Developed by HAL Laboratory
Published by Nintendo
Played on Nintendo 3DS
I bought a couple of games for my dusty 3DS last month – the remade Majora’s Mask (because it’s one of only two major Zelda series entries that I’ve never played) and Super Mario 3D Land (because Mario). Of course, as it goes with game purchases, I’ve hardly touched them. Instead, my commute time has been occupied with the 3DS’s recently-released $5 minimalist puzzle-platformer Box Boy!, developed by HAL Laboratory. This game is well-designed, highly-approachable, and very enjoyable.
HAL Laboratories is best known for the Kirby series of games. Kirby himself is a prime example of super-simplistic character design: Pink ball. Eyes, mouth. Rosy cheeks. Oval hands, oval shoes.
The protagonist of Box Boy is Qbby, who is a box that is also a boy. Qbby’s simplicity makes Kirby look like the Mona Lisa. White square with a thick black outline. Dots for eyes, and short lines for legs. The minimalism on display here is extreme.
The game is almost entirely black-and-white, with a couple of grays for shading and occasional splashes of red as indicators. If you’re good enough, you might even unlock a little bit of green or yellow or purple for cosmetic character items, but that’s about it for color in this game. Platforming surfaces are solid black. The background is solid white. These choices do make for a particularly stark visual style, but there is an unexpected depth to it as well. (Well, there’s no literal depth. Everything is perfectly flat – your device’s 3D slider won’t change a thing.)
The simple animations are very fluid and actually give Qbby a surprising amount of life. His little stick legs move urgently when he’s running, or dangle uselessly (and adorably) when he’s suspended in air. You can wear a selection of unlockable costumes (such as male, female, rapper, knight, bunny, rapper, wizard, rapper) that each come with three or four unique Kirby-like victory dances.
Despite his eyes being represented by only a handful of pixels, Qbby’s straining scrunchy-face shows off just how much effort it takes to make several boxes protrude out from your body. Because that’s what this game is about. Box Boy makes boxes.
The visuals compliment the gameplay mechanics in the sense the both are incredibly simple at the surface level. Qbby’s goal is to walk from left to right to get to the double-doors at the end of each level. Whenever you want, you can make a solid connected chain of boxes protrude outward from your body, snaking them in whatever direction you like. You can walk around with these new boxes connected to you, or you can detach them and push them where you like. Every time you make a new box structure, the previous one disappears. Qbby can jump a height of one box, so if you wanted to get over a wall that was two units high, you’d place a single box on the ground next to it as a stepladder. If you wanted to get over a wall that was three units high, you could drop a larger three-box L-shaped stepladder next to it and climb your way up.
Qbby can also retract attached boxes, and this proves to be a vital technique. If you create two boxes on your head in a “little-r” shape (box up, then box right), you are now, as the in-game hints suggest, a hook. If you hook your “little-r” onto a ledge above you, two things happen. One, Qbby’s teeny legs dangle in the air and you will love it. Two, you can retract your boxes, pulling you towards the box that is held in place by gravity, effectively pulling yourself up onto the ledge. You can also spawn boxes when you are against a wall, which will push you away from that wall – this technique can sneak you under low overhangs, as well as help to minimize the number of boxes you need to use in a level. Minimizing your box usage is important if you want to collect all of the bonus crowns in each level, which will vanish if you exceed your quota.
This is pretty simple stuff, though it takes some time to really wrap your head around it in-game. The game is separated into 17 main worlds (of 6-7 levels each) and 5 bonus worlds. Each main world is designed to ease you into a new mechanic or game element. World 1 is all about basic box placement to get over walls and across pits. Later worlds focus exclusively on hooking, or snaking. Other worlds cover pits, spikes, conveyor belts, etc. Few elements are especially surprising or revolutionary, but each is easy to understand and adds another layer of depth to the game. I particularly liked the addition of sticky tiles, which usually force you into coming up with some complex push combinations.
Each world has a simple upward ramp which teaches you about each new element. The first obstacle in the first level in each world is usually there to teach you what the new element is in a no-fail manner. The next couple of obstacles are natural extensions of the first lesson – still easy, but they’ll require just the slightest bit more effort. There are unintrusive checkpoints after every obstacle, and the reset time after each death is near-immediate. The ramp-up over the first couple of levels in a world is so gradual that you’ll barely notice you’re swimming in the deep end by the world’s end.
That said, the main campaign in this game is on the easy side of things, and you’ll probably be able to blow through it with few hang-ups in a couple of hours. The best stuff this game has to offer is in the final world as well as in the five bonus worlds, where you will see much more interaction between the elements you had encountered earlier. The last two worlds even pull out an exciting (though in retrospect, obvious) mechanical twist that make them worth unlocking.
One thing that I’m not pleased with in this game is the deliberately slow pacing. Qbby walks slowly. Conveyor belts take their time. Moving elements on a cycle take forever to complete their cycle. Maybe this is relative, but I’m hugely impatient with my games. Games already have the ability to suck up a player’s time, so I think it’s criminal to take more of a player’s time than absolutely necessary. I can accept the slowness in-game. This isn’t supposed to be a twitch-platformer. Every puzzle in the game can be beaten with slow deliberate action, and you don’t have to be beholden to your reflexes to succeed. However, I reeeeeally want a way to speed things up in menu or world map navigation. The worst offender is the between-levels world-map animation. It’s unskippable, it takes a few seconds, and it happens every time you finish a level. I hope you’re willing to watch that one 150+ times.
Despite that, Box Boy! gets a big old stamp of approval from me. I love a good puzzle game, and this one presses all of the pleasure buttons in my brain. It’s five bucks on the 3DS E-Shop. It’s a steal. Box Boy! is strong game design distilled down to its purest form. I recommend it.