Retro Game Review: “3-D Worldrunner” (NES, 80s August Special)

Welcome back to 80s August, The Splintering’s month-long celebration of the greatest decade since bacon. 

Today, we’re going to take a look at The 3-D Battles of Worldrunner (aka 3-D Worldrunner), a game published by Acclaim for the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1987.

Developed by Square before they started making good Final Fantasy games, then bad ones, then good ones again, then bad ones again… 3-D Worldrunner is a fantasy action game very much in the same vein as SEGA’s Space Harrier. So much so, in fact, that I’m sure that at first glance, some have mistaken the game as an NES port of Space Harrier. However, after just a few minutes with 3-D Worldrunner, it will become quite evident that it is very much its own game despite its very obvious inspiration from SEGA’s arcade shooter. 

But is it still worth a pickup or a play decades later? 

Welcome to the Solar System #517

In 3-D Worldrunner, the player jumps into Solar System #517, the sci-fi universe that is being besieged by aliens known as the “Serpentbeasts.” The player takes control of WorldRunner (aka “Jack” in Japan), a hero described as a wild “space cowboy” who hops from planet to planet to rid Solar System #517 of the Serpentbeast menace led by the villainous Grax.

Throughout the game, Jack Worldrunner (that’s what I’m calling him now) travels through eight different worlds, each broken up into multiple stages. Unlike SEGA’s Harrier, Worldrunner does not immediately have the ability to shoot at oncoming enemies, nor can he fly. Instead, he has to run, dodge, and perform flying leaps over large chasms. If the thought of playing a game of run and dodge doesn’t sound like much fun, I don’t blame you, but it’s quite a bit more fun than you might think. 

Go forth into the broccoli forest

First of all, you acquire power ups hidden in various pillars scattered about the stage, which include an extra hit, invincibility, extra lives, balloons that take you to a brief bonus area, and rockets (which provide limited ammo to knock out enemies). There are also poison mushrooms hidden in these pillars from time to time, which you will have to avoid or you’ll die. 

Even without all of these extras, both Jack Worldrunner’s speed and his ability to defy gravity with massive moon jumps is still fun in its own right. Dodging enemies and bounding enormous pits at high speed is a unique rush for an NES game. 

A potion in a pillar

“Fly, you fool!”

If you were still angling for more conventional arcade action, every world ends with a boss fight where Jack lets loose by taking to the sky and busting out the heavy weaponry. It’s here where 3-D Worldrunner becomes the most like Space Harrier, as every boss is a dragon-like creature, each with a different animal head (i.e. lion, frog, owl… maybe?). Not only is each of these battles essentially the same, but you you quickly have to start fighting more than one of the same boss in succession, which gets pretty dull very fast. By the end, you have to fight the final boss Grax six times. None of the bosses are particularly difficult as they don’t even shoot at you and you only have to dodge them. However, there is still a pressing time limit, and that is really your biggest enemy during the boss fights, as you are forced to fight more aggressively than you may prefer. 

Other than time limit concerns, 3-D Worldrunner gets pretty unfair pretty fast, and a novice will likely only get through only a few worlds before giving up in frustration. For starters, the chasm size becomes wildly unpredictable and you will lose stacks of lives strictly from trial and error. Every stage offers some variety and introduces new enemies and challenges, which offers a lot of freshness to the gameplay, but also will undoubtedly confound you until you figure out how to proceed. You’ll have to use spring pads, dodge enemies that track you across the screen, and bounce from the tops of columns to cross otherwise unpassable pits. You’ll even have to do it on fire columns before all is said and done. Even when you figure out what you’re expected to do, the timing is ridiculously tough. 

Lord Kek demands tribute!

Low-Def But 3D

Whether Nintendo fanboys want to admit it or not, 3-D Worldrunner owes a lot of its visual aesthetics – particularly the “checkerboard grid” ground design and the boss dragons – to SEGA’s Space Harrier. Even so, 3-D Worldrunner performs fairly well on the NES. The sprites are a bit small, but they look clean enough and the faux scaling effect works fairly well for an 8-bit game. By comparison, the sprites on the Master System port of Space Harrier might be larger and more impressive, but they don’t “scale” as smoothly as a result, and often have very rough edges at the larger sizes. While 3-D Worldrunner is a remarkable effort for the NES, it should be noted that there is a significant amount of flicker when there are too many enemies on the screen, and you will probably lose some lives due to this distraction.

These hands will piss you off

Of course, it has to be noted that 3-D Worldrunner uses the same 3D technology as Rad Racer, both of which came with a free pair of glasses. The effect can be turned on and off at will by pushing the select button, and it was a pretty cool novelty in the 80s. However, there are certainly more impressive 3D effects available in modern times, and the lack of clarity makes 3-D Worldrunner even more difficult in 3D mode. In any case, it is more expensive to find a copy of 3-D Worldrunner that comes complete wit the glasses, and I expect that most modern gamers would enjoy the game just fine without them.

3-D Worldrunner’s soundtrack is unfortunately very limited. There are only two in-game tracks, one for the stages and another for the boss fights. The stage theme is fairly catchy for a basic 8-bit loop, but after listening to it almost endlessly over 8 worlds, it gets really old. The most notable sound effect is the sound Jack Worldrunner’s jump, which has a satisfying rise and fall to it. 

Jack worldrunning through space like some kind of harrier…

And that is where Jack still yet runs…

From beginning to end, 3-D Worldrunner can probably be beaten in less than an hour, but you won’t. You won’t. Even when you do complete it, the ending kinda blows. Let me spoil it decades later: Each of the dragon bosses slowly slink onto the screen and give you a code to unlock hard mode. Yeah, no thanks.

But is it still worth picking up if you’ve never played it? For my part, 3-D Worldrunner may not be worth the trouble of playing it through to the end, but it’s absolutely fun to pick up and play to the point of frustration. Like its arcade inspiration, you can always move on to something else and come back to some other time. I suppose in that sense, it would have been a bad game to have as the only one in your NES collection as a kids, but it’s a solid piece of a larger 8-bit library.

It’s worth noting that 3-D WorldRunner was successful enough for Square to churn out a sequel titled JJ – Tobidase Daisakusen Part II, which never saw a release outside of Japan (if the title wasn’t obvious enough). Perhaps the sequel will eventually see the light of day here on The Splintering as a follow-up retro review for a future 80s August? Time to consult eBay…

Jack says “See you”

Thanks for reading!

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