When you think of a great video game mascot, who do you think of? Mario, Sonic, Link... What about Bonk the caveman? I can hear your thoughts: Who the %#@& is Bonk the caveman? Is he related to Spyro the Dragon? Well, no. Bonk is the cutest, cuddliest caveman you could ever hope to meet. He was also the mascot for NEC's short-lived TurboGrafx-16 video game console. After the virtually unknown game machine bit the dust, Bonk did a short stint on the Super NES. Then the hardware evolution moved the gaming world into 3d, and Bonk's creators (for all I know these days) retired him from the digital world. Which is probably a good thing, seeing as how Bonk would NOT make a smooth transition into the third dimension.
Oh yes... Bonk is also the world's biggest amnesiac. Okay, that's simply an assumption I made from watching the way he disposed of his hundreds of enemies. I never did mention Bonk's XXXXL-sized cranium, did I? Since the game's era predates the traditional club, Bonk lays the smack down on his next meal by giving it a good, extra hard whack with that giant noggin.
The actual game begins with yet another kidnapped princess. The princess this time is Princess Za of Moonland, and her kidnapper is an oversized, butt-ugly something-o-sauros named King Drool. It's time video game princesses started taking self-defense courses so innocent heroes don't get caught up in their petty struggles, but King Drool makes the battle personal for Bonk by brainwashing his friends and making them into his puppets. So the hot princess is but a mere convenience this time, not really the point. Bonk's Adventure was released in the very early 16-bit era, which means the gameplay's the point, not the story.
Now I have to choose my words carefully, because I don't want one of my favorite childhood games coming off as just another Mario clone. But, well, at heart, that's all Bonk's Adventure really is. The TG-16 even shows you itself with its simplistic, NES-esque two-button controller. The controls are also the same as ever: Button 1 for jumping, button 2 for the headbutt. This means that the only originality in Bonk's Adventure has to stem from its level designs. A weighty task, but apparently the programmers were more than up to it. Bonk drags his giant head through a good six worlds, with sub-levels ranging in number (the shortest world has one level, the longest has seven). While the basic gameplay never really changes, the amount of variety in the levels is staggering. True, a number of levels have the standard left-to-right, get-to-the-exit format. But, man, getting there is something else. In one level, you swim through an underwater channel to get into a castle. In another level, you have to climb up a waterfall. A number of levels involve riding walking trees across quicksand. The grand master of the levels, though, is one that takes you through the belly of a dinosaur. And you don't want to know how Bonk gets out of that one!
The routes are mostly linear, but there are lots of secret bonus rounds that Bonk can reach by simply banging his head against a wall. If you're willing to take the time to look for them, there are four different kinds of bonus stages where Bonk can rake in the big points if everything goes well. One has you jumping from flower to flower collecting fruit, but you're toast if you fall into a pit. One has you jumping off a cliff and spinning, but you only get the points if you land on your feet. One gives you points by making you scale a really, really high cliff in a certain amount of time. And a mind-numbingly annoying round has you headbutting fireballs from a volcano. The game would have been much better off without that one. You'll also get big points out of a difficult technique called head juggling, by which you'll hit a defeated enemy repeatedly for a small number of points each time. The big points are a good thing because the game rewards you with extra lives when you score enough of them.
I mentioned spinning in the last paragraph. In case you're wondering what that was about, while Bonk can only use his head to fight, he's devised a number of ways to use it effectively. One is by jumping into the air and falling onto an enemy headfirst. While this is more effective than the regular old headbutt, it also leaves you standing on your head for a second if you miss, free for any old enemy to take a shot at you. If you flip the switch over button 2 to the top, Bonk will launch into a super-fast spin if you attempt the flying headbutt. Bonk can cover a lot of ground with a single spin jump, but the second you take your finger off button 2, he'll drop like a rock. And while the spin jump will get you through many levels, using it all the time will also deprive you of the rewards you get from exploring. To power up his head, Bonk gorges on chunks of meat left behind by flowers or defeated foes.
A single small piece of meat makes your normal headbutt twice as powerful, and allows you to freeze enemies by hitting the ground. Two small pieces or one large piece and he becomes invincible for a short time. And get this: Bonk climbs up big cliffs using his teeth! So flowers in Bonk's world are leaving meat behind.
Every mascot has his unlikely power-up source: Mario hits blocks, Sonic attacks computer monitors, and Bonk jumps up and down on top of flowers. Appropriately, some of these flowers do produce vegetation, which replenishes Bonk's health. Other flowers produce meat, extra hearts (to hold more health), extra lives and, if you're unlucky, the Venus Bonktrap. There are even flowers that fly in from the air. The color of the flower you're about to jump on indicates what you'll be getting out of it.
Bonk's big head means he probably has a low center of gravity, and this will sometimes show up in the controls. When you have Bonk moving, and I mean really moving, he'll keep sliding in that direction when you try to turn him around. It probably takes almost a full second to get him to turn around. And those jumps! There's nothing wrong with the height, but the weight of Bonk's head must do some part to drag him back down. Once he's airborne, controlling Bonk becomes something of a Herculean task. Bonk is very difficult to control during a simple jump, so if you miss-time something, it's back to Davie Jones' locker for you. This is where the spin jump becomes useful. If you're about to land in a spot where the game didn't intend for you to be, just launch into a spin. The rock hard control becomes smooth as silk, and you'll be able to redirect yourself and save some health.
The attack control will leave you somewhat flustered at first, too. Bonk's headbutt is REALLY short-ranged, so you have to get uncomfortably close to enemies in order to attack them. After the initial learning attempts, you'll be willing to trade your kingdom for a club. Once you figure out the distance, though, you're set to go. One of the nicer control features is that when you die, the game doesn't revive you until you push the Start button. This allows you to play dead until whatever killed you is out of the way.
The graphics are colorful, blindingly so at times. Other than that, they're nothing to write home about. Bonk is a rather emotionless sprite (as many from the era were), walking along with a goofy look on his face. He's small to boot. And most of his enemies are small and simplistic sprites. Alligators and a bunch of the weirdest-looking creatures you've ever seen populate the levels, and there's the occasional palette swap. Bonk's oversized friends (who play the roles of the first four bosses) are bigger and have better detail, but a few more animations would have been good for most of them. Of all the sprites in the game, only Kongo Zilla, the third boss, doesn't move like a robot, and I'm stretching a bit to be able to say that.
The music tricks you at the title screen. The first music you hear in Bonk's Adventure is a low, calm tune of maybe five notes. When the first level begins, it's replaced by the same kind of bouncy, catchy mood-setting music akin to Mario and Sonic (there're those two words again...). While most of the music is just the regular old stuff you've come to expect from games like this, it's pleasing to the ear and very memorable. You've gotta love the fact that the music changes to elevator music whenever you get into a boss elevator. It sounds just like real elevator music, too, and it's somewhat leasing in that respect.
The actual boss music is the only unpleasant note. It's so high it almost wants to screech at times, and very loud. Unfortunately, it's also memorable in the annoying Britney Spears kind of way, which means it will choose the worst, most unlikely times imaginable to invade your head.
For sounds, you're pretty much limited to typical banging sounds, a ‘lub' sound for the headbutt and what can only be described as a high pitched ‘Nee!' (a Monty Python fan would get it) when Bonk takes a hit. I'll be honest here: Bonk doesn't have enough going for him to make me recommend Bonk's Adventure over a Mario or Sonic game. If you've played out those two characters, though, I'd sooner recommend Bonk than Crash Bandicoot, Kirby, Spyro, Laura Croft and most of those other mascot wannabe games.
Bonk's Adventure is more than enough to warrant a purchase of the TurboGrafx-16. The downside to that is that the few people who still own their Turbos probably won't want to part with this long-out-of-print game.