The early history of mankind is something we’re still trying to work out. Humans existed for a long time before we managed to get the hang of reading and writing, so much of our past is unrecorded and thus shrouded in mystery. However, we all have a stereotypical image of our cave-dwelling ancestors – loosely clad in animal fur, relying purely on brute strength to survive.
Luckily, the origins of the prehistoric platform game hero Bonk are a good deal clearer, although they might be surprising to those of you who aren’t already in the know. You see, he originally arrived as part of a comic strip in the pages of Gekkan PC Engine, a monthly Japanese magazine devoted to NEC’s popular console. In fact, his Japanese name was a pun on that of the system – PC Genjin (primitive man). The character, designed by Kobuta Aoki of Red Company, quickly became popular with readers and as he’d taken over the spot previously used for comics promoting forthcoming games, there was a little bit of confusion over whether our large-headed hero would actually be coming to the console. Hudson Soft and Red Entertainment soon decided to put paid to the confusion by getting a game out, and Atlus was brought in to help with development.
If you’re wondering why an additional company was roped into producing the game, the reason is simple: PC Genjin, or Bonk’s Adventure as it would come to be known in the West, was developed on an extremely tight schedule. The teams had just three months to pull together a platform adventure to serve as the new PC Engine mascot’s introduction to the gaming world.
In his debut game, Bonk’s job was to rescue Princess Za from the big baddie King Drool, and he’d achieve this by battling his way through all manner of prehistoric creatures including dinosaurs, winged frogs and even overgrown slugs. Better yet, just as his name implies, Bonk would defeat them with a wallop from his mighty cranium. However you wanted to achieve your goals, Bonk’s head was the key – you could stand in front of an enemy and deliver a headbutt, or jump over them and dive down head-first. If you needed to climb a tall wall, Bonk would even grip it with his teeth! If you fed him meat, he’d become invincible, charging around stages madly. The prehistoric world proved to be a rich source of platform environments, too – volcanic islands, ice worlds and primitive villages all featured.
Luckily, they delivered. Paul Weller, the man behind the PC Engine Software Bible (pcengine.co.uk), remembers his first encounter with the hero well. “There used to be a local games shop that I visited regularly and the staff loved to show off the latest games,” he recalls. “I’d briefly seen its PC Engine unit running Gunhed, which looked nice but I wasn’t into shoot-’em-ups back then, and one day when I went in there they had PC Genjin running. It looked pretty cool – the sprites and animation were so cartoon-like – and I managed to get a quick play. I loved it to bits, and from then on it was my quest to obtain a PC Engine.”
Having a mascot character was something of a game-changer for NEC’s console. “I think it was very important,” says Paul. “Back then, Nintendo had Mario and Sega had… well, it was still pushing Alex Kidd because Sonic hadn’t arrived yet. But having an identifiable icon that represents one of your best games was important to give the machine an identity.” PC Genjin did just that – arriving at the tail end of 1989 in Japan, it quickly became a hit thanks to its strong gameplay and great sense of humour. In North America, Bonk’s arrival in 1990 was a welcome shot in the arm for the system’s fortunes. Bonk’s Adventure was its bestselling game, and soon became a pack-in title. It made an impression on the UK import scene too, with the Computer & Video Games Complete Guide To Consoles awarding it 95% and calling it “the best PC Engine platform game going.”
As a result of this popularity the violent little guy later found himself appearing on other platforms under different names. For example, European fans might be most familiar with his very well-received 1992 turn as BC Kid on the Amiga. “I thought they actually did a pretty good job of the conversion and it was nice to see the updated sprite used in this iteration of the game,” Paul notes. FC Genjin was the name of his 1993 outing on the Famicom, which was a pretty faithful and rather nice-looking rendition of the original which featured a cut-down selection of levels. It later made it to the US as Bonk’s Adventure, and is an expensive rarity.
Before all of that though, there was the matter of a follow-up on the NEC hardware that is his ideal home. After a scrapped attempt to make an RPG (cleverly titled RPC Genjin), Bonk was given a platform sequel titled Bonk’s Revenge. King Drool III decided to up the ante for the sequel, and having left the business of princess abduction to his grandfather he promptly stole half the moon instead. That’s a big league move, and worse yet he was intent on building a kingdom of monsters, with the shell-headed Chikkun creatures as his minions. Fortunately, Bonk was back on the case and he’d learned some new tricks – the triangle jump allows him to scale narrow gaps between walls, and he can also climb trees.
“I think the biggest element that Bonk’s Revenge brought was the high degree of polish,” notes Paul. “The original looked rushed with its simpler backgrounds. Bonk’s Revenge refined the character sprite, cleaned everything up and you could tell a lot of love and effort went into making it. There were some gameplay tweaks; aiming your headbutts requires more skill, and the programmers took away your ability to ‘fly’ though the levels by rapid-fire headbutting which was a little cheat I quite enjoyed!”
Bonk’s Revenge was considered an exceptionally well-crafted platform game upon its debut in 1991, and is still a fan favourite today. Mean Machines awarded the game 92%, with reviewer Paul Rand commenting that it was “not only a darn sight larger than the original, but infinitely more enjoyable in the playability stakes.” The game was very popular with the PC Engine and Turbografx crowd once again. However, the Turbografx-16 was struggling to establish itself on the market in North America, and the game failed to draw the attention of Western players away from the likes of Super Mario World and Sonic The Hedgehog.
The conclusion of the PC Engine Bonk trilogy followed in 1993, going by the name Bonk 3: Bonk’s Big Adventure. The name was quite literal, as Bonk could transform into an enormous screen-filling, fire-breathing version of himself by eating sweets. He could also eat sweets to shrink himself into a miniaturised form, allowing him to access new areas. Once again, King Drool is terrorising the Dinosaur Kingdom, but this time the adventure visits some surprisingly modern locales, including cities and warehouses. However, the biggest new addition was a two-player co-op mode – a big deal, particularly on a system with a limited multiplayer library.
Critical reception was largely positive, but not quite up to the level of praise that previous games received. Electronic Gaming Monthly’s four reviewers awarded the game an average mark of 7.75/10, stating, “The shrinking and growing Bonk modes are purely novelties […] If you ignore that and play alone, you won’t find many new features to mess with. Bonk 3 must be played with a friend to really have fun.” It’s an assessment that Paul largely concurs with. “Bonk 3 was impressive in some areas, particularly the huge sprites and the interesting addition of a fairly fun two-player mode but I think it suffers a little by being too familiar, despite the new gimmicks,” he says. “The level design isn’t quite as refined as it should be and while the super-sized Bonk is visually very cool, it ends up not being practical for much of the time. It’s not quite the step forward that the second game was from the original.”
The PC Engine was looking a little long in the tooth by the time Bonk 3 arrived, so it was produced in relatively limited quantities. The Japanese HuCard release is a bit more expensive than its predecessors, but still reasonably priced. In North America, however, it was the final game for the Turbografx and was released in both HuCard and Super CD-ROM formats; the two versions are very similar, with the CD version getting some additional mini-games and an upgraded soundtrack. Both of these versions regularly sell for hundreds of pounds.
Having gone as far as he could on the PC Engine, Bonk’s adventures continued on other formats. Kaneko brought him into the arcade for the first time with Bonk’s Adventure Arcade (aka BC Kid), a score-attack game formed around a selection of short levels. Unlike the previous game, which had offered co-operative multiplayer, the arcade game was decidedly competitive in nature. There’s a greater emphasis on enemies, and after every few stages you can engage in a boss battle.
It’s a visually excellent game, but it did make some design changes that mean that it won’t be to everyone’s tastes. Fans of Bonk’s meat-induced rages will lament the fact that there aren’t any power-ups at all. Smiley faces can still be collected, but these are mostly used as shielding. However, you can find items laying around that will increase your score, like a basketball you can dribble around. It’s a slightly odd entry in the series as a result, but it is a cool platformer in its own right.
After that, Hudson Soft and Red brought our favourite caveman over to the Super Nintendo. Known as Super Bonk (or Super BC Kid on this side of the Atlantic), the game retained the shrinking/growing mechanics of Bonk 3 and ramped up the shift to more modern-looking worlds. This time around, Bonk could carry spring flowers around on his head, and branching levels allow for a greater level of exploration than in the PC Engine games. There were new features too – for example, eating meat as giant Bonk allowed you to transform into a Godzilla-style agent of destruction, capable of tearing through buildings that stand in your path.
Additionally, moving over to the SNES brought some key advantages. While it wasn’t quite as colourful as the PC Engine games, Super Bonk’s sprites were more detailed due to the system’s improved colour handling capability, and the game managed to make use of the Mode 7 technology in places. It was a bit of a divisive game, though – some players consider it to be one of the best in the series, but others aren’t convinced and cite the size-shifting gimmick and level design as flaws.
The Japan-only Chou Genjin 2 (or Super Bonk 2, for the sake of clarity) addressed many of these concerns. The visuals were as bright and cartoony as anything else seen on the SNES, and the stage designs incorporate slightly more surreal, stylised environments like those in Super Mario World. What’s more, the level layouts are much closer to the first two games, which is a welcome change for those who prefer the early entries in the series. Better yet, Bonk has a variety of new powered-up forms to play with, including the agile Ballerina Bonk who can double jump, Drill Bonk who can bore into the ground, and even a weird tank form capable of demolishing buildings.
Difficulty was adjusted a bit for the game, too. Bonk no longer continued from where he left off when he died, and instead had to restart the level – however, this increase in difficulty was offset by the introduction of a password save system. Thankfully, Super Bonk 2 is a common game because it’s one of the best in the series – the sense of humour and personality the series is known for is on fine display here, and the shift away from the size gimmick really helps the game shine.
Sadly, that return to form would prove not to matter too much. Hudson’s next entry in the series was to head to the Nintendo 64, named Ultra Genjin after the console’s early name, and would have been the first Bonk game to take place in full 3D. However, Hudson changed direction early in development and the work that had gone into Ultra Genjin ended up repurposed into the relatively mediocre platformer Bomberman Hero. Bonk would then disappear from the limelight for a number of years, showing up primarily in cameo appearances until a Japan-only remake of Bonk’s Adventure appeared on the GameCube and PS2 as part of the Hudson Selection series.
It wouldn’t be until 2006 that our prehistoric pal would finally star in a new game, the aptly-named Bonk’s Return for mobile phones. This time, King Drool has taken to kidnapping Bonk’s favourite women, which is something he just won’t stand for. Much as with previous Bonk titles, our little guy gets to run around and headbutt baddies, chomp meat and generally cause chaos. Developer Two Tribes delivered a nice-looking game and one which was moderately well received at the time, with its time-tested gameplay let down slightly by repetitive level designs. As a pre-smartphone mobile game, it accommodates for keypad controls with slower and stiffer movements than on the consoles.
Since then, we haven’t had a new Bonk adventure. The closest we came was with the planned 2011 release Bonk: Brink Of Extinction for Xbox 360, PS3 and Wii, which was being developed by Pi Studios in Texas. The download-only title featured 3D visuals with a classic 2D gameplay style, and was very similar in style and tone to the earlier Bonk games, with Bonk attempting to stop an imminent meteor strike. The game was close to completion but was cancelled in March 2011 by Konami, which had acquired Hudson Soft in full two months prior, and Pi Studios was shuttered as a result. In some ways, the game was a victim of timing – it was close enough to release that it might have been given a reprieve, but the earthquake in the Tohoku region of Japan ultimately made the natural disaster theme too sensitive. While builds are known to still exist, none have been leaked to the public.
Still, Bonk lives on – his PC Engine platformers can be picked up on download services, including the Wii Virtual Console and some regions of the PlayStation Store for PS3/PSP. What’s more, he’ll always have a special place in the hearts of those who chose to avoid the Nintendo and Sega camps in the 16-bit console war. “Whatever format it comes out on, Bonk will always be linked to the PC Engine and TurboGrafx-16,” says Paul. “He’s just awesome; Mario and Sonic are way too nice, but mess with Bonk and you’ll get a Glasgow kiss.”