An electronic sausage

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Bandai’s WonderBorg is best known as a relatively expensive novelty accessory for the WonderSwan, their fantastic Japan-only handheld. It’s exactly the sort of odd plastic lump in an oversized box guaranteed to get mentioned in those familiar “Ha! Look at the weird gaming things people could buy in Japan!” listicles alongside portable fishing sonars and Nintendo-powered sewing machines, as if nobody in the English-speaking world ever spent triple-figure money on pro-grade Rock Band guitars, bought a nonfunctional tennis racket to stick on the end of their Wiimote, and the monochrome Game Boy Camera/Printer combo hadn’t been an enormous international success. Ahem. What’s less well known is that this is one “weird” import that had an official English release – WonderBorg name thankfully intact – with the WonderSwan cartridge replaced by more readily available Windows compatibility.

There are some differences between the handheld and PC versions (Japan had access to both) of the WonderBorg, but not as many as the low prices and casual availability of the localised release may suggest. Functionally the WonderBorg itself is identical between both regions (you can find official PDFs of the Japanese manual at the bottom of the page here), with the same array of sensors performing the same tasks and all off them located in exactly the same positions on the motherboard. The original WonderSwan unit and the English one I’ve received are nearly cosmetically identical as well, with the only difference being the colour of the included antenna and leg accessories – the UK box contains black versions of these appendages, while the photos I’ve seen of their Japanese equivalents shows the same objects made from white plastic. The biggest difference is found within the included software: The WonderSwan’s Robot Works cartridge contains two programs its English PC CD equivalent doesn’t, Training Mode and Pet Mode. Training Mode is pretty much as its title suggests: use Robot Work’s icon-based WonderBorg command interface to practise guiding a virtual WonderBorg displayed on the WonderSwan’s screen across a selection a small maps to the goal, saving you the trouble of having to clear enough floor space (and temporarily shut out any overly-curious pets) to allow a real WonderBorg to trundle around the house every time you want to test out an interesting idea. As this mode also records the fastest clear time per course you’re encouraged to not simply produce a working list of instructions and consider the problem dealt with but to experiment and see if you can shave a few seconds off your previous best with a more streamlined and time-efficient version of your program as well, introducing some obvious game-y behaviour into what is otherwise a mostly practical cartridge. Pet Mode is far simpler, and requires a real WonderBorg to not only be turned on but have the special pet program downloaded onto it first (this is included on the cartridge, and transmitted to the WonderBorg via IR). After that you can then use the WonderSwan to choose one of six simple interactions to transmit to your pet-mode-activated WonderBorg – praise, scold, call, feed, threaten, and show them an imaginary flower – and it’ll respond with an appropriate reaction.

But we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves here as there’s no play with a WonderBorg from any region without doing a bit of work first: When the box arrives your unexpectedly large (the main body is about 12cm long and 8cm wide) plastic insect pal is nothing more than a selection of bagged-up parts and must be assembled by hand. There was more to do here than I was expecting, but not as much as some may fear – I had to dig out my wire cutters to cut lengths of leg (thick) and antenna (thin) cable off the included strips and to cleanly free the rubberised feet from their sprues, and the motors (one for each side) needed plugging in to the main PCB, but that’s as complicated as the process ever got – there’s also no soldering involved at any stage and with the exception of pushing the antennas onto the main body nothing too delicate to worry about breaking. Everything slots easily into the only place it’ll fit and the motherboard is clearly annotated with not only the pieces you do need know the names of but everything you don’t as well – the light sensor and LEDs may already be neatly resting in place and require no attention to get working, but it’s still interesting to see what everything is. This pleasantly straightforward assembly is helped a great deal by the step-by-step instructions and their clear illustrations (there’s even a dedicated page at the back showing a life-size outline of a completed WonderBorg with a measuring ruler alongside so you can see if your legs are sticking out correctly and easily cut wires to the proper length), and from that standard base you can then go off in all sorts of unusual directions, customising the WonderBorg to either your own preferences or your current testing environment. There’s enough included wire of both types to create not only the standard legs and antenna but also at least one or two more full sets of either identical replacements should something break or your own alternatives as well: Want to try longer or shorter leg wires? Go for it. Need to bring out the grippier bobbly feet for some all-terrain WonderBorging or want to see how it travels on the wheel-like cup-feet? They’re already in the box and ready to use. Struggle with the default wire legs and antenna and would prefer to use pre-formed rigid replacements? Not a problem. Need to swap out the motor’s gearing for a power-favouring alternative? You can. It’s so easy to quickly swap back and forth between any combination of these possibilities that any wild idea that pops into your head is at most just a few minutes away from coming to life (you can even decorate the outer shell with a few fun stickers if the mood takes you too).

And once that’s all finished and three AAA batteries have been stolen from some nearby remote controls to power the bug-like Borg it’s just a flip of the switch at the back and we’re all ready to go.

Yep, the WonderBorg really did work perfectly first time – something I realised with terror wasn’t close to guaranteed as I was mid-way through building a twenty year old electronic educational toy – and from the instant I first turned him on I was smitten. You see the WonderBorg doesn’t just turn on and await your commands, it does a little wiggle and then beeps out a happy electronic chirp, as if this adorable little robo-bug was genuinely pleased to see me.

I’ve named mine Sausage.

All Sausages WonderBorgs come with a little test program preinstalled so you can easily check the parts you’ve had to pop on yourself – those customisable legs and the antenna – are all sitting correctly in place without having to go anywhere near the companion Robot Works computer program. Just push the little button on their back and the WonderBorg will start moving forwards (or not) so you can see if you’ve got any leg-related issues that need fixing, and if you gently push either antenna they’ll stop walking and, all being well, swivel in that direction instead. You can also cover each of their “eyes” to check their forward obstruction sensors too – the red LEDs behind them flash to show they’re reacting to being blocked.

So with all that out of the way we can get down to some serious WonderBorging – my Sausage is essentially an updated (and now outdated) version of the old Logo-like machines I fondly remember using at school as a child, the sort of thing know-it-all infant fingers would clumsily prod FORWARD 5 WAIT 2 TURN 15 FORWARD 3 into and then watch with pride as it went on its noisy motorised way. Sausage has far more sensors packed into a much smaller space than those “Big Trak” machines of old ever did, enabling him to detect changes in the room’s light levels, find nearby IR sensors, use his antenna to detect close physical objects, differentiate between light and dark flooring, and even react to other WonderBorgs. The only downside to all of this exciting new functionality is that it can only be programmed in via a PC running the Robot Works program (the CD states it’s compatible with Windows 96/98/ME – I’m happy to report I was able to install and run it on an XP laptop without any issues) and then passed on using a DE9 cable (this is included in the box) connected to the WonderBorg’s bespoke IR communicator to “teach” Sausage his new routine. The good news is Robot Works – as you’d hope for a program intended to encourage children to develop a keen interest in programming and technology – is very easy to use, with every command being at most two clicks away and routine creation relying on a combination of two uncomplicated menus to generate icons that are then dragged-and-dropped into a clear overview of the programmed behaviour. To ensure everything’s as clear as can be Robot Works also displays a matching example animation of every action and event the WonderBorg can perform, making it obvious what the potentially woolly phrase “Detects an object to the left” entails or what it’ll do/sound like when “Dance” “Tone 8” or “Call Borg” are invoked without having to pair up a WonderBorg and manually test out every single action beforehand. It’s also possible to alter some general attributes within Robot Works as well, such as the WonderBorg’s base speed, sensitivity to light and dark, and how near or far away an IR signal needs to be before it’s responded to. It’s little details like these that help create a smooth and entertaining experience, saving anyone from strategically closing curtains on a bright day or having to shine a torch on top of the WonderBorg just to get it to function as intended on a dull winter morning.

I’ll be honest with you – a little voice in the back of my head was concerned a WonderBorg without the sheer novelty/nerd value of using a WonderSwan equipped with a special IR-enabled cartridge to control it might turn out to be nothing more than a slightly tatty box filled with twenty year old plastic tainted by a faint whiff of regret. I am very happy to say the little voice in the back of my head was dead wrong. Not only is there very little difference between the much-coveted import original and the less desirable local release but even when stripped of its alluring import-only charm the WonderBorg is still without a doubt a well built and engaging interactive toy that has a lot to give for very little effort. I’m seriously impressed not only with Sausage’s wide range of features but the quality of his construction as well – a WonderBorg shell is a chunky child-friendly shape that’s easy to grab hold of and the curved top helps prevent damage from excited snatches or careless knocks – he’s more likely to roll onto his back and take a scrape to his silver paintwork than greet a hard surface with a fragile sensor-packed corner. The WonderBorg fulfils its intended purpose beautifully: I’m confident that if a class of older primary school children (that’s kids around twelve) were presented with one they would definitely have an entertainingly educational afternoon guiding the wonder bug through anything from complex alleyways constructed from cardboard and plastic tubs to more time and budget-friendly dark marker on plain printer paper mazes, engage in some digital “singing” competitions, and concocting some inventive programming solutions to teacher-led challenges. As an adult I think Sausage is a wonderful little chap and I’m happy to have built him and possess him simply as a cute pet pleasing object in his own right.

[There wouldn’t be a post here if I hadn’t had such kind support via Ko-fi. Thank you for your help, you really do bring these posts to life]

4 thoughts on “An electronic sausage

  1. Ahhh it’s so CUTE! I love all the little details with its reactions. I’d never heard of this thing before, what a treasure :D

    Sausage seems like a fun desk buddy! The cute mascot character to help you write (or distract you from it?)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. He’s a bit of both! It’s nice to glance over and see him sitting there but on the other hand these typos aren’t going to fix themselves and he’s not helping!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. So this is how the rise of our new mechanical overlords will start. Via infiltration by loveable bugs.

    Interesting that the pet programm is excluded from the overseas release. With Tamagotchi being so pupular and all.

    Liked by 1 person

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