Our story opens today in the spring of 1992. I was five years old, and had received a Super Nintendo Entertainment System the previous Christmas. As was true for many children in the early-to-mid ‘90s, I frequently rented games from Blockbuster for a weekend as opposed to constantly buying new ones. Both because of my young age and the relative lack of available titles for a console that was less than a year old, my acceptable library of games to rent was fairly small. And that’s how I discovered SmartBall: a SNES platformer published by Sony and developed by GameFreak, which nowadays sounds like it slipped through from the alternate universe where Nintendo and Sony’s collaboration on the PlayStation as a SNES add-on never fell apart. The game was developed by Satoshi Tajiri and featured character designs by Ken Sugimori- the two would later collaborate on a handheld RPG called Pokémon. It’s possible you’ve heard of it.
SmartBall is a platformer where you play as a slime named Jerry. It’s fairly basic and definitely designed for children, but the colorful designs and some unique mechanics help it stand out even today- it at least has enough of a cult following to merit a speed run at this year’s Awesome Games Done Quick. The plot is fairly simple: Jerry, the prince of an unnamed kingdom, was all set to marry princess Emi. Jerry’s brother Tom (yes, really) became jealous of Jerry, and was approached by an evil wizard. The wizard curses Jerry, turning him into a slime, leaving Tom free to inherit the throne (and apparently marry Emi, because I guess this marriage was just a political arrangement). Now Jerry has to travel across the world to defeat the evil wizard and regain human form. Young me could tell you the plot because it was all there in the manual, which sometimes either came with Blockbuster rentals or would be reprinted on the rental box. The game itself didn’t give me any pretense for what I was doing, but that was fine- I knew the story from the manual, and was able to derive context in the game’s final wordless cutscene to make sense of everything.
As I grew older and the SNES’s library grew larger, I played SmartBall less and less. But it always held a nostalgic place in my heart. I have since come to actually own the game, and still have fun with it even though I’m more aware of its flaws. But about 10 years ago I decided to look up SmartBall online, most likely due to some combined feeling of nostalgia and boredom. Then, through the Power of the Internet™, I learned a few interesting things. For starters, the game I grew up knowing as SmartBall was originally released under the name Jerry Boy in Japan. And yes, there’s supposed to be a Jerry/Jelly pun in the title- I guess the localization team decided that since it didn’t translate it should just be scrapped. But more interestingly, I learned that all the story content I thought only existed in the manual is actually given in the original game! Rather than translate everything, Sony cut out all the dialogue and removed the story cutscene that plays when you idle on the title screen.
Also, there are town segments in-between certain levels, where Jerry can interact with a handful of NPCs. Which is why most of the levels leading into one end with a sign pointing toward “Town” or something. The signs still worked, for the most part. After the town segments the next level would often be on the outskirts or still themed around the town, so it’s not like the signs were lying. The exception being the “town” that for some reason takes Jerry through the belly of a whale.
There’s an English patch out there for the ROM of Jerry Boy, so it’s possible to enjoy the game as it was originally released without having to speak Japanese. So... problem solved, right? This is the definitive version of the game, and once you discover it there’s no reason to go back. Well... not exactly. The first time I played the translated Jerry Boy I noticed something about the game felt off.
Notice in the screenshot above how Jerry has a red dot at his core, and there’s some kind of red orb counter underneath my lives. One of the mechanics of SmartBall/Jerry Boy involves grabbing red balls that you can shoot at enemies. While Jerry has a stretch attack, ranged options are always safer. The trade-off being that you have a limited number of balls, and even though there are some ball sources that replenish you also can only carry up to 9. So logically, you want to be able to conserve your ammo, right? I re-played both SmartBall and the translated Jerry Boy recently to get a fresh feel. Take a look at what happens when you run and jump in both games and see if you can spot the difference.
The fact that I fire a ball in the Jerry Boy gif isn’t an accident- the “fire” button in the original game is mapped to the “run/be sticky” button! As a result, if you want to run or climb a wall/ceiling, you also have to fire off one of your balls. Now, there are some ways around this, most notably with the fact that balls can actually be caught and re-absorbed in midair if you get to them before they explode. But that’s not always practical, and is in any case an unnecessary burden on the player. In SmartBall, the “fire” button is mapped to the shoulder buttons, so the two actions are distinct. You can run without firing, fire without running, and fire without breaking your run! There is room to make the argument that having more control over your balls changes the balance of the game, but the fact is in SmartBall I feel more in control than I do in Jerry Boy.
This is just a guess, but my assumption is that Jerry Boy was originally in development for the NES. The control scheme only uses the D-Pad, Start, Select, and two face buttons (technically three, but Y and X are mapped to the same function so there are only two unique buttons). This leaves the SNES controller feeling empty, but it maps perfectly to an NES controller. The fact that it was released less than a year into the SNES’s lifespan and has a fairly simple graphic style supports this as well.
So we’ve got one version of the game that cuts content but plays better. Now we have a debate on our hands- is the the cut content worth the poorer controls? That’s largely going to be a matter of opinion. On one hand, most of the cut content is fluff- random bits of NPC dialogue that may be amusing, but don’t really add anything to the story.
There’s one notable exception, and that involves the one level with a secret exit. Let me just show you what happens when you get to the alternate exit in SmartBall.
Now let’s look at the same scene in Jerry Boy.
In SmartBall, I actually took a second to trigger the kid. Because I played through it first, and the fact that pressing Y to talk to NPCs was a thing had completely slipped my mind. The lack of context makes the whole thing just plain weird, whereas in Jerry Boy you know what’s going on. The boy’s mom also gives you an extra life in the following town segment if you save him- the extra lives from towns are missing from SmartBall, but they aren’t that important since a Game Over just means “return to level select” instead of “restart the level from the last checkpoint”. The saving grace to this scene for SmartBall is that since it’s the alternate exit, you might never find it. And if you did but didn’t know to talk to the boy, you’d just assume this is a weird room and leave. Still not a great scenario, but it doesn’t break the game.
And as I said before, I didn’t miss out on any of the story when I was a kid, and I stand by that statement now. Delivering the backstory through the manual certainly is an outdated trope, but one we all accepted in the early 90s. When I got to the end of the game I knew exactly who Tom, Emi, and the Wizard were without having watched the lost opening cutscene.
On the other hand, the extra content is nice and can be humorous at times. And while SmartBall’s controls are objectively better, it’s not like Jerry Boy is hard or anything. The game is still fairly easy to beat even with the more annoying control scheme. But until either someone patches the translated ROM with SmartBall’s control scheme or we get Jerry Boy HD Remix (I can dream, OK?), anyone wanting to experience this game is left having to choose between the one with dialogue and extra scenes or the one with the more precise controls.