I do not know the story behind the development of this game, but the way it likely went down isn’t too hard to piece together. The year is 1995, a full four years after Sonic the Hedgehog. The PlayStation is nearing release. Sega is losing its grip as an irreverent, hip, “don’t let your mom catch you playing” kind of company. They decide they need a new character – not necessarily another mascot – but another recognizable face they can put on company handouts and investor packets that secures their brand image. Something that says “Wow, Sega’s really in with the young demographics.” Something like…
…. a walking, talking pencil named Wild Woody?
Based on the name, I’m sure you thought this would be something entirely different. That’s surely by design, except that the actual game and the actual character don’t keep you interested after the name draws you in. “Wait, what? This is a game about a pencil? Aww, fuck that.” If anything, this is an interesting study in a failed character game, and how desperate marketers can try way too hard. Everything about the game seems forced, out of touch, and more than a little awkward.
The intro movie shows some kind of globetrotting Indiana Jones adventurer back from his latest travel. He drops a totem at his office, runs back out because his answering machine informs him that “Krakatoa is erupting again!” and misses the part where the totem breaks apart and folds space-time. The word is now in jeopardy, and the pieces of the totem hide inside various posters and pictures (allowing for a pirate world, mythology world, sci-fi world) to ensure their travesty can’t be undone.
The bottom piece of the totem, named “Lowman” (ha ha…) is apparently the only one with a conscience, and uses his powers to bring a hero to life and return his wayward brothers. All he could find was a pencil. A pencil which, in probably the most uncomfortable moment I’ve ever witnessed in a cutscene, screams at the camera that he is to be known as “Wiiiiiiiiiiiiild Woody!” as the camera travels down his throat.
Very early CG animation is responsible for this scene, making Woody look terrifying. His features appear to be drooping off his face, his lips aren’t really attempting pronunciation, and his movements are jerky and exaggerated. He looks nothing like the better-designed, hand animated character in the actual game, and sounds like budget Jim Carrey. Your first introduction to this “wiiiiiild” character is, truly, an embarrassment, and it doesn’t get any better in the additional between-level cutscenes.
The game itself seems to be a sort of Toontown replication of these various locations, both in look and gameplay. In a comic world, a sentient pencil is naturally a god. Therefore, Woody’s powers involve drawing things that pop to life, or literally erasing bad guys from existence. On paper, it’s not a bad idea. But here’s where the intended cheekiness comes in – to erase things from the world, Woody rubs his ass all over them. He’s a pencil, right, so I agree that the eraser would be on the back end. But no, no, no, you can tell by the animation and the expression on the character’s face that he’s rubbing his ASS on these guys. The fact that there’s an eraser there, and that it actually does something, is secondary. Oh Woody, you’re so wild.
Proper ass-rubbing can only be achieved by leaping down on enemies Mario-style. The same goes for erasing items in the world, like the tops of crates for powerups. The major problem here is jumping is awfully unnatural. Woody jumps as high as any other platform character, but to get there you have to hold down the C button as he sort of floats to the peak of his jump. It changes any timing you’re used to, and frequently I would release the jump button too early. The usual result here is ending your jump ahead of schedule and landing beside your enemy for damage, or dropping into a place perfectly located for getting hit by a weapon.
Failed jumping, through what feels like little to no fault of your own, will be the cause of most of the damage you will take in the entire game. The rest will add up through some pretty flaky collision detection. Getting hit on the tips of your toes or brushing a foe with your fingers count for full damage, and happens often enough to enrage.
The drawing mechanic is admittedly inventive. As you progress through the level, you can pick up drawing pad icons that add to a sketch book viewed by pressing Start. You select the sketch, press A, and Woody draws it, with usually unpredictable results. Drawing a kangaroo creates a kanga in the world that punches enemies. Drawing a mermaid clears the screen of lusty pirates. Drawing a kite lifts you off into the world and flies you over enemies, or to previously unreachable areas. And so on.
Each set of sketches is unique to the particular world you’re in, and usually tailored to some specific hazard or challenge in that area. Each page you pick up acts as a single instance of that item, and drawing it uses up one instance. You’re also limited to two sketches, as each time Woody draws something, he uses up lead and shrinks. The has no particular influence on the game itself, and a shorter Woody performs identically to a longer one (heh heh). You can, however, find pickups that stretch Woody back out to his full length (heh heh heh).
I do have to admit that the game does look and sound nice. The cartoon visuals are pulled off nicely, and the animation is fluid. Bosses are large and often impressive, like the giant pirate skeleton or the enormous face of Zeus. Music is CD audio and usually appropriate for the different worlds. Some are a little heavy on the tuba, maybe because it allegedly goes well with lowbrow humor, but just creates some overly honky themes. The rest is some generic, independent industrial, because everyone knows that crunching power chords in the background make you a hip, bold, consumer-friendly hardass.
I should mention the Pirate Rap, which acts as the background to pirate boss and is actually pretty excellent – until the actual rapping pirates thing is dropped about 30 seconds in, and a stereotypical Sega-hired rapper comes in to “bust some rhymes,” encourage you to “bring it back, ya’ll,” and discuss how great Wild Woody is. Don’t you worry, dude. I would have brought it back, brought it back, brought it back all the way to the store for a re-diggity-refund. Ya’ll.
I think it’s obvious that Sega really wanted their own Earthworm Jim. Woody tries to be just as cool and flippant with remarks like “See ya in a jif, Lowboy! It’s time to start sketchin’!” He’s got chugging guitars for background music. He draws mermaids with big tits and rubs his ass all over everything. He tries awfully hard to reach that jaded, distrustful youth demographic by coming up to the kids with a disrespectful attitude that dumbassed old white men think sells. He even interweaves with Sega’s current (at the time) “Say it” campaign by, at the start and end of every game, pointing at the screen and instructing you to “Say it!” If you’re not familiar with this campaign, don’t worry, other, hipper kids will bark out “Sega Sega!” for you on the same track.
The game itself is average. The idea of a living pencil with drawing and erasing powers isn’t bad. Meanwhile, the levels are trite and the gameplay, aside from the drawing power, is uninspired. They could have done well if they dropped the whole artificial attitude and got more creative on the levels. Every successful mascot, namely Mario, Sonic, and Crash Bandicoot. had some kind of new and impressive gameplay. This is just generic platforming with a forced and painfully transparent attempt to appear au courant.
Pretty nice artwork. Clever idea of a pencil having drawing abilities within the game that’s executed well. I guess there’s a topless mermaid in there somewhere?
Shameful attempt to market a hip new Sega character through an average platformer and a lot of fake attitude.
Weeeell, A yo-ho-ho and a yupity-dum!
My I.Q. is very low, I’m a pirate and I’m dumb!