Something I’ve always been interested in when it comes to the making of video games is character design. I’m fascinated by it because there’s really no telling what characters get over or why it happens. Hell, one of my favorite characters in all of gaming is Kirby, and I have no idea how someone came up with the idea to make a little pink puffball that inhales enemies into a leading character, let alone have it turn into one of the most beloved and successful figures in gaming history. But for every Sonic the Hedgehog or Mario, the roadside is littered with plenty of Bubsys and Titus the Foxes. So today, we’re gonna take a look at one of the lesser known strange characters of the 16-bit era with Super Widget by Atlus.
What is Widget, you ask? Widget is a purple alien thing capable of shapeshifting and acquiring different powers, who is part of a group of World Watchers, tasked ostensibly with saving…um…worlds. Now, if you’re like me, the first impression you probably get after hearing that is that this is probably going to feel like a bootleg Kirby game, and indeed, there are some comparisons to be drawn here, but, I’m happy to report what we get here stands on its own merits well enough.
Probably the first thing that will jump out at you is the artistic style; it’s very bright and colorful, sprites are large and well-detailed, and it has a very cheerful feel to it all. More than that, though, there’s a surprising amount of detail, especially with Widget’s facial expressions and the various forms he takes. You can see Widget strain when he jumps, try to balance himself when he stands on the edge of a platform, tense up when he has to duck, and flinch when takes a hit. Widget’s different forms are pretty neat, also. For example, picking up a Leg icon turns Widget into an ostrich, but he still has the same purple face, so he’s more of an alien-ostrich hybrid, which works surprisingly well. Picking up two Strong icons turns Widget into a Robocop-esque cyborg that clomps around awkwardly, like you would expect a giant metal enforcer to walk. I have to give a lot of credit to the animators for not taking little touches like walk cycles for granted and injecting such character into tiny details.
As I alluded, the gimmick here is that Widget gains powers by picking up helpfully marked icons along the way. There are five different powers available, Leg, which allows you to hop on enemies to defeat them as well as your regular attack, Strong, Marine, which gives you a much easier time underwater, and later in the game you’ll happen upon Fire, which also grants Widget the ability to fly, and Knight, which like Strong, looks cool but doesn’t really give out much else in the way of extra benefits. Each power has two versions, so collecting a second Leg icon turns Widget from an ostrich to a disturbing mishmash of a spider and a bumblebee, and two Knight icons turns him from a knight into a centaur. These also count as your life bar of sorts; getting hit as SpiderBee Widget bumps him back down to Ostrich Widget, and taking another bump turns him back into regular jabroni Widget.
The other big gimmick to note here is, after each level, you’re given experience points based on a combination of three factors: Battle Rank, which as far as I can tell, is based around how many enemies you take out compared to the damage you take, Time Rank, how quickly you clear a level, and how many of the four Horsehead Nebula icons you collect in each level. Now, bringing in a lot of experience points unlocks bonus stages between levels where you can rack up extra lives, but it also makes quite a difference in the end game. Y’see, the end of the game is comprised of six stages. Depending on what your rank is when you get to that point, you might not have to beat all six stages; if you scored high enough, you can elect to start from say, the fifth of those six stages instead of at the beginning. Again, it’s another little touch that rewards players’ diligence, and I always welcome quirks like that.
It’s not like any of the stages are much of a chore to get through, mind you. Most consist of a couple of fairly short segments followed by a boss fight, but each stage has a motif and handles it pretty well. There’s a beach level, a couple levels in space (complete with low gravity physics when you’re outside), the VOLCANIC ERUPTION ZONE, where the gimmick is Widget has to collect water flowers before he literally burns to a dark crisp, and levels for both the land of the giants and the land of the dwarves. It’s all pretty stock stuff, but nothing jumps out in any of the levels as horribly botched, and they did a good job of implementing the little twists without getting too cute with them. Towards the end, though, you will notice a couple of levels being recycled somewhat, and more than a couple re-used enemy designs, but by that point, you’re coming down the homestretch anyway.
Now, normally one of the biggest bugaboos with third-party platformers like this is play control. Oftentimes, the controls tend to be overly floaty or unnecessarily stiff, but thankfully, Widget controls pretty smoothly. He runs when you want him to, stops when you want him to, and the response time is pretty bang-on. Playing through the game, the only mildly frustrating thing to remember was that if you had forward momentum when you jumped up to collect an icon, you would carry that momentum until you landed or Widget finished his transformation animation. There are also a few levels with a lot of objects that make you bounce around, very similar to hopping on the springboards in Super Mario Bros., but even those don’t tend to get in the way often.
I should point out that Super Widget doesn’t offer too much of a challenge. You should have no problem scooping up a surplus of extra lives, and even if you didn’t, you’re probably not going to get killed often. It’s also a bit on the short side, and depending on what your Watcher Rank turns out to be going into the last six stages, you can whip through the entire game in about an hour and a half to two hours. There’s also not a whole lot of reason to play through it a second time, unless you’re determined to max out your Watcher score.
Still, Super Widget is very much an above-average Super Nintendo platformer. It doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel by any stretch, but there’s still something to be said for a game that is competently made, and doesn’t screw up the tried-and-true platformer formula. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a hidden gem, but it’s still quite good, and I would recommend it if you’re a Super Nintendo completionist or if you just want some quality platformer action with just enough variety to distinguish it from the run of the mill hop’n’bop.
Solid little platformer that gets pretty much everything right, quite enjoyable graphically.
Not terribly challenging, a bit on the short side. Could have used some more variety in Widget’s powers.