Bonk’s Adventure for the long lost TurboGrafx-16 system has it all. Googly-eyed flowers you can hit in the face with your face. Haunches of meat that give you powers, provided you’re a caveman baby. Dreamy dinosaur boxers. For a game that can be finished in half an hour, it’s impressively dense with bizarre sights and challenges. Nothing in Bonk is quite so satisfying as its opening world, though, which culminates in one of my absolute favorite level types. Before Bonk fights his very first boss, he has to travel through the body of a giant dinosaur. Not just over the body – through it. And like all inner space levels, there’s something equally magical, grotesque, and grounding about the trip.
Here’s what happens in Bonk. After bopping your way across a pleasant prehistoric jungle, hitting some little dudes wearing eggshells with your dome as you go, Bonk reaches what looks like a lumpy green hill. Continuing on, orange spikes start to erupt out of the hillside and it dawns on you: this thing’s alive. When you finally reach the head and bomp it right where its dinosaur fontenelle used to be, you ride an unfurled tongue into its mouth. Travelling over the beast is supremely edifying because you get to enjoy the vivid character design and the odd, smooth feel of how Bonk moves, but you also start to get a wonderful feeling of scale. Bonk is very small and some dinosaurs are very big. That counterpoint only intensifies while you travel through the dino’s innards.
The bananas silly art ramps up once you’re moving through the dinosaur’s guts. There are grinning, fanged uvulas waving around on platforms perched above pools of stomach juice. Bony fish and blood cells that are way too happy swim around you. It’s absolutely ridiculous, but at the same time it gives you a wholly convincing view of the space you’re moving through. The freewheeling surreality of other platformers out there in 1989 were fun to play, but they didn’t exactly make a whole lot of sense. Mario’s in a castle and then he’s running down a long brick road with a flag at the end. For some reason? The dinosaur body, meanwhile, feels gross and funny, but also logical. Bonk never feels like he’s nowhere. Is falling out of a dinosaur’s bowels on the way to the boss a cheap laugh? Sure, but it’s also a laugh that works to make the stage itself feel complete.
The body as stage design is versatile beyond inspired platformer staging and humor. StarTropics trades on biblical imagery for a disturbing interlude where lead Mike’s submarine is swallowed up by a mammoth whale. After meeting up with his uncle’s poor, lost assistant inside, he has to search through a winding maze of pools that access different pockets of the whale’s body to find a lighter so everyone can smoke their way out. It’s a sharp contrast to Bonk’s usage of space, making the crush of a monster’s body claustrophobic and oppressive, while at the same time still creating that firm sense of where you are as a character. Nothing makes you want to get out like being devoured.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time uses almost the exact same setup as StarTropics to similar effect, but also does it to inform character. The third dungeon, a trip through the fish/whale god Lord Jabujabu’s body to both heal him and save Princess Ruto, affects some of the same body horror vibes as StarTropics, as well as some of the humor from Bonk. It also makes you actually care more about Link and his need to help Jabujabu. Helping something heal from the inside is an incredibly intimate act. Ruto’s crush on Link is played for laughs in the game here as well, but it makes sense. Being gobbled up by a god would definitely bring two people closer together. The quest through Jabujabu ultimately feels intensely personal because of its physicality.
Every time I play my way through a body stage, whether it’s my favorite in Bonk or a messy gross-out fest like Marcus Fenix’s trip through the Riftworm in Gears of War 2, I love how it makes the impossibility of video games feel more real. I can’t necessarily pull out a physical sensation of what it would be like to fly using a raccoon tail stapled to my butt. I don’t connect with the experience of firing pink needles into a lizard alien using a gun I stole from him. Even under the most ridiculous circumstances, though, I can get a tangible sensation out of wandering through some giant body with a wee cartoon character on my TV. It sends a shiver down my spine in the best way, making me think about all the stuff going on inside myself while I jump around headbutting smiley uvulas.