Where’s Waldo? on the NES is 8-bit Hell. It’s a game so fundamentally flawed and aesthetically unpleasing that it has to rank as one of the worst video games of all time.
For those unfamiliar, Where’s Waldo were a series of picture books which featured complex images featuring the titular character of Waldo hidden amongst the countless other characters and goings-on on the page. Though his candy cane-striped shirt, cap and coke bottle glasses may lead you to think he’d stand out like a sore thumb, the books were really creative in how they hid the character on each page, with plenty of other characters and objects sharing at least one similar trait to Waldo, to throw the reader off.
The books were a lot of fun, but they don’t exactly scream to be translated into video game form. But that’s just what happened on the NES in 1991, and it was a chaotic mess. But don’t take my word for it, just look at a screenshot of the game.
Under any circumstance, this would be one of the absolute ugliest NES games ever. But this is a case where bad graphics actually do equal a bad game, because the whole point is to find Waldo. But how can you tell what anything is when it looks like this?!
Most of the stages use this setup, and players have to find Waldo by hovering a square cursor over different sections of the picture, and selecting where they think Waldo is. If they find Waldo, they move on to the next stage. If not, time is taken away from the countdown timer. If the time reaches zero, it’s game over. Of course, you can’t pause the game at any point, to ensure you don’t cheat.
At the very least, Where’s Waldo? tried to take advantage of the medium in just about the only way it could, with Waldo switching locations in every playthrough. Something a stagnant picture in a book couldn’t accomplish. Not that it really matters, when the game itself makes finding Waldo an unfair situation with its horrendous visuals.
The game features three different difficulty settings, with the harder difficulties giving you less time, a smaller square, and bigger pictures with more characters.
Players are given a fair amount of time to find Waldo, so you might think about just randomly clicking everywhere until you find him. But that won’t serve you any good in the long run, because the time limit isn’t set to each level, but for the whole game.
As it is, Where’s Waldo would already be an abysmal game, but it’s this time limit for the whole game that really kills it, because the developers were seemingly sadistic in finding ways to cheapen this aspect.
You may notice when starting up the game that Waldo is holding a countdown timer…which is already ticking down. That’s right, before you even “play” the game, the clock is already running. But the worst part of it all is that, in between stages, you are taken to a map screen where Waldo walks to the next stage – where the player has no control and has no ability to skip – with the clock still counting down the whole time. And Waldo doesn’t simply walk to the next stage, either. Instead, he walks around aimlessly, zig-zagging all over the place before making his way to stages. It is an obnoxiously cheap trick that makes the game blatantly work against the player.
Where’s Waldo? does try its hand at some variety, with three of the game’s eight stages featuring different gameplay. But these stages may actually be worse than the rest of the game.
There’s a cave stage which is pitch black, with Waldo only showing up sporadically for the player to find them. If they manage to do just that, players then take control of Waldo (complete with slippery controls) and guide him to the exit. An hourglass icon also appears when controlling Waldo, but it’s actually detrimental and takes away a good chunk of time. It’s not like it’s an enemy that chases Waldo, it shows up and looks like a power-up or something. So it’s basically just another cheap trick for first-time players.
Then there’s the subway stage which – good heavens above – is on par with the telephone booth segments from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Video Game Adventure as one of the most unnecessary, convoluted, and downright horrible stages in gaming history. Here’s another screenshot to give you an idea.
The goal of this stage is to guide that tiny, blue box (apparently a subway car) to Waldo and his glasses, and then work your way to the other side. The whole thing just looks like a jumbled mess, and because the game never has the courtesy to tell you what’s going on, I didn’t even realize you could change the directions of each space by pressing the B button until my fourth try. The worst part of this stage, however, is the character other than Waldo. This guy moves around the board, and if you come into contact with him, he will subtract from the timer at an absurd pace. You can blast through the previous stages in a minute’s time (dead serious), and this guy can eat up your remaining time in a brief second.
The final stage also changes things up…with a slot machine. The two slots on the sides move at a pace that you can time, but the middle slot moves so fast that getting all three slots to land on Waldo (the stage’s goal) is nothing more than an act of sheer luck. What’s worse, your cursor on this stage moves so slowly between the three buttons, that you’ll likely lose a lot of time going from one button to the next. It’s a disaster.
In case all this was telling enough about the game’s terrible quality, Where’s Waldo’s title screen features some of the most wretched, ear-piercing, headache-inducing “music” in video game history. So in case the game wasn’t hard enough on the eyes, it also assaults your ears.
Simple put, Where’s Waldo? belongs on a shortlist of history’s very worst video games. The Where’s Waldo? books may be colorful and fun, but the game is anything but.