The Bonk Series Ranked

It was (almost) the ’90s. Every video game company and hardware manufacturer had a mascot, who usually appeared in their own platformer. Enter Bonk, the caveman with a really big head. The frontman for NEC, the creators of the ahead-of-its-time TurboGrafx-16 (or the PC Engine, as it was known in Japan), Bonk starred in four solid platformers in a relatively brief amount of time, as well as two SHMUP spin-offs. From 1989 to 1994, just five years, Bonk represented NEC in these six “canonical” games I will be ranking here. Omitted from this list are the Japanese-only releases, of which there are a few that I wasn’t able to get my hands on, and BONK’S RETURN (2006), a mobile game that isn’t really accessible today. Bonk almost returned again with BRINK OF EXTINCTION during the Wii/PS3/Xbox 360 era, but that game was cancelled in 2011. Perhaps we’ll see the big baby return for real some day?

Developer: Dual
Publisher: Hudson Soft

Maybe it’s appropriate that I start this list off with one of two Bonk games that aren’t really “Bonk games.” The Air Zonk spin-offs are actually horizontally scrolling SHMUPs set in the future, as opposed to the main Bonk series’ prehistoric setting. It’s kind of like a Mega Man/Mega Man X situation, with just a much bigger time gap; Air Zonk is just an android ancestor of Bonk, presumably. In these SHMUPs, Zonk fights many enemies from the mainline Bonk games, and in the second of these games, SUPER AIR ZONK: ROCKABILLY PARADISE, that set up is no different. Released for the TurboGrafx-CD/TurboDuo (the latter incorporated a normal TurboGrafx-16 with the CD add-on), SUPER AIR ZONK could be described as technically superior to its predecessor, with improved graphics and sound.

Developer: Red Company, Naxat Soft
Publisher: Hudson Soft

However, I think the plain ol’ AIR ZONK actually looks and plays better. It’s a marginal difference, sure, but maybe the initial novelty of a Bonk shooter was a bit more powerful the first time around. AIR ZONK is a difficult SHMUP, but like many in the genre, the playable character’s sprite is not representative of its hit box; the chunky Zonk is harder to hit than he first appears to be. AIR ZONK, and even its successor, are solid, streamlined little games that offer some brief fun.

Developer: A.I. Company Ltd.
Publisher: Hudson Soft

The same could be said for the full Bonk platforming series. None of them are especially long or difficult, and [spoiler alert] nearly every game was better than the last. That didn’t hold true with SUPER BONK, the last game in the series at the time of this writing (by the criteria I set up in my introduction). It’s not that SUPER BONK is bad, and in fact, I was interested to see what differences a Bonk game designed especially for the SNES would bring; previous Bonk games on Nintendo consoles were just ports. The reality is, though, that there weren’t really a ton of differences. New, slightly more frustrating level design still enables Bonk’s jumping and head-butting action, as well as the funky and humorous power ups he was able to obtain before. SUPER BONK is definitely a fun little time-waster, but as is clear, it’s not the best the series has to offer.

Developer: Red Company
Publisher: Hudson Soft

Bonk’s first foray, if a little simpler and rougher graphically than the games to come, is a better experience than its fellow bookend. Maybe by the time of SUPER BONK, I was just tired of the admittedly only slightly iterative Bonk series, but with BONK’S ADVENTURE, Red Company (its developer), Hudson Soft (its publisher and designer of the TurboGrafx console), and NEC (the actual hardware manufacturer) did establish a distinguished entry in the mascot platformer pantheon. Bonk is in fact more than just a historical curio, more than just an emblem of a now obscure platform that was actually well-liked in its day. BONK’S ADVENTURE does look better than a lot of stuff being released, especially on 8-bit hardware, in 1989. The TurboGrafx-16, as the PC Engine, was released in Japan two years earlier, and although it was actually just a modified 8-bit console, it was the first released into the 16-bit “wave.” Therefore, the TurboGrafx-16 was definitely seen as technically superior to the NES, Master System, and maybe even the beginnings of the Genesis, even if it was to be not as popular. In any event, the sprite work in BONK’S ADVENTURE is spectacular, and the backgrounds have a good depth of field; the scale and design of the bosses is impressive, especially. Jumping into the air then crashing back down onto enemies head-first is a satisfying process, and the game feel and loop that BONK’S ADVENTURE created was to be replicated with slight tweaks in the games following it. The game, it should be pointed out, was also remade with 3D graphics for the Japan-exclusive HUDSON SELECTION series on PS2 and GameCube (although, of course, that version is not under consideration here).

Developer: Red Company
Publisher: Hudson Soft

BONK’S REVENGE, the second game in the series, continued ADVENTURE’s conceit. I should mention that the Bonk games have a great, cutesy sense of expressive humor. The meat power ups that imbue Bonk with ever-increasing power also render the little caveman with different, angrier and angrier animations. Climbing walls with his big ol’ mouth is clever, and spinning his dome around and around in the air causes a sort of flutter affect, not unlike the ability to gain a little more air in the Yoshi games. BONK’S REVENGE isn’t especially different than its predecessor, but Red Company was able to refine some of the mechanics and provide more interesting level design with this sequel.

Developer: A.I. Company Ltd.
Publisher: Hudson Soft

And that improvement reached its peak with BONK 3: BONK’S BIG ADVENTURE, which wasn’t actually developed by Red Company. For this game, A.I. Company Ltd. took over, and they produced, like BONK’S REVENGE was, a marginal improvement over its predecessor. But the template set by BONK’S [sans BIG] ADVENTURE was, while not groundbreaking, light and fun, so following it didn’t lead to any disasters. The biggest change with BIG ADVENTURE is fitting; candies can bring Bonk to tiny or gargantuan size. The huge Bonk sprite is especially impressive, and tromping through levels as Big Bonk is really fun. The level design flows nicely, and a few mini-games/bonus stages let the player blow off a little steam in a different way. BONK 3: BONK’S BIG ADVENTURE just ultimately feels like the most comprehensive Bonk package, my pick for those looking to try out the series. It’s not like you’ll be missing out on any important story: Bonk is just always battling the (well-designed) King Drool. Go headbutt him.

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