Graphic Research’s attempt at adapting Peter Keefe’s environmentally conscious, animated show Widget for the Nintendo Entertainment system proved less-than-satisfactory. Not only did it sell very poorly, the few people who did purchase it immediately dismissed it as an inferior take on the run-and-gun gameplay pioneered by Mega Man. Even those willing to ignore the subpar controls were ultimately treated to an unstable mess of a game that threatened to crash at the slightest provocation. Nonetheless, a sequel to the game was greenlit. However, taking up the reins of the development process was the company that published the original game: Atlus.
The Setagaya-based developer had made a name for themselves in their native homeland due to their successful adaptation of Aya Nishitani’s Digital Devil Story. From this adaptation, their flagship series would soon be formed: Shin Megami Tensei. However, because none of these games saw an international release, Atlus was fairly obscure outside of Japan. As such, their adaptation of Mr. Keefe’s animated series, released under the name Super Widget in late 1993, was one of the very few games of theirs Western enthusiasts got to play during the fourth console generation. With its predecessor leaving much to be desired, does Super Widget manage to be an improvement?
Analyzing the Experience
Widget, a resident of a planet within the Horsehead Nebula, has been chosen by his elders to be a new World Watcher. His first assignment is to travel to Earth in order to protect it from any would-be, malevolent invaders. Upon arriving there, Widget learns from his intelligent, yet goofy assistant Mega Brain that Ratchet has besieged Earth. Ratchet, being Widget’s evil twin who hails from an alternate dimension, will stop at nothing to pollute the planet and render it uninhabitable.
Being handled by a different developer, it’s not terribly surprising that Super Widget is markedly different from its predecessor. Whereas the original Widget tried, and completely failed, to emulate the fast-paced run-and-gun gameplay of Mega Man, Super Widget is a 2D platforming affair. Despite the fourth console generation having no shortage of stellar platforming games, Super Widget doesn’t wear its inspirations on its sleeves to the extent of Graphic Research’s effort. In fact, when you become acclimated to the controls, you’ll discover it has an identity distinct from that of contemporary platformers.
As the single most quintessential platforming experience the medium had to offer at the time, comparisons to Super Mario World are inevitable. It does stand to reason. Much like in Super Mario World, your goal is, simply enough, to reach the end of a stage. To do this, you must guide Widget through an obstacle course containing various enemies and hazards. Scattered throughout these stages are coins bearing the letter “W”. In what is the most obvious similarity between the two games, by collecting one-hundred coins, Widget gains an extra life.
However, one of the biggest differences manifests when you realize there is no run button. While the “B” button is used for jumping, the “Y” button instead causes Widget to throw a punch. From the onset, this is his primary means of defense. It is admittedly disappointing that he doesn’t start with a ranged attack, but the punch is far more powerful than the blaster from the NES game. It’s also important to know that he doesn’t need to find upgrades for his attacks, eliminating a lot of busywork in the event you expend all of your lives or use a password. Even so, you would be unlikely to appreciate this goodwill once you realize but a single successful strike from an enemy is enough to defeat Widget. While he had a life meter in his original game, there isn’t one to be found here. Fortunately for the player, Widget is not as fragile as he seems.
While someone playing the original Widget wouldn’t use the title character’s shapeshifting powers until it was necessary out of fear of draining the MP gauge, trying out Super Widget for a few minutes reveals how integral to the experience they are this time around. To reflect its greater importance, shapeshifting is a much easier process this time around. There is no need to expend MP in order to utilize these powers; all you must do is collect a token bearing a letter other than “W”. The first such token bears the letter “L”. Once Widget has collected it, he will transform into an ostrich.
In this form, Widget is significantly more powerful. Not only can he spit out a feather that damages any enemy it touches, he can defeat enemies by jumping on them. The feather also homes in on enemies as long as Widget is facing towards the enemy. This is far more effective than being able to shoot at an angle in the original because it accounts for a greater degree of range. If he finds another “L” token, he will assume a spiderlike form. This is an upgraded version of his ostrich form, retaining the original’s abilities while making the attacks significantly more potent. If Widget takes damage as a spider, he will revert to his ostrich form. In turn, taking damage as an ostrich causes him to return to his original form. Along the way, you may find a shield that protects Widget from a single attack. You can also get a shield by collected a third “L” token as Spider Widget. When fully transformed and holding a shield, he can take four hits before losing a life.
The manner in which this mechanic functions is probably the most overt parallel between Super Mario World and Super Widget. At the same time, it’s easy to make the case the mechanic is far more complex than in it is in any Mario game. Later on in the game, you will gain access to “S”, “M”, “F”, and “K” tokens. “S” tokens transform Widget into strong forms that have excellent ranged attacks. The first will transform him into a humanlike shape while the second turns him into a robot – complete with an arm blaster just like Mega Man.
“M” tokens transform Widget into marine creatures – a crab and an octopus, specifically. Although Widget doesn’t have to worry about drowning in this game, he isn’t exactly as graceful of a swimmer as Mario. As one would expect, it is much easier to navigate him underwater when in the appropriate form. Flight springs to mind when parsing the “F” tokens. The first one transforms Widget into a fire-breathing dragon while the second causes him to assume the form of a flying saucer. Although you won’t see the first “K” token until fairly late in the game, you’ll greatly appreciate them when you finally get a chance to utilize the knight and centaur forms they grant.
If anyone played the original game expecting Super Widget to be more of what was a woefully substandard experience, they would be taken aback when they realize how much of an improvement it manages to be. A significant reason is because the transformation mechanic has a surprising amount of balance to it. The forms granted by the strong tokens are ideal for fighting bosses, but the other lines have a lot of utility to make up for their lack of raw power. Meanwhile, despite what one would think, the marine forms are not useless on land. They too have good ranged attacks with Widget’s octopus form being able to launch two projectiles from both directions. Their true utility manifests whenever Widget is made to navigate a large body of water, but they’re not useless outside of their intended situations. While the flight forms have little destructive power, the ability to dodge enemy attacks by leaving the ground more than makes up for their shortcomings.
Finally, Knight Widget and Centaur Widget combine aspects of various transformations you used throughout the game. Centaur Widget in particular can throw lances capable of piercing multiple enemies while also retaining the spider and ostrich form’s ability to damage enemies by jumping on them. You don’t even have to worry about enemies getting the drop on Widget as he is transforming. In fact, if an enemy does collide with Widget during that time, they are damaged instead.
Although the transformation system is significantly improved, what truly allows Super Widget to outshine its predecessor is its level design. Whereas Widget often featured multiple paths that couldn’t be explored unless the title character had access to certain forms, Super Widget is far more streamlined. Your primary goal is simply to reach the end of the stage and defeat the boss awaiting you. Although there are multiple paths you can take to reach the end, they all lead to the same place.
There are advantages to taking certain paths over others. Each stage contains four Horsehead tokens. They award a certain number of experience points for each one you find. You can also earn experience points by defeating the boss efficiently and completing the stage in as little time as possible. However, in the end, the number of experience points doesn’t really matter. When you have completed the first twelve stages, you are then allowed to choose one of five new missions. The number of missions available from the onset depends on how many experience points you received, though completing the fifth will end the game immediately. You can skip multiple stages if you obtained a lot of experience points, but it’s not a serious issue if you miss the Horsehead tokens. This means you are free to complete each stage exactly as you want without worrying about whether or not you went the right way.
Widget had an exceptionally bland level design that covered the basic gamut of video game stages. It shook things up somewhat by making the introductory stage take place in a desert, but this deviation only affected the visual design. The first stage in Super Widget, despite being set on Earth, lends a more fantastical quality to the visuals. The odd shape of the plant stalks wouldn’t seem out of place in Sonic the Hedgehog. This extends to the following five stages as well, which see Widget explore an amusement park, an active volcano, and the moon. Each stage presents its own set of challenges with some even featuring entirely unique enemies. What helps the player adjust to these new mechanics is that Mega Brain describes most of the stages in detail before Widget enters them. This allows the player to prevent themselves from falling victim to hazards that would likely have caught them off-guard otherwise.
Upon defeating Ratchet once and for all, Widget is called upon to return to the Horsehead Nebula where the other villains have been terrorizing various worlds. The planets there include, among other things, a land of giants and one populated by dwarfs. In both worlds, Widget must take caution when dealing with the inhabitants. He must avoid getting stepped on by the giants while fighting his way past insects and various enemies that, while harmless to the inhabitants, are monstrously large compared to himself. The planet of dwarfs provides an interesting role reversal wherein Widget is potentially the monster terrorizing the planet. If he gets too close to the dwarfs, they will call upon their special defense forces to take him down. Although their aircraft is the size of a toy helicopter, the bullets they fire are every bit as damaging as ones from a human-sized one. With other stages including a planet primarily composed of bouncy surfaces and Widget outrunning a moving forest, and it is clear Atlus was able to apply the creativity they showcased when crafting Shin Megami Tensei to a different genre.
Even if Super Widget is, by and large, an improvement over the NES original, it does have its fair share of shortcomings. Anyone playing this game blind is going to spend a fair bit of time adjusting to the controls. They are completely workable when you get used to them, and you no longer have to worry about bumping Widget’s head into the ceiling during certain jumps. Until one reaches that point, however, a newcomer would be forgiven for believing them to be a bit slippery. It doesn’t help that Widget has to be a little more than halfway across the screen before it begins to scroll. This means if Widget is in his normal form without a shield, you must be careful when advancing him or you could easily guide him right into an enemy.
Another problem with this game concerns the boss fights. I will say upfront that Atlus successfully took the various, colorful villains of the show and made good boss fights out of them. After fighting Widget in the first stage, Ratchet returns with a bipedal robot that greatly resembles one of Dr. Wily’s machines. Flim-Flam McSham, an alien ringmaster, decides to send a powerful monster after Widget once he realizes he is no match for the World Watcher. When Widget confronts Mega Slank for the first time, the villain is in the process of polluting the Aqua Planet. The fight then consists of riding a looping current and hitting him while avoiding the various creatures he sends after Widget. The fight against Dr. Dante even creatively alludes to his status as an infamous confidence trickster. He spends the first minute throwing coins at Widget before showing his true malevolence, revealing the room in which he is fought to be outfitted with a laser and a bomb launcher. The encounter itself is highly reminiscent of the final encounter against Dr. Eggman in the Master System version of Sonic the Hedgehog in which much of the challenge lies in dodging the hazards in the room while trying to attack the stationary boss.
Although the boss fights themselves are solid, you would do well to never get hit. Though it goes without saying that you should avoid taking damage in a boss fight, the consequences for making a mistake in Super Widget are far direr. In most games, a misstep merely causes your character to lose health. The character in question can still fight with one unit of health remaining as they could with a completely full meter. This isn’t the case with Super Widget. If Widget takes a hit, he reverts to a less powerful form. If he is stuck in his normal form, you have to make do with his punch.
To be fair, the developers seemed aware of this issue and Widget’s normal punch is actually one of the most powerful attacks in the game. On top of that, you can grab a power-up token before each attempt, ensuring Widget will be able to tank at least one attack for each new attempt. However, because of its pitiful range, the punch only exposes Widget to harm at the worst possible time. The enemy is given invincibility frames when struck, preventing Widget from taking collision damage for a few seconds, but it doesn’t change the fact that each mistake makes you significantly less likely to succeed. Given the difficult nature of later bosses, it can be a practical death sentence if you fail to defeat them the first time. In many cases, you might find it a better idea to simply restart the stage from the beginning in order to amass more power-up tokens.
Though it sounds tedious, it is mitigated by the stages’ short length. However, this aspect ties into what I feel to be the game’s biggest problem. By 1993, even platforming games were beginning to offer content that would require multiple sessions to complete. Part of what effected this change was the release of Super Mario Bros. 3 in 1988. Many platforming games made before then usually had anywhere from five to fifteen stages – even if they were created specifically to be console experiences. Super Mario Bros. 3 offered eight distinct stages in its first world alone. Because of this, Super Widget feels slightly behind the curve with a mere seventeen stages to offer. The stages are intricately designed, but even the longest ones shouldn’t take a skilled player longer than ten minutes to complete. This means if you find yourself enjoying Super Widget, you must eventually accept that it is over before you know it.
Drawing a Conclusion
In spite of its flaws, Super Widget is such a substantial improvement over its predecessor it’s difficult to believe they were only released a year apart. Granted, Widget was developed by a largely unknown developer whereas Atlus had a provably good track record by the time they began working on Super Widget. Still, given its subpar predecessor, Super Widget turning out as well as it did is admirable. People usually dread whenever a publisher takes over development duties for the sequel, but in this case, it turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to the franchise.
Atlus managed to capture the most interesting aspects of the show and translate them into an interactive format. The result isn’t perfect, but its shortcomings are brought about due to the developers not quite polishing certain aspects of their work rather than because they chose a property that couldn’t be turned into a game. If you’re a platforming fan seeking out an underrated gem from the Super NES, go ahead and try Super Widget out. The experience is short-lived and you might have to spend time adjusting to the controls, but by giving it the time of day, you will be treated to an imaginative game that frequently embodies the best trends of the early-1990s platforming scene.
Final Score: 6/10