The latest box-related 3DS eShop title, BOX BOY!, is developed by prominent Nintendo developer HAL Laboratory (of Kirby & Smash fame). A totally new concept from a developer like HAL is certainly interesting, but is it any good? Mr. Fuego gives his (extraordinarily belated) thoughts on the game…
This review is late. Not 7 months late, I didn’t buy the game when it was released, but it has been more than a couple of months since I picked up my last crown, score token, and time token in BOX BOY!. And perhaps that is the best distillation of my response to it — so meh that I have hardly been compelled to articulate my thoughts. It does nothing egregiously badly; it does nothing exceptionally well. It’s not that its central mechanic is bad, only that, in my humble opinion, it is wasted.
I’ll first go over the basics. You play as the eponymous Box Boy, and by holding down Y, you can create boxes around him, in whichever direction you choose. You can then let go of the button, and move around (walk & jump) with the growth of boxes still attached. You then have three alternate choices — throw the boxes, drop the boxes down, or simply delete them by pressing X. Each level has a limit on the boxes you can make in one go, from three up to nine, but always a minimum of one. You have to reach the door at the end.
BOX BOY! starts refreshingly fast. The 3DS Menu displays a little example of gameplay before you begin, and it begins very swiftly. I was playing within seconds of pressing A on the 3DS Menu. The game is humble in this way — it doesn’t waste your time outside of levels other than a short walk to the next batch, and tells a simple story. It has a simple 2D line-art style. Other than a few minor visual oddities (the bubbles blocking your way to future worlds are shaded, breaking the black-and-white style, and anti-aliased sprites look a little muddy when zoomed in on,) it has a distinctive and consistent art style, albeit basic, which is helped by neat little idle animations and other cute touches.
When I first played BOX BOY!, I was surprised at how easy I found the first few levels. Of course, the first few levels are always going to be relatively easy, but in a puzzle game one would expect to have to think at least a little in the first 10. Instead, it was teaching me things so basic, at such a painfully slow pace, that it was almost insulting. This feeling doesn’t really stop in BOX BOY!. It is a game in which you are acutely aware of the undisguised design cogs — the intention of the designer is evident in every level. This isn’t a problem: games like A Link Between Worlds aren’t so much difficult as clever: so perfectly designed you progress smoothly and in awe. The problem is, the collective “designer” here plainly thinks you are an idiot, and will only introduce something new in the slightest if you have been hit over the head with the last concept so often that your numbed brain has stopped functioning (and then, the concept you have suffered through what feels like a drawn-out tutorial to “learn” is swiftly discarded and replaced with a new concept to, erm, “learn” — perhaps something such as “lasers are bad”, “switches open doors” or “teleporters teleport”).
BOX BOY! isn’t really a puzzle game. I’m sure it can be safely sorted into that genre, but it is not a game comprised of actual puzzles. The path ahead is always obvious, and it develops its ideas so painfully slowly that I didn’t have to think until about 75 levels in, and even then moments of actual puzzlement are few and far between, so that when they spiked up every so often I felt stupid for breaking the chugging flow. I noticed the same section used twice in some levels — once you pass the first “puzzle” you are greeted with the same one copy-pasted forward, to hammer the idea home. There is no timer, and if Box Boy plunges into a spike, laser, or the undepicted oblivion, he is placed so close to where he fell that there is no sense of risk. There are one or two “crowns” in each level, which become unobtainable if you use more than a certain number of boxes (the exact number changes level-by-level). The hollow satisfaction of getting one is outweighed by the meaningful failure of missing one; the box limit is not exactly stringent, so a “perfect bonus” is more of an expectation than a challenge in most levels (if you put in the few seconds required). It’s like a combination of Mario and Tetris, but lacks the dynamism, variety or quick thinking of either.
This is all especially disappointing, because the very basic concept has huge potential. You learn tricks as you go: making a hook out of boxes to get to high places, or snaking around obstacles you could never pass in other platformers — these things are fun and unique. In later levels, there are times I had to pause, visualise the shape my boxes should form to fit another position in the environment (though using that word feels like an odd way to describe the barren black-and-white world,) before releasing the structure to see if I formed the correct shape, like a more thoughtful Tetris. Sometimes, BOX BOY!’s main levels work well, but they are rare moments in an over-long and slow core game.
Which is funny, because there are two modes, hidden away in the shop (more on that later), that I find much more fun, because they play to the BOX BOY!’s strengths and ditch the faux-puzzle structure and pacing. Time Attack and Score Attack are modes that put you in a room with some tokens and challenge you to collect them in time. In Time Attack you have to rush through levels and pick up tokens to add more time to your ever-decreasing timer, and in Score Attack, you have to collect as many score tokens as you can within a given time. Score Attack is my favourite, because while each stage’s target requires a certain number of tokens be collected, it is very possible (with enough practice,) to collect all of them, at which point you get extra points for time. It is a shame there are only eight stages in each of these modes, because they are so much more satisfying, so much more absorbing, and so much more fun than the dull and slow campaign.
Unfortunately, you have to go through those levels in order to afford the challenges, because you have to buy them with the game’s currency, medals, in the shop. You get medals at the end of each level. There are three other sections in the shop: “Costumes”, “Music”, and “Techniques”. Costumes are, at first, cute little clothes you can dress Box Boy in to change his look and idle animation. Later, they get a little more interesting, because the last three costumes have special powers (I won’t spoil them, but don’t expect anything mindblowing). These powers open up a faster route here and there, but are introduced too late to really change anything up. Life may be good when you’re a Ninja Block, but I can’t help but feel this idea was squandered. “Music” is as simple as it sounds: you can buy pieces from the (okay) soundtrack. Finally: “Techniques”. These are little descriptions of things you can do as Box Boy. Most of the ideas presented could be learnt through gameplay, and I can’t help but think certain descriptions here ruin what discovery the game has.
BOX BOY! is based on a solid foundation, but doesn’t live up to its potential. The lack of time-based penalty robs the levels of tension, and on top of that the game is so stretched out you hardly have to think at all. There are interesting ideas here, but I wish they could have been built on and used in interesting ways, rather than stunted and sidelined.