Sunday, 3 January 2010

A Boy And His Blob

Developer: WayForward
Format: Wii

Score: 8.2

It was after a full day’s play on Modern Warfare 2, my brain a tangle of dying civilians, gung-ho American patriotism and the sheer noise of contemporary gaming, that I started A Boy and His Blob. Far be it for us to try and reference Infinity Ward’s colossus in everything we publish, but after ten hours of bullets flying past my head and trying to follow some nonsensical plot I can’t think of a better game to have played than this adorable Wii platformer.

The original 1989 NES title was, by all accounts, a minor classic of the era – its 2D platforming as memorable for its unforgiving nature as it was for the subtle twist on run-and-jump gameplay that the various jelly beans provided. In bringing A Boy and His Blob forward into the current generation developers WayForward – self-confessed fans of the original – have clearly thought long and hard about how to keep the essence and spirit of NES Blob whilst making the game relevant to today’s audience. That they’ve succeeded is testament to both WayForward’s prowess with subtle, almost classical, game design and to David Crane’s initial template, laid down all those years ago.

One thing that thankfully hasn’t changed much is the story. A Boy and His Blob still concerns the fate of Blobolonia, a planet threatened by an evil emperor. In seeking help the blob comes to Earth and finds a young boy, and together they embark on their journey to save the blob’s world, as well as establishing “a friendship that will last a lifetime” (which the instruction manual helpfully points out). This is all played out, like the game as a whole, with an emphasis on simplicity. There are no grand special effects or lengthy dialogue trees, just an elegant little cut-scene before the game hands you control of the boy. More personality is in fact communicated through the little animations of both characters; the way blob will panic when separated from his companion, the way the boy pulls on his rucksack as soon as he jumps out of bed.

By placing more significance on an aesthetic revamp WayForward have teased out the original’s sense of wonder and innate childlike appeal. As well as the excellent animation the levels themselves are wonderfully understated. The backgrounds have the quality of fine watercolours, which balances nicely with the occasional sparkle of a treasure chest and the clear inspiration of Hayao Miyazaki’s films, which is shown in the character movement and, most obviously, the design of the enemies.

The core of A Boy and His Blob involves you traversing across a series of 2D levels that gradually increase in complexity. At the start of each of these stages you’re given a pre-determined selection of jelly beans, each of which grants the blob a unique transformation – one will change your gloopy friend into a ladder, while another will turn him into a space hopper (where these jelly beans come from, and why the boy doesn’t try eating just one, is never explained). It’s in using these powers in the right place and order that you progress through the game. While none of the puzzles will seriously tax the average gamer, solving each problem is nearly always fun. What helps keep the player engaged is the generous system of checkpoints (you’ll always start at the end of the last completed obstacle) and the fact that, by limiting the types of beans you have for each level (there are a total of 15 overall), you’re never left running through countless possibilities; the solution is within a finite range, and even though it’s very rare to find a puzzle with more than one correct method, experimentation is encouraged. It’s never too taxing, something obviously deliberate given the family-orientated approach.

To make this gameplay as satisfying as possible WayForward have used the Wii controls with a rare restraint (avoiding, as the company’s director Sean Velasco put it, “waggle controls simply for the sake of waggle”). The Nunchuk’s Z trigger brings up a dial menu of all available jelly beans, while a combination of the analogue stick and B is used to place these beans where necessary. Other commands, such as calling the blob to your side, or – best of all – hugging him/her/it for no apparent reason other than melting the player’s heart, are also well positioned (you can also use the Classic Controller to play, should you be looking for an even more nostalgic pull).

There are a few minor issues that potentially blemish what is otherwise an excellent game. One is the heavy signposting. Although the hints do ease up as the game progresses, it’s the early stages – where every opportunity to use a bean is marked by a large wooden board – that may ironically end up putting off more seasoned gamers from continuing to play. That said, each new jelly bean is introduced without any dull tutorial or text-heavy boxes. You simply start a level, find a new jelly bean waiting for you and proceed, much like a toddler with a new toy, to discover what it does. Another is that the main game isn’t particularly long. Once the mechanics of play are grasped, and bar a few awkward boss encounters, the 40 levels pass by fairly briskly. However longevity is provided by the task of collecting three treasure chests in each of the 40 levels, which unlocks a further 40 challenge levels. These challenge levels are extensions of the main game, whose prize isn’t another level but some genuinely interesting pieces of concept art and other such extras.

That said I’m loath to criticise A Boy and His Blob too much, such is the frequency with which it successfully hits its notes of wide-eyed innocence; the message of friendship and co-operation is delivered with a grace and an absence of pretension all too rare in gaming. To see WayForward’s lovely creation as a mere respite from the messy business of warfare and killstreaks is almost an insult to what they’ve achieved here. A Boy and His Blob deserves to be in everyone’s Wii collection, whatever their age.

Previously published by D+PAD Magazine.

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