesn’t even appear in his signature red-and-white shirt, opting for one that matches the background of whichever level you happen to be on, meaning anyone familiar with what he looks like in this game would struggle to find him. I can only imagine what an ordeal playing this game on a CRT television screen would have been.
The game’s appalling presentation would be enough to condemn it as one of the worst experiences one could have with the NES, but incredibly, this is only scratching the surface. To properly set up my next points, I need to discuss the game’s difficulty setting. There are four modes: practice, easy, medium, and hard. On higher difficulties, you are given less time to complete the entire game – you have ten minutes on easy, seven on medium, and five on hard. On harder difficulties, the scenes become larger and more elaborate while the cursor shrinks in size.
You wouldn’t think that such a basic game would be plagued with awful controls, but this perfectly reasonable assumption is incorrect. Sometimes you’ll find Waldo only to waste time trying to position the cursor on him. You have to make subtle taps on the directional pad in order to get it exactly right – holding it down for too long causes it to fly to the other side of the screen. It’s not advisable to make too many mistakes because each wrong answer decreases the amount of time you have left. Sadly, this isn’t even the worst aspect about the time limit. The minute you press “start” on the difficulty selection screen, it begins to tick down. Unless you press the button a second time immediately afterward, you’ll end up wasting about five seconds. Furthermore, in between levels, you are treated to a cutscene of Waldo walking to the next stage, and he never walks straight to his destination. Instead, he just seems to wander around the area before actually entering it. That there’s no way to skip this is annoying on its own, but there’s a worse problem with it: the countdown never actually stops. This means the cutscene between stages can shave off as many as fifteen seconds – an amount that adds up the further you progress.
Possibly because the programmers realized that an entire game where you do nothing but stare at a screen, looking for a barely distinguishable sprite would make for a monotonous experience, there are three levels which offer new challenges to the player. The first involves finding Waldo in a dark cave. Unlike the search stages, he is not stationary, and you will occasionally catch glimpses of him. Moreover, the cursor acts as a flashlight, allowing you to pinpoint his location easier. Incorrect guess are not penalized in this level, but the cursor doesn’t move as you press the button, so it’s only a good idea to mash it when you think he’s close. Once you’ve found him, you assume control of Waldo. From here you can either proceed to the next stage right away or pick up the hourglass that shows up, which will randomly add or subtract a minute depending on how lucky you are. Because the cave is one of the earlier stages, it’s almost always worth it to take a chance to add a minute to make up for the time wasted by the rest of the game.
The second minigame takes place in a subway station. In this level, the objective is to navigate the maze and collect both Waldo and his pair of missing glasses, represented by cards. By facing one of the octagonal tiles and pressing the “B” button, you can divert the tracks, allowing access to otherwise unreachable squares. However, you don’t want to idle for too long because the third card is a character who rapidly drains your time if you’re occupying the same space as him. It’s not as though he can only move one square at a time; you could be on the exact opposite side of the screen only for him to teleport right to your exact location. The only way you can avoid him is to reach the edges of the maze or time it so that he moves as you’re traveling down one of the paths. If you’re not on a tile he can enter, he chooses a random location instead. Needless to say, this is frustrating – especially because one mistake can cost you the game.
Finally, the endgame stage is a slot machine where the goal is to line up three pictures of Waldo. There is a degree of skill involved in memorizing the order of the character portraits, but it doesn’t change the perception that it feels like your success is left to chance. The worst part about it is that the cursor moves too slowly, taking a little more than a second to move from one button to the next. I’d say the developers messing up the controls on something as rudimentary as a slot machine is a testament to just how poorly thought out it truly is.
Drawing a Conclusion
Sometimes, games in other mediums simply don’t translate well to an electronic form, and Where’s Waldo? proved to be one of them. This isn’t to say the idea was completely without merit. After all, there is little replay value to the books due to the obvious fact that they never change. It doesn’t matter how difficult it is to find Waldo; he will always be in the same spot. A video game adaptation could generate new levels randomly to provide a different experience each time, but then again, I think this too misses the appeal of the books, which would be appreciating just how much detail went into crafting each and every one of these illustrations. You simply can’t do that when you’re not allowed to see the entire picture at once.
Where’s Waldo? is considered by many gaming fans to be one of the worst NES games ever made. After playing it for myself, I can say it absolutely deserves this distinction. Entertaining the thought of people actually paying $50 in 1990 for a game that could be completed in less than an hour is distressing to say the least. One of the unequivocal benefits of the internet is that companies have a much more difficult time selling products with a famous license alone.
Now, some people reading this may wonder why I even bothered reviewing this game when its unsavory reputation precedes it. Surprisingly, it’s not because I grew up with this game; instead, what drove me to write about Where’s Waldo? had more to do with who made it than anything else.
Your eyes do not deceive you. One of the first products of the company that would later take inspiration from Ultima Underworld to create the immensely popular Elder Scrolls series of open-world action-RPGs was Where’s Waldo? for the NES. It should also be noted they had a hand in creating the equally abysmal Home Alone video game adaptation for the same system. There have been countless times when these legendarily awful works were made by some no-name company even people using the finest search internet engines available to them would be hard-pressed to find any information about. This was not one of those cases; instead, Where’s Waldo? was the product of group of developers who had not yet found their stride. It’s amazing to think if they never did, we would be living in a universe where the reputation of Bethesda Softworks was only slightly better than that of Active Enterprises.
Final Score: 1/10