By their nature, visuals are almost always the first thing that an observer notices about a game. Wii games often don’t make a great first impression, especially since many gamers have become accustomed to the high-definition graphics of the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, but that’s because most developers refuse to play to the Wii’s strengths.
WayForward isn’t one of those developers. Their reboot of the 20-year-old NES puzzle platformer A Boy and His Blob has a striking visual style -- the game is entirely hand-drawn and hand-animated, which gives it a look that’s charming and beautiful. Graphics aside, though, how does it play? Plenty of videogames look great but aren’t enjoyable, after all.
I played A Boy and His Blob last week while Pete Rosky, Associate Product Manager at Majesco, looked on (and told me to try hugging the blob). Hit the jump to see just how instantly endearing this game can be. And go here for all of our Blob-related coverage, including my interview with Rosky and four exclusive level walkthroughs from E3!
A Boy and His Blob (Wii)
Developer: WayForward Technologies
To be released: October 2009
I was lucky enough to be able to watch the game’s intro movie, which is pretty damn awesome. Like the opening half hour of Pixar’s WALL•E, it employs a completely visual style of storytelling -- there’s no dialogue, but the movie conveys the game’s basic plot. An evil emperor has taken over the blob’s home planet, Blobolonia (say that three times fast), so it leaves home and ends up crash-landing on Earth. There, it hopes to find someone to help it defeat the emperor -- but the first person who finds the blob is a scrawny, weak, ten-year-old boy. This isn’t exactly the formidable alliance that the blob was hoping for.
But when they return to the boy’s home -- a large, four-room tree house -- a jar of jelly beans falls to the floor. The blob happens to ingest a black one, which turns him into a ladder, and thus, a dynamic duo is born. The boy and his blob set out to make their way back to Blobolonia and take down the emperor, and that’s pretty much all there is to it. The game doesn’t contain any cut scenes or text to advance the plot, and there’s very little voice-over.
On the way, you’ll traverse four varied worlds with ten levels each. Every single level also has a corresponding “challenge” level, which is unlocked by finding all three treasures in the regular level. The challenge levels are shorter and more jelly bean-centric -- in other words, puzzle-oriented. With a total of eighty levels, Rosky estimated the length of the game at eighteen hours. Each of the four worlds features its own “hideout” for the boy and his blob; that’s where you return after completing a level. As I mentioned, the first one is your original tree house. The second hideout is in the city; the third one is on Blobolonia (Rosky called it “really trippy”), and the last one is below a castle in the emperor’s citadel.
Thankfully, WayForward made life significantly easier in this game compared to the NES original. In the old Boy and His Blob, there were no mid-level checkpoints, and you had a certain allocation of jelly beans that, if expended, would leave you stuck without recourse. In the Wii game, checkpoints abound -- Rosky says, “If you die, you’re going to start within a second of where you were” -- and saving your game is taken care of behind the scenes (when you get back to your hideout). In addition, the boy’s deep pockets hold an infinite number of jelly beans to feed to the blob.
There are fifteen different transformations that the blob can undergo; about half of them returned from the original game, and the other half are new. For example, the rocket is back, but this time, you can control it. A fun one is the hamster ball that you can roll around in. The transformations are mostly defensive (shield), evasive (hole), or somehow useful in the world (ladder, jack). But Rosky teased an “awesome” final transformation during the battle with the emperor at the end of the game, saying that it puts the boy on offense for once. All of the transformations work because the blob is invulnerable. On the other hand, all the enemies mean instant death for the boy if he so much as touches them; he also can’t swim or fall from too high a height.
Rosky also made sure to note that, based on feedback from the E3 build of the game, WayForward re-recorded all of the boy’s voice-overs. The boy still sounds like a kid, of course, but the timbre of his voice is much less high-pitched and whiny than before. They also recorded a bunch of new audio -- his vocabulary is more varied now.
Earlier, I called the game’s visuals “striking,” and I simply can’t get away from how striking they are. Minuscule details -- like the strain on the boy’s face when he’s pushing a rock -- illustrate just how much work the art team put into this game. When the boy falls through the air, his hair flutters in the wind. The blob follows you, but he’s easily distracted by things in the environment like butterflies and fireflies. And of course, hugging the blob is the ultimate expression of cuteness, and it’s instantly charming. In fact, Rosky related a story that showed how quickly and effortlessly the game can evoke passionate emotions:
We had some salespeople, and we were showing them the game. ... Within two minutes of showing them the hug, and them loving it, the boy fell into the water and died. And they were so sad and affected; it was, like, ‘Really? It’s been a minute and a half, and you care?’
In fact, a PR person in the room who had played the game suggested a marketing campaign: Have you hugged your blob today? That seems like a pretty good line to plaster on some billboards, right?
I played through two different levels, and I was impressed with how challenging they were. I’d like to think that I’m not an idiot, but on a number of occasions, I definitely had to sit and think for a minute before proceeding with a jelly bean toss. But I never felt stymied to the point of anger, and I didn’t have to resort to trial-and-error jelly bean throwing; as Rosky put it, WayForward “took out the frustration and added difficulty.” It appears that A Boy and His Blob will be a great game for gamers of all ages to play, and for parents to play with their children.
Between A Boy and His Blob and Vanillaware’s Muramasa: The Demon Blade, 2D fans might want to buy a Wii if they don’t already own one. A Boy and His Blob is a rare combination, like the ideal woman: beauty and substance. Its platforming hearkens back to the side-scrolling platformers of the 8- and 16-bit eras, but its puzzles aren’t nearly as exasperating as some of the ones from those old games. October seems so far off, doesn’t it?