The Game Archaeologist: The history of Guild Wars 2’s Super Adventure Box


In the MMORPG genre, April Fools’ Day is especially relished as a time in which developers and studios can get a bit wacky and poke fun at themselves while trying to pull a fast one over on their communities. While fake patch notes and “gotcha” announcements worked for a while, escalation demanded that subsequent years get more creative and innovative with jokes. Players might wake up to see something goofy in their game or even some sort of limited holiday event created for the occasion.

But in 2013, ArenaNet took everything to a whole new level when it announced that Guild Wars 2 would be hosting a retro-themed game-within-a-game platformer called Super Adventure Box. And it wasn’t just a mock-up, either, but an actual, full-fledged experience with its own specific gameplay, rewards, soundtrack, and even a commercial. It bowled everyone over and became a legend in the industry.

Today, let’s look at the joke that became a smash hit that became a full-fledged festival. Let’s look at the history of Super Adventure Box.

When April 1st, 2013 arrived, Super Adventure Box stole the spotlight and generated a great deal of hype and laughter. Players eagerly ran into this new world to experience Guild Wars 2’s version of a retro-themed world, complete with blocky 3-D graphics, power-ups, and mechanics stolen straight from Zelda and Mario. While the world was obviously far more complex than anything we actually saw in the 8-bit and 16-bit eras (not to mention the 64-bit generation), the homage was clear and the nostalgia powerful.

The backstory would have fit into any Nintendo Entertainment System manual: “Princess Miya—wise and pure of heart—is determined to feed her subjects. But in the midst of her royal picnic, the wicked tyrant Lord Vanquish emerges from his ten-thousand-year exile to take her hostage. Armed only with a stick, a lone hero sets out to save the princess—so she can save her kingdom.”

Player characters had their normal skills stripped away and replaced with a specific set of actions conducive to navigating and fighting in this weird, colorful world. By exploring, searching for secrets, digging, and beating the levels, players could earn currency (baubles and coins), improve their abilities, and work their way toward grabbing some nifty cosmetics, pets, and music boxes.

The project was the brainchild of Environment Artist Josh Foreman, who was nuts for jumping puzzles in Guild Wars 2. Creating the Mad King’s Clock Tower jumping puzzle for the MMO’s 2012 Halloween event spurned Foreman on even more to whip up a whole area in the game that was nothing but platforming. He was given the go-ahead to do so, and Foreman decided that the project would work best in a setting inspired by a lot of the games he grew up with (such as Mario, Sonic, and Castlevania).

“We got a team together and we started throwing around all these memories of past games, all the tropes and cliches that really defined what the medium was in those days,” Foreman said in 2013. “We wanted to kind of build a whimsical world based on our memories of playing video games as kids.”

The initial limited release of Super Adventure Box only featured World One (of a proposed four), containing three zones and a final boss. Players went bananas for it, eschewing the regular GW2 gameplay for this bright and wacky setting. Soloers and groupers jumped into this holographic world created by an Asuran named Moto, and few wanted to come back out once they were inside.

With such support behind it, ArenaNet got working on an expansion, which it rolled out later that year in September. Super Adventure Box: Back to School opened up World Two, which contained three additional zones, six music tracks, and even more weapon skins to attain. Hopes were high for a World Three and World Four, but as we’ll see, those hopes have thus far been dashed.

Even though ArenaNet kept stalling on constructing the last two worlds of this mega-popular game, the studio did continue to expand SAB in interesting ways. Along with the normal mode, Super Adventure Box received a pair of additional modes to change things up. Infantile mode created rainbow bridges to help extra-casual players navigate these areas if they were just sight-seeing and didn’t mind a reduction in rewards, while tribulation mode cranked the difficulty up for those looking for the ultimate challenge. Special retro-themed infusions were created as rewards for those who could master the tribulation mode, creating a visual badge of achievement for everyone else to goggle.

A Street Fighter 2-esque destruction minigame was added between certain levels, and ArenaNet even cranked out an additional retro game, called Rytlock Critter Rampage, that was playable on the website.

The only problem was that players wanted more — a lot more — and ArenaNet had already expended as much time and resources on SAB as it wanted. There were more pressing matters, like living world updates and expansions, that needed everyone’s full attention. By 2014, Super Adventure Box was pushed to the back of the queue and people were a bit nervous whether or not it would return at all.

Happily, those fears were eventually put to rest. Even though SAB wasn’t getting more development, at least ArenaNet was smart enough to keep bringing it back. In fact, in 2016 the studio decided to upgrade the game’s return into a full-fledged event called Super Adventure Festival. Since then, the festival has returned around March and April every year with new achievements, cosmetics, and other rewards — but no new playable content past a special hub area and some foot races that were added to existing zones.

What about Worlds Three and Four?” became the second-most asked question for ArenaNet after “What about Cantha?” It’s not an easy bit of content to make, however. The studio said that it would take a team of a half-dozen or so devs up to a half-year to make the worlds, and considering the downsizing that happened in 2019 (which included SAB creator Josh Foreman), it’s not looking too likely for the near future.

While the 2020 festival isn’t going to open the doors to these greatly anticipated areas, the studio did toss us a bone by saying, “Even if it isn’t this year or the next, we’ll be chipping away at it behind the scenes.” Oh, did we see the flame of that 8-bit candle start to flicker into life once more? We totally did.

Believe it or not, MMOs did exist prior to World of Warcraft! Every two weeks, The Game Archaeologist looks back at classic online games and their history to learn a thing or two about where the industry came from… and where it might be heading.
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