Bonk’s Adventure is a 2D platformer from 1989 that was released for the PC Engine in Japan, which is better known in the US as the Turbographx-16. Developed by Red Company and Atlus, the game and its main character Bonk were originally envisioned as a mascot for NEC, the makers of the Turbographx. In fact, back in Japan, Bonk was even punnily named PC-Genjin as a means to more closely brand him with the PC Engine.
Similar to what Sega would also try to accomplish with Sonic the Hedgehog, Bonk’s Adventure was designed to showcase the power of the Turbographx-16 and to put Nintendo, and it’s aging NES hardware, to shame in the process. It also tried to position Bonk as a much cooler character that could drive circles around Nintendo and it’s mascot Mario, who seemingly had little bite when compared to NEC’s Prehistoric Caveman. And, at the time, critics seemed to love him! Entertainment Weekly even went as far as to state that Bonk’s Adventure was the third best game available in 1991, placing the game just behind Sonic the Hedgehog and Super R-Type, but above games like The Legend of Zelda, Super Mario Bros 2, and Metroid.
What followed is a long line of sequels, ports and spin-offs for the game, making Bonk a fairly recognizable character amongst retro enthusiasts, but also a fairly obscure one for those not as interested in playing older games. While I was familiar with the character of Bonk due to seeing several of his games available on the Wii Virtual Console as a kid, I actually would classify myself as falling into the latter of the two aforementioned categories. I always kinda remembered Bonk as being a character that was sorta there, and didn’t know that he was intended to be the TurboGraphx mascot until fairly recently. In fact, Bonk’s Adventure was actually the first game review I ever made almost exactly a year ago, before I ended up shelving the finished video to focus on my job. But I never stopped thinking about the character and have always wanted to give his franchise a second shot. After all, Bonk was a fairly well known character back in the day, despite being on a console that not many Americans owned. His relative obscurity got me wondering whether or not that has anything to do with the quality of his games themselves or if he just didn’t get lucky enough to strike the American zeitgeist in the way that he needed to.
When I try to figure out whether or not a game holds up, I like to think that I’m trying to figure out whether or not the game is any good, as well as whether or not it does anything unique that makes it stand out from other titles from the era. And, in that regard, I like to think that Bonk’s Adventure performs pretty well. The game centers around Bonk as he quests to rescue Princess Za from the evil King Drool. His journey takes him through two dozen or so stages that are separated into several levels that has him doing everything from running, jumping on clouds, climbing waterfalls and swimming while also using his abnormally sized cranium to defeat enemies.
His head is his primary means of attack in this game and can be used to headbutt opponents, attack from beneath, spin into them, or to dive into them outright. And honestly, that’s all pretty awesome; each of these attacks have a time and a place to shine and do a great job of keeping the game, and it’s relatively barebones premise, from growing stale. I especially like Bonk’s dive attack as it reminds me of that one Ralph wiggum meme from The Simpsons.
But this game also has a lot more to it than beating the Simpsons to divebombs. Bonk can transform into angrier, more powerful versions of himself by eating meat that’s hidden throughout levels and in enemies. This allows him to transform into one of two powered up states that give him the ability to stun enemies, and grant him temporary invincibility, respectively.
He also comes armed with three hearts that allow him to take damage from enemies before dying, can take a free hit when he’s powered up, and can refill his health by eating food he finds On top of that, Bonk’s Adventure has a very forgiving lives system, as dying doesn’t send Bonk back to the beginning of the stage or a checkpoint, but rather leads to him respawning in the exact spot he perished in. And it also has unlimited continues!
So, yeah, he’s got a lot going for him and honestly, it makes the game an utter delight to play. Thinking contextually, it’s easy to see why critics were so enamored with the character back in the day as, even though it would eventually get a very belated NES port, Bonk’s Adventure feels like an experience that’s a cut above what Nintendo players could get on their console of choice in 1990. Obvious graphical leap aside, the game features more on screen action than your typical NES game, less slow down and flicker than you’d expect off an 8bit CPU, and more varied gameplay than what you may find on similar platformers for the aging NES.
That’s not to say that the game is perfect though, as it does have a few problems. For starters, I think that the game has a bit of a noticeable difficulty curve that creeps in around the third or fourth level. It’s not the worst, by any stretch of the word, but it will probably catch newer players off guard and be a little discouraging to younger or more casual players.The game also features several enemy types with hitboxes that feel a little unfair, such as crocodiles that can attack you from further away than you’d think they can, or smaller insect based enemies that can be a little tricky to hit. However, it is worth mentioning that you can counter these enemies with the right attacks or avoid them outright, as combat isn’t required to progress in this game. The only time you need to fight enemies in Bonk’s Adventure is during boss battles, which are relatively self explanatory pattern recognition challenges. They can sometimes get a little hectic, but thanks to the game’s forgiving lives system can usually be dispatched with little to no difficulty if you want to use up your lives steamrolling your enemy. This strategy actually doesn’t work at the end of the game though, as there’s a boss rush before the final boss that can be really difficult to get through with only a few lives. Getting through this boss rush leads to yet another boss, who has all of the other bosses attacks, followed by another final boss fight to round out the game. This sudden flurry of boss battles comes out of nowhere and honestly is extremely frustrating due to it needing to be completed on a single continue. While Bonk’s Adventure’s difficulty curve is noticeable up to this point, this sudden flurry of boss battles does little more than to turn what was otherwise a pretty enjoyable experience into an extremely tedious one. I’ll be honest, if it wasn’t for save states, I would’ve put this game away a long time ago. I’ve always enjoyed a slight challenge in video games but also consider myself more of a laid back player. With this in mind, I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with this game suddenly ratcheting up the difficulty like this, but do feel as though it’s somewhat flawed game design due to how out of left field it is. In the case of other “difficult” video games, that difficulty is usually sewn into the fiber of the game itself. The mechanics and “difficulty” of franchises like the NES Castlevania and Megaman games are apparent from the opening minutes of the game, unlike in Bonk’s Adventure where the game’s design philosophy seemingly changes at the last minute.
While the Turbographx-16 was heavily marketed as the first 16 bit console in the US, that isn’t necessarily true. The Turbographx was 16 bit in the sense that it had a 16-bit video color encoder and display controller, but it’s CPU was actually 8-bit and, as a result of it, I’ve always considered it more of a stop gap between something like the NES and Genesis in terms of performance. What this means for Bonk’s Adventure is that, while it looks 16 bit and features more colors and better performance than anything you’d see on the NES, the games for the system itself probably played a bit closer to hardware for the NES or Master System than it did it’s contemporaries. That’s not to say that the system was weak or anything, it’s just that it isn’t quite as 16-bit as it’s name and marketing would have you believe. But that doesn’t actually matter though, as the console had a ton of great looking and fun games for it.
Plus this game is frickin’ gorgeous. It’s got a great/cartoony art-style and, as far as showcases for the next generation of gaming go, I actually think that the large, detailed sprites found in Bonk’s Adventure accomplish this spectacularly. The game’s art-style is playful and full of attitude, making use of the Turbographx hardware to the best of its ability. It kinda reminds me of the manga Dr. Slump for some reason, if I’m being honest. At any rate, the characters are all quite emotive and endearing in their design, and the world itself is colorful and makes use of the console’s ability to display more colors than its 8-bit competition. In fact, if you compare this game to Bonk’s Adventure on the NES, you can clearly see how much of an edge this version has over it’s demake. The Turbographx version simply has some great sprite work and character design going for it. And it even has some parallax scrolling too, for what it’s worth. It’s kinda hard to see unless you’re looking for it though, as the Turbographx only has one background layer available on it, and it’s only kinda used for some elements here and there. I will say that this game does have some great world building though, as in later levels of the game, you can actually notice a castle off in the distance and, sure enough, we actually get to explore that castle later in the game.
Musically, Bonk’s Adventure gets the job done, and not much else. I wouldn’t say that’s a bad thing or that I didn’t enjoy the musical offerings that this game had to offer though; I just also can’t seem to remember much of this games music, outside of the first level’s theme, off the top of my head. Again, that doesn’t mean the music is bad or anything. I just didn’t find it particularly noteworthy.
What I will say, though, is that the game showcases the Turbographx 16’s advantages over the NES in terms of the consoles sound capabilities. While nowhere near as robust as it’s later competition like the SNES or Genesis, The Turbographx does feature more sound channels and higher quality audio than what you’d find on 8-bit consoles. While that’s kinda a no brainer, it does make me wonder how impressed consumers would’ve been by this improved audio (as well as the consoles graphics) back in the late 80s. While the music leans more towards 8-bit chiptune music than the heavier and more sample based music of later 16 bit consoles, this had to have been impressive at the time, and that it seemed like the next logical step forward for video game hardware.
So does Bonk’s Adventure hold up? Yes and no. While I do think that Bonk’s Adventure is a good game that has aged particularly well and has a lot going for it, I also don’t know if I’d go as far as to classify it as a must play platformer. It does a lot right as a game, but I also feel like it doesn’t do a superb enough job to make it stand out against other titles in the genre. That’s not to say that I think you won’t enjoy Bonk if you happen to give it a shot; I just think that there are other, better games out there for you to seek out. While I love the games art style and also had a blast using Bonk’s multiple methods of attack to fight off enemies, I just don’t think that there was enough going on for me with this games level design and music to really consider this game as noteworthy. But, one must also keep in mind the context of when this game came out. As one of the earlier 16 bit platformers on the market, there’s no denying how stunning this game had to have looked when put up against stuff like Mario 3. It’s just a shame that the game itself didn’t do much more than look and sound prettier than the competition. If you find yourself hankering for a good platformer and want to give Mario and Sonic a rest though, Bonk’s Adventure is a pretty fun game, just one that is best admired with lowered expectations and, if you plan to beat it and aren’t the best at platformers, access to save states.