Everyone loves Keita Takahashi. That's a given. If you don't love the first two Katamari games, then it can only be assumed that you either haven't played them, or are physically and mentally incapable of enjoying yourself under any circumstances.
This is that review.
Noby Noby Boy (PSN)
Developer: Namco Bandai
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Released: February 19, 2009
Anthony Burch Noby Noby Boy
is not a game. That's the first thing you need to know. There are no goals, no overall objectives. No win/loss scenario. It's just you, the Boy, the Girl, and some of the most weirdly unconventional design I've ever seen, ever.
That Noby Noby Boy isn't a game should not be interpreted as a fault (just last week, Topher and I both agreed that Flower would have benefited from being a little less game-like). Ostensibly, the fun in Noby Noby Boy comes from exploring the utterly confusing design mechanics, messing around with the infinitely stretchable Boy, and participating in a sort of community-driven quest to unlock new worlds. The problem isn't that these different mechanics don't add up to a game; it's that what they do add up to, whatever it is, just isn't that enthralling.
Keita Takahashi has claimed that Noby Noby Boy is an attempt to create gameplay that can't possibly be put into words. Based on the coherency of the following sentences, he may have succeeded.
You control Boy, a creature whom you can pull and contort like a Stretch Armstrong doll, using the left and right analog sticks to control the front and rear portions of his body. By eating things and pooping them out, you -- I think -- get the capability to stretch progressively further. Every cumulative meter you stretch can be recorded by the game and uploaded to Girl, your enormous, feminine counterpart, who is made up of the combined lengths of every single Boy from every single game of Noby Noby Boy being played anywhere on Earth. Once Girl gets long enough, she will reach new planets that will be unlocked for all owners of the game. In a sense, every Noby Noby Boy player in the world is working together with every other player in order to help Girl discover new planets. This is slightly mind-blowing.
In terms of concrete goals, that's the entire game. You can move from map to map on the first (and thus far, only) planet, but apart from different objects and geometry, each map is essentially the same. You stretch; you eat stuff; you poop stuff out; you try to understand why every single one of Boy's abilities are bound to the same two buttons while the camera is controlled through Sixaxis tilting. Beyond whatever fun you create for yourself using the stretch mechanic or attempting to get the secret trophies, there's really not much else to do.
Perhaps Boy's stretchiness could lend itself to the same sort of mind-expanding, incredibly imaginative gameplay we got out of the first two Katamari games, but you'd never really know it from Noby Noby Boy's objective-less style of play. Judging from the reviews and discussions I've read on the game thus far, it appears that many players are fully capable of putting forth the effort and making their own fun using the game's very meager collection of toys and situations. I, unfortunately, am not one of these people.
The objectives and strict level design of something like, say, the elephant level in We Love Katamari serve a specific purpose: in giving the player a specific goal to reach, the player inadvertently must explore every aspect of the central mechanic in order to reach that goal, which can lead to some awe-inspiring moments as, with a little bit of guidance, you discover things you didn't expect to find. Noby Noby Boy tries to cut out the middleman by removing goals and asking the player to find those neat little surprises on their own, with mixed results.
Stretching Boy as far as he can possibly go, then letting go of him, is fun for about five minutes. Trying to rope people and animals within your ever-shifting lasso of a body would be mildly entertaining if Boy weren't so hard to control, or if the ultimate reward for successfully lassoing an object or person was something more than being able to watch them stumble around for a half second before unceremoniously walking over or under your cylindrical torso. Dicking around on your own with Boy can be sort of interesting if you're lucky, but the majority of my time spent trying to experiment with his stretchy antics ended up being more disappointing, confusing, and irritating than anything else. Who deserves blame for this -- whether it's myself, or the designers -- is up to you.
That said, though, one can't deny the amount of imagination that has gone into nearly every aspect of the game design. You control the in-game manual using a 2D representation of Boy who can actually knock over letters, rather than a scroll bar. Every person who owns the game is displayed as a randomized character forever dancing and marching on Girl's back as she stretches into space. You can write messages directly on Boy, or send messages to others that will show up on their Boy. The initial control tutorial is delivered in the form of a pop quiz, where you have to guess which buttons do what. The loading icon is a photorealistic picture of a squirrel, chomping at nuts. Damn near every aspect of the aesthetic design has something clever or imaginative or just plain goddamn weird about it, making your first half hour of play a constant barrage of confusing, yet pleasant surprises. It's only after you begin to dig for something deeper, something more legitimately involving, that you'll be disappointed.
Even though Noby Noby Boy's shallow antics aren't fun or interesting enough to justify the lack of actual goals or structure, there's just too much new and quirky stuff here to not be deserving of its incredibly meager $5 asking price. It may not be anything more than a fantastically bizarre toy that's only fun for an hour or so (though I can't promise I won't boot it up once more when Girl reaches another planet), but it's consistently confusing, completely fearless, and there has never -- never -- been anything else like it.
And if that isn't worth five bucks, I dunno what the hell is.
In many ways, I have to agree with Anthony when he says that Noby Noby Boy is not a game. It feels more like a playpen than anything else. A virtual toy chest, except the toys are few and the ways to play with them even fewer. Conceptually, I love this thing and everything it strives to do. The whole community aspect that Anthony described is incredibly inventive and something that deserves a golf clap. However, Noby needs to meet its players halfway. It was easy for Takahashi to tell us all to go out, have fun, and find surprises, but he didn't do a good job of encouraging or rewarding such activity.
The world of Noby Noby Boy is fun from a visual aspect, but you almost get a "look, don't touch" vibe from the environment. It seems the NPCs are having way more fun than I am -- they can ride hover cars, pilot mechanical walkers, and jockey around the map on the backs of toucans. Boy can stretch or eat, and that's more or less all he does. When do I get to ride a toucan? When does Boy get his share?
There is definitely fun to be had, but it doesn't last very long. When I first discovered I could make Boy eat and poo things, I was overjoyed. However, my naïve anticipation of all the other things I could do soon fizzled out when I came to realize that I really couldn't do much else. It's like Animal Crossing all over again, but with even less activities for the player.
That's not to mention the frustrating controls and an unwieldy camera that requires motion control, the shoulder buttons AND the analog sticks in order to position conveniently. The Boy is difficult to get around the map without flailing around of his own accord, and trying to eat things is an irritation in and of itself.
The charm and character of Noby Noby Boy is undeniable, but to create such a bizarre and funky world, only to tell the player that they will never be able to interact with it in the way the NPCs do, is simply unfair. Don't give me a toucan and tell me I can't ride it. I'll be incredibly cross.
Noby got on my good side with its daring concept and positively insane design. However, when I compare the fun I could have been having with the fun I'm actually experiencing, I feel slightly shortchanged, even at five bucks. To be stuck in a game world where I'm jealous of all the characters around me is a gyp, and I don't like that.
It's a decent affair, and I think it needs to be purchased just for the experience. At only five dollars, it's a gamble with few risks, but it's definitely a gamble. It's going to be a divisive title with those who love it or hate it. Even fewer people will be like me -- suitably charmed, but undeniably disappointed.
Oh, and Boy will swallow your soul.
Score: 4.5 (4s have some high points, but they soon give way to glaring faults. Not the worst games, but are difficult to recommend.*)
*Not quite as difficult in this case, though, given that the game costs less than a box of Teddy Grahams.
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