In 1984, American television producer Peter Keefe launched a show known as Voltron. The show was about five pilots who commanded a robotic lion. When combined, they would form the titular robot. They would use their technology to protect Planet Arus from an evil warlord by the name of King Zarkon. During its three-year run, Voltron became the highest-ranked syndicated children’s show. Creating the show involved cutting pieces of Japanese animated shows such as Beast King GoLion and Armored Fleet Dairugger XV. As a result, Voltron ended up being an unconventional gateway series for Japanese animation – or anime, as it is more commonly known. After the success of Voltron, Mr. Keefe would go on to create other animated series such as Denver the Last Dinosaur and Twinkle the Dream Being.
The year 1990 marked the debut of another one of his animated shows: Widget. The protagonist and title character of this show was a purple extraterrestrial being from a planet within the Horsehead Nebula. Making use of his curious shapeshifting abilities, Widget would team up with a group of young human friends to protect the environment from those who sought to harm it. Because of its themes, the show was often compared to Ted Turner and Barbara Pyle’s Captain Planet and the Planeteers. As a result of its environmentalist themes, Mr. Keefe’s show was recognized by the National Education Association, who recommended it for children. Sometime into the show’s run, a developer in Japan named Graphic Research was commissioned to create a video game tie-in. The fruit of their labor was released for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in 1992 – two years after the domestic launch of its successor. Did Widget provide one last classic experience for the aging NES?
Analyzing the Experience
Widget has just become an official World Watcher. For his first assignment, he is to travel to a planet called Earth. There, an alien hailing from the Planet Titanium named Mega Slank is in the process of hypnotizing innocent people to do his bidding. Not wishing to let this go on any longer, the elders send Widget to investigate.
Anyone familiar with the extensive library of the NES will immediately recognize from which game Widget draws inspiration. The title character is armed with a blaster and his goal is, straightforwardly enough, to reach the end of a stage and confront its boss. As is the standard for most NES games, you can make Widget jump with the “A” button while a press of the “B” button causes him to shoot the blaster. He has a life meter, though how much damage he takes depends on the specific enemy attack or hazard. He will be accosted by several enemies on the way to the boss, so one must be vigilant to have any kind of success in this game.
If it sounds as though I just described the run-and-gun platforming gameplay of Mega Man and its many sequels, I can assure you it is no coincidence. Despite the show Widget having received approval from the National Education Association, the official video game adaptation has zero pretenses of serving as an educational tool. Although the pro-environmentalism messages persist in the opening of each stage, they are completely in the background. Given the radically varying quality of educational games, this change was for the best. What the adaptation strives to be instead is an unapologetically fun experience. It is therefore a true shame that Graphic Research completely and utterly failed to achieve this goal.
Not only is Widget a terrible game, anyone who plays it will realize they’re in for a subpar experience the exact second they engage the first enemy. As the player makes Widget shoot said monster, they may find themselves taken aback when it proceeds to leap forward. This isn’t like in Mega Man in which certain mobile enemies lunge towards the title character; shooting the first enemy Widget encounters causes it to teleport closer to him. From how the encounter pans out, one doesn’t get the sense that this monster actually has the ability to teleport. One would instead correctly infer that Widget is a poorly coded game.
Such is the extent of the game’s fragile integrity that one can, among other things, clip through walls after taking damage or warp to the next section of a level upon going out of bounds. If you’re especially unlucky, you can crash the game outright. The poor coding is especially obvious should you watch a speedrun – the players seem to bounce Widget all across the screen and the game, being unable to keep up, has no choice but to let them advance. Even having more than three enemies onscreen at once often proves too much for this game to handle. Granted, the NES was fairly limited in how many sprites it could animate, but rarely in good games would sprites flicker in and out of existence – even the protagonist isn’t immune under certain circumstances.
To be completely fair, it is possible to complete this game without ever encountering a severe bug, but I have to say that even if the programming was more competent, the experience would still be deeply flawed. As a good platformer lives and dies by its controls, one of the most obvious indications that you aren’t in for a quality experience is when you realize how difficult it is to guide Widget. This game doesn’t boast the worst controls you will ever encounter, but they do lack polish. It’s a little difficult to explain to those who have not played this game, but if you try Mega Man immediately after Widget, the difference is like night and day. The platforming in Mega Man is challenging, but you always have complete control over your character. In Widget, even the act of jumping across a gap proves exceedingly difficult.
Part of the reason why this task is so difficult is because the level design itself is terrible. One of the understated reasons why games such as Super Mario Bros. and Mega Man stand out as exemplary platforming experiences concerns the speed of its respective protagonists. Super Mario Bros. featured a run button which allowed players to make long jumps while the title character of Mega Man had a naturally brisk speed. Widget, despite being the protagonist of what is ostensibly a run-and-gun game, is remarkably slow. Even his walking animation has a distinct lack of urgency – it looks as though he is just walking to the grocery store. As such, the above screenshot demonstrates exactly what makes the platforming in this game so difficult. When making jumps, you often have to be exactly on the edge of a platform to clear a gap. If you jump even a fraction of a second too early, Widget will fall into the pit.
Making matters worse is that Widget proves highly deficient in the “gun” portion of the run-and-gun half of the equation. He does have one substantial advantage over Mega Man in that he can shoot diagonally upwards if you hold up on the directional pad while pressing the “A” button. Unfortunately, that is the only advantage he has. Much like in Taito’s classic 1978 arcade game Space Invaders, Widget can only shoot one bullet at a time. That’s right – you need to wait for the bullet to leave the screen before you can fire the blaster again.
Widget, having debuted fourteen years after Space Invaders, proves just how behind the times it was by maintaining this annoying limitation. This is because most games that gave their protagonist ranged attacks allowed them to shoot multiple times in succession. Indeed, one of the biggest reasons why pioneering games such as Space Invaders and Galaxian only permitted players to shoot one bullet at a time is because the technology at the time drastically limited number of sprites that could be drawn. Tellingly, shortly after technology improved, many of these games allowed players to shoot multiple bullets at a time. Because of this, Widget has no excuse. You can find two sets of upgrades for the gun, one of which increases the damage each bullet inflicts while the other improves how fast they travel. However, neither of the two upgrades address the pressing issue that only one bullet can exist onscreen at a time. Given that many enemies take multiple shots to defeat even with all of the upgrades, you can see why this would quickly become a problem.
If things weren’t bad enough, the Graphic Research team saw fit to give an unfair advantage to the enemies. That is to say, enemy projectiles are fully capable of phasing through objects while Widget’s are unable to do the same. This is another flaw that manifests as soon as the game begins. You can see an enemy in an underground corridor take potshots at Widget. The above screenshot shows how irritating this can get. Widget cannot naturally shoot from a lower height. Ducking is only useful for dodging projectiles travelling parallel to the ground. In order to hit this enemy, you have to make a small jump and fire a bullet at its peak. Alternatively, you can do a full jump and time it so that the bullet goes through when Widget is at the appropriate height. Needless to say, this is immensely frustrating, and you will run into many similar situations the further you progress.
This isn’t to say that Widget is entirely devoid of good ideas. Through careful exploration of these stages, you can find items to enhance Widget’s maximum health and a second meter with the letters “MP” next to it. By pressing the “SELECT” button, you can access the transformation screen. Here, you can consult Mega Brain: Widget’s intelligent, if somewhat clumsy assistant. He provides you with a map of the surrounding area, gives advice on what to do next, and allows you to exit the stage at any time. You have to keep in mind that although exiting the stage can get Widget out of a tricky situation, his health will not be restored. The other options on the transformation screen allow Widget to utilize his signature shapeshifting powers.
As soon as the game begins, Widget can transform into a cannon. The cannonballs he shoots fly for a short distance forward before dropping and then dissipating. He cannot move forward in this form, but he is still permitted to jump.
Upon defeating Mega Slank, three more stages open up and Widget can transform into a mouse. In this form, he cannot attack, but he is markedly more agile and can fit in small areas his normal form couldn’t access. You can also hold down the “B” button to run in this form.
Completing the second stage affords Widget the Rock-Man form. This state could be considered the thematic opposite of the mouse form in that what it lacks in mobility, it makes up for in offense. As a rock-man, Widget can throw powerful punches that not only make quick work of enemies, but also shatter breakable blocks.
The third stage pits Widget against the notorious confidence trickster Dr. Dante. Should Widget prove victorious, he will gain access to the Bird-Man form. Resembling a pterodactyl, Widget can take advantage of his newfound abilities to fly over large gaps.
Finally, an alien ringmaster named Film-Flam McSham is abducting rare animals for a circus. By stopping his machinations, Widget will obtain his Dolphin form. Dolphin Widget may not have any use on land, but the form is indispensable for exploring any body of water.
On paper, the transformation mechanic is a solid idea. The manner in which you obtain them is yet another parallel with Mega Man, though their actual use wouldn’t feel out of place in Metroid. You would use these forms in various situations to circumvent obstacles and explore parts of the stage you couldn’t before. This could be seen as early as the first stage. You begin above an area that is normally inaccessible without Widget’s mouse form. Anyone who thought to revisit the first stage would then be rewarded with an item that powers up Widget’s blaster.
However, while the idea is sound in theory, its actual execution leaves a lot to be desired. To begin with, Cannon Widget is practically useless. Although the form can allow him to hit enemies on a lower level, the pitiful range and lack of mobility while using it render that advantage moot. When comparing Widget’s transformations with the Robot Master’s powers in Mega Man in depth, however, one will begin to notice a few key differences between the two mechanics. The most important difference is that the Robot Master’s powers all have their own separate energy gauge. This means if you deplete one weapon, you are not forbidden from using any of the others. In Widget, all of the transformations run off of the same MP gauge. If you’re ever in a situation in which you need to use a lot of transformations in succession, you better hope you succeed on your first try or enemies drop MP refills along the way because if neither condition is met, you are completely out of options. This is because enemies don’t spawn as frequently as they do in Mega Man. Once you have defeated one, it’s gone for good unless you lose a life and have to restart. This is a mercy in the sense that you don’t have to worry about inadvertently creating more enemies by scrolling the screen improperly, but in practice, it means you are seldom able to farm refills.
Otherwise, the more pressing issue with the transformation mechanic is the very fact that it is often required to advance. If, for some strange reason, you decide to complete stage two immediately after clearing stage one, you’ll run into a dead end. This is because the second stage cannot be completed without Widget’s Bird-Man or Dolphin forms. If you try, you will unavoidably come across a gap of water too wide for Widget to jump – even with the mouse form. The original Mega Man suffered from a similar issue wherein it was possible to attempt the last stage without a power-up required to advance. Capcom had learned their lesson by the time they conceived a sequel because in Mega Man 2, you couldn’t help but have every power-up in the game by the time you needed to confront the main antagonist. Not coincidentally, these are the stages that require the most extensive use of the various power-ups. This isn’t to say there weren’t areas that could only be accessed with the use of a power-up in the eight selectable Robot Master stages. However, skipping them wouldn’t put the player at too severe of a disadvantage. At worst, the player would miss out on an energy tank, and there are plenty in the final stages. Widget makes an obtuse guessing game out of its similar mechanic, punishing the player if they choose wrong by wasting their time – and potentially lives.
This is especially inexcusable because you do not want to lose too many lives in Widget. Should you be unfortunate enough to see the “Game Over” screen, every single power-up you may have obtained is forfeit. Widget’s health and MP will be reduced to six units apiece and his gun will be as effective as a pea shooter against the various enemies he may encounter. This means the player must then waste even more time revisiting any cleared stage to obtain enough power-ups so that he can face the challenges ahead of him. In some respect, I understand why the game plays the way it does. After all, Widget saves progress with passwords, meaning any combination of power-ups he may have obtained would overcomplicate the system. Then again, this doesn’t hold up when you consider a developer called Westone managed to program remarkably short passwords for Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap – a much more complex game than Widget – just three years prior. Forcing players to recollect power-ups in a game that’s already remarkably short only accents the distinct lack of substance Widget has.
Drawing a Conclusion
With Mega Man 2 standing to this day as one of the greatest games of the 1980s, it’s only natural that it would inspire other developers. However, a natural consequence of a work being so monumental is that less talented developers would follow its lead in addition to the reputable ones. Widget is a textbook example of a game that took inspiration from an overwhelming success only to completely miss what made its would-be spiritual predecessor good. You get this game that has the basic outline of what made Mega Man 2 so great without any of the personal touches to carry it through. It becomes clear when playing this game that Graphic Research was lacking in creativity. The best aspects were clearly lifted from Mega Man 2 whereas every original idea they had either didn’t work or is riddled with serious execution issues.
If you’re seeking out a quality, yet obscure run-and-gun game from the NES library, you should look elsewhere. Widget may not be the worst game ever made, but the sheer amount of apathy that when into its creation makes it highly unappealing. I couldn’t possibly recommend a game when the developer didn’t even try to make it good. In light of its hideously broken coding, hostile design choices, bad controls, and short length, Widget has nothing practical going for it. The game’s only redeeming quality would be its decent music, but that doesn’t even come close to making up for its myriad shortcomings. There were plenty of quality games in the NES library based on popular animated shows, but I can say without a shred of uncertainty that Widget wasn’t one of them.
Final Score: 2/10