Developer: Bethesda Softworks
Released: September 1991
US Cartridge ID: NES-6W-USA
Supported Peripherals: Controller
ROM Size: 2 megabit
Mapper: MMC3 (128k PRG, 128k CHR)
Where’s Waldo?, the worldwide smash hit series of children’s books by British illustrator Martin Handford, dares adventurous readers to find the eponymous traveler, recognizable by his trademark red and white striped jumper, matching bobble hat, and large black specs. Waldo, or Wally, as he is known in his native England, has a habit of getting lost amongst giant throngs of people in a multitude of (often hilarious) situations. In each of the highly detailed illustrated scenes, always presented as double-page wide photos sent to the reader on a postcard, one must try to spot Waldo and whatever items he may have lost over the course of his travels. Where’s Waldo?, a 1991 release by T*HQ, loosely bases itself around the original book in the series, repurposing an assortment of Waldo’s iconic locales in this NES adaptation.
In his first video game outing, Waldo requires the assistance of the player to realize his dream of walking on the surface of the moon. Travelling across the equivalent of five set pieces from the classic print editions of Where’s Waldo?, the player must find the bobble topped man of mystery. Upon successfully finding Waldo in each of these panels and winning each of the three included mini-games, the moon no longer remains a dream unfulfilled, and the game abruptly ends by resetting itself.
Each of the five areas in which Waldo must be located will be instantly familiar to fans of Handford’s works: the train station, the forest, the fairground, the city, and the castle areas all present the player with an “illustration” of a scene in which Waldo is hidden. The size of these areas directly correlates with the difficulty level selected at the outset of Waldo’s quest: on easy, the panel fills a single screen. The medium and hard modes expand the width of the illustrations, forcing the screen to scroll in order to display the areas in their entirety. The difficulty level also directly effects the amount of time Waldo has to get to the launch pad, as well as the penalty associated with pressing the confirm button if he has not been found: ten minutes are provided on easy (with a ten second penalty if a wrong guess is made), seven on medium (with a twenty second penalty), and five minutes on hard (with a harsh thirty second penalty). The initial level selection also impacts the functionality of the cursor: the higher the difficulty level, the smaller, and therefore less forgiving, the cursor becomes.
The very idea of a game based on the Where’s Waldo? series of books had the potential to be either completely inane or a sheer stroke of genius. Developer Bethesda, however, still callow in their pre-Elder Scrolls era console development skills, shows glaring ignorance in both game design and the IP with which they were working. In print, Waldo’s exploits were a sheer joy to behold: the fantastically intricate illustrations contained hundreds of minute details, providing the reader with something new to hold their attention each time they cracked the book’s spine. The NES version does not accommodate the player in this way – rather, each scene is randomized. Though Waldo always appears in a new place every playthrough, the chaotic nature of each scene (largely attributable to the haphazard stamping of poorly rendered sprites across the screen) results in the notable absence of any humor or personality inherent in Handford’s original illustrations.
The miniscule size of scene elements render them lifeless and dull; the tiny pixilated blobs serving to represent people are virtually indistinguishable from one another, and palette-swapping of sprites abound. The sound design does nothing but to further undermine any good will the player might want to extend the game, featuring three short and repetitive songs that remain conspicuously absent during the playable portions of the adventure, two grating fanfares, and an obnoxious buzzing sound when the player does not highlight Waldo with the cursor before pressing the confirm button.
Interspersed between the traditional Where’s Waldo? style scenes are mini-games that
attempt to break the monotonous progression through the areas. After completing the first two searches, Waldo finds himself in a cave. Frantically moving around the cursor representative of a flashlight, the player must find an obscured Waldo and hit the A button when he appears within in the beam. Doing this will suddenly lift the darkness of the cave, allowing for escape. The subway stage following the fairgrounds provides a maze that Waldo must traverse in order to find his glasses before making for the exit. Certain tiles can be flipped to provide new paths, though one must remain watchful of the evil robed geriatric who is all too eager to drain Waldo’s remaining time if he inadvertently runs into him. Finally, when he reaches the launch pad, Waldo must play a “match three” game, similar to the one-arm bandit games at the end of each stage in Super Mario Bros. 2.
These diversions in no way enhance the game: the cave stage is nothing more than a rapid mashing of the A button in the hopes that Waldo will stumble across the path of the targeting box; the subway maze is insultingly simple on every difficulty level but hard, when any chance of success relies on the random map generator’s willingness to be altruistic; and the final slot machine game is far more reliant on luck than it is on any coordinated input from the player.
Despite the nostalgia induced fond remembrances many still hold for the game, Where’s Waldo? was critically panned at its time of release (garnering some of the lowest ratings Nintendo Power ever bestowed upon an NES game), and fares even worse in the decades following its original release. Though it’s not unplayable nor broken, the sheer dearth of content coupled with the confluence of dreadful graphics, offensive audio, and the repulsive selection of mini-games on offer render T*HQ and Bethesda’s willingness to serve children such a gross maltreatment of a beloved license reprehensible.