There’s an unmistakable pleasure to holding a digital life in the palm of your hand. So why were “raising sims” like ‘Wonder Project J’ never released in the West?
Developed by Almanic Givro
Published by Enix
Released in 1994
I was a rather studious child growing up; doing my homework and concentrating in class. I can remember a time though when I was once very disruptive to a class. So disruptive in fact that my mild mannered English teacher threw a book across the room shouting that they would force something into a part of my body where the sun doesn't shine, should it bleep one more time. The thing that caused so much anger was Mooji my Tamagotchi. Unfortunately for my teacher, English class happened to coincide with Mooji's feeding time and to make matters worse he was having a particularly messy day, demanding a great deal of washing. If you were born after 1985 you probably have no idea what a Tamagotchi is and why it would cause so much fury. They were a fad that seemed to vanish almost as soon as they came like Furbies or (hopefully) Amiibo. Usually they’re an inch wide plastic egg that you would keep in your pocket. On the egg was a tiny LCD which showed a little digital animal. By pressing two rubber buttons you would have to feed, wash and play with it whenever it bleeped for attention. If you didn't answer its shrill bleeping it would fall ill and eventually die; explaining why I had to take it to school. It retrospect I should have found a way to put Mooji in a silent mode, or better yet I probably should just have left it at home. If he died it wouldn't have been the end of my world (just his), I could just restart with another one.
The thing is that it’s human nature to want to raise something. We are biologically programmed to care, we have an un-quenchable desire to protect the weak and this is why we have pets. In exchange for protection and care, they give us love, companionship and affection. This desire to care for something is the very thing that led to the creation of digital pets like Tamagotchi. They are substitute companions for those who do not have the space, time or money to have a real pet.
It's a generalisation but life for an entry level Japanese business man (or woman) typically means living in a small inner city apartment where space is limited. They are at work for 12 to 14 hours a day which makes it hard to care for a pet (or indeed foster any meaningful relationships with the opposite sex). This explains why things like Mooji my Tamagotchi had to exist; they’re a convenient way to have a pet that fits in with a somewhat antisocial lifestyle. It's is also the reason why dating simulators and "raising sims" have and continue to be popular in Japan. While Tamagotchi had a western popularity boom in the mid-nineties, the “raising sim” didn't find an audience until Will Wright folded many of the genre’s traits into 'The Sims'.
It's a genre that's rather hard to explain, and on paper any description seems to come across as unwholesome. In the main, 'raising sim' games task the player with creating schedules for in game non-playable characters to follow. By following this list of tasks a character in the game then develop 'on their own' without constant player interference. Like a newborn baby, initially the non-playable character will require a great deal of hand holding and instruction. But as the game progresses, they will become much more autonomous, able to look after themselves. The player determines what actions are relevant to best grow the game’s subject, with a long term goal being achieved by solving a multitude of smaller challenges. Therefore, While the overall objective might be to raise something to adulthood, to achieve this they must do an almost limitless number of menial tasks, the exact nature of which rather depends on the type of game.
In the West, people playing 'The Sims' got excited because they perceived the “life sim genre" to be original. But in Asia, people had been doing exactly this for at least fifteen years.
'Wonder Project J: Kikai no Shounen Pino' is one such game; a raising sim published by Enix in 1994 for the Super Famicom. Given the lack of interest in these style of games at that time, 'Wonder Project J' was never officially released in English, indeed it hardly saw a mention in any gaming press. Even Super Play magazine; a publication famous for its focus on minority Japanese games largely over looked it. With no review the only acknowledgment that 'Wonder Project J' ever existed can be found in a preview section of the 28th Issue. In it Zy Nicholson is optimistic that this game would be the "raising sim" that'll break into the west, believing that "if it's successful then expect, at the very least, a U.S. Translation". It was something that never came officially of course and to play the game in English you have to turn to the services offered by the hacking group, WakdHacks, who unofficially release an English patch for the game in 2001.
Perhaps though, the reason for the lack of western release wasn’t due to the unusual genre, it was because of legal problems with familiar story and characters. Developed by Almanic, 'Wonder Project j' sees you teaching a young robot called Pino the nature of humanity. The game seems to shamelessly borrow heavily from the Carlo Collodi classic 'Pinnochio' novel and not just because the robot boy's default name being Pino. His creator is known as Dr Geppetto and the cursor you use to manipulate the avatar is actually an “interface robot” fairy called Tinker. Although functionally similar to a PC point-and-click game like 'The Secret of Monkey Island', 'Wonder Project J' is unmistakably a “raising sim”. According to Dr Geppetto “all that's required [to be successful in the game] is to have Pino experience and learn as much as possible”. In order to make the mechanical boy more human-like, the player must improve his 16 personality stats without their development exhausting his stress, health or energy level.
Progress is staggered by situations which require him to learn some fairly obvious skills (such as picking a lock, or balancing on a ball), in addition to having the stats to perform it. So if you want to get a hole-in-one at the golf tournament, buy a club and practice his swing, then bring out the weights to build arm strength. Things get a touch more complicated, when different actions raise some stats while lowering others. For example kicking a football is great for leg power, but terrible for intelligence. Like all “raising sims”, ‘Wonder Project J’ quickly becomes a careful attribute balancing act, but the most important thing to do is keep him happy. If Pino gets upset, feeding him pudding will restore his mood, while special batteries will restore his health and mental energy.
Learning something requires repeating the action over and over, praising Pino when he does it correctly and scolding him (by hitting him with a hammer) when he is wrong. While there are some puzzle elements they are simply solved. So, ‘Wonder Project J’ is really just a game that boils down to making sure Pino knows what he should and shouldn't do and it all ends up feeling monotonous. Hours upon hours will be spent telling him to perform a task, then reacting when he does or doesn't do it. While it is up to the player to decide when Pino is ready to use his new skills to solve the puzzle that is introduced at the start of the chapter, as soon as you do you relinquish control. It is entirely uncontrollable if you can progress. All to often Pino will perform every task perfectly in training but come the point when he needs to do it autonomously he will decide upon himself to do something crazy. Failure means going back to training, back to monotony.
You could argue that there's pride and accomplishment when Pino finally does well but it's strange how those sensations feel strikingly similar to relief.
Each new chapter means a new challenge and a new set of skills for Pino to learn and perform on his own. The "here we go again" feeling though is tempered ever so slightly by a stunning five second full screen animated cut scene. It's easy to be blasé about this today, but at the time this would have been jaw dropping. Smooth Studio Ghibli quality animation, complete with excitable Japanese voice over. It's a reminder of how incredible the exquisite 'Wonder Project J' looks and it wouldn't be wrong to argue it has some of the best graphics on the SNES. Backgrounds are hand-drawn and characters have an abundance of animation - it's not exaggeration to say there must be hundreds of frames for all the detailed sprites. It's also rather cinematic, with charming original characters designed by ‘Cowboy Bebop’ designer Toshihiro Kawamoto. It all feels a “no expense spared” production, reminiscent of Osamu Tezuka's 'Astroboy' and even echoing Hayao Miyazaki’s earlier works. Likewise Akiniko Mori’s music would feel at home in the largest budget Ghibli film. Over an hour of original music takes inspiration from Joe Hisaishi, with beautiful melodies and a real sense of grandeur. With thousands of views on YouTube, it would even seem that more people have enjoyed the 'Wonder Project J's soundtrack than have actually played the game in its entirety.
But despite the attractive sprites and gorgeous music, there's darkness beneath the surface. Within the game world, humans and robots have lived uneasily together for half a century. Robots are viewed as slaves and any human who treats them as equal or offers them freedom of thought, is arrested. Without giving away too many plot points, over the course of the game several key human and robotic characters are murdered. This dark uneasy tone is promoted further when at one pointing the game the King orders Pino to be sentenced to death because of his origin. It's quite a twist, especially given the amount of time you have spent raising him. Emotionally too it feels terribly tragic given his carefree spirit and deep-rooted good nature.
That though is at the end of the day the point of 'Wonder Project J' - you do end up really caring for Pino. The game manages to foster genuine emotion for the Gijin child; you want him to do well. The hours upon hours spent training him, the attention to detail and the quality sprites means you end recognising his tiny nuances. Like a real life child you feel frustrated when he ignores you, amused when he plays and delighted when he succeeds.
If games in this genre traditionally existed to feel an emotional void in the player’s life, the fact that you care so deeply is testament to the game’s quality. ‘Wonder Project J’ may play you just as much as you play it, but it's also a game that plays on emotions. If doing the same thing over and over again seems boring, don't buy 'Wonder Project j' and also don't think of having a real life pet or child. However, while it may seem like hard thankless work, when Pino performs to expectations there's always a warm feeling inside.