A Boy And His Blob

More importantly than being artistically adorable, it is a game that carries a ton of heart, for the lovely innocent friendship that lies at its core is the fuel not only for much of its visual splendor, but also for its clever gameplay mechanics

a_boy_his_blob1The Nintendo Wii ended up being the home of an unexpected, and pleasant, renaissance of 2-D platformers, which stopped being seen by the industry as a relic of the past and started being viewed as a feasible gameplay alternative. As such, it was only natural that, when searching for ideas upon which to build new titles, some companies would eventually stumble on a few hidden gems that had remained relegated to an era when sidescrolling titles ruled the landscape. And that is precisely what A Boy and His Blob was. Originally released for the NES, the adventure – structured around a heartwarming tale of friendship – was rough around the edges and failed to realize the full potential of its concept. Two decades later, WayForward glimpsed into the title’s inventive core mechanic and saw enough value in it to decide to dress it up in a new coat of paint, modernize its old-school mannerisms in order to make it highly accessible, and get rid of the thorns that had stopped it from succeeding the first time around. And judging from the pleasant results presented by the Nintendo Wii’s deep re-imagination of the series’ debut, the effort was certainly worth it.

Keeping true to its 8-bit roots, as well as understanding that some stories are better told through gestures and a brief narrative, A Boy and His Blob begins when the titular alien creature escapes his planet. As it turns out, the strangely shaped and colorful Blobolonia has been taken over by an evil emperor, and one of the many blobs that inhabit it decides to board a spaceship and fly to Earth looking for help. After entering the atmosphere, the friendly being crosses the night sky like a shooting star and lands near the boy’s outdoor hideout. Waken from his sleep by the noise, he steps out into the darkness to investigate. A couple of minutes later, following a tender welcoming hug, the inseparable pair begin their quest, which will lead them all the way back to Blobolonia, where a population that has been enslaved awaits for their freedom.

Within those short minutes that kick the game off, which include a quick cutscene and some introductory platforming, players will already be struck by the calling card and greatest quality of A Boy and His Blob: its stunning hand-drawn visuals. The fireflies that marvelously illuminate the night of the game’s initial sequence speak volumes about the beauty there is to be found in its scenarios, but it is not the looks alone that make the game excel graphically. A Boy and His Blob is artistry with a heart; its fluid animations, which recall a very finely produced cartoon, ooze charm and feeling. Its heroes are utterly adorable, and everything related to them is lovely: the way they move; how they interact with one another; the boy’s calling for the blob whenever he wants him to come closer; and the fact the game – as the utmost display of its tenderness – devotes a button to the action of hugging, which has no purpose other than allowing the two buddies to display their care for one another.

a_boy_his_blob2Side-by-side, the boy and his new friend will explore four different dangerous worlds, starting in an earthly forest and wrapping it all up inside the emperor’s dark mechanical castle located on Blobolonia. It is a small number when compared to other titles of the genre, but every world carries ten regular levels and one boss battle, which gives the game a satisfying amount of non-optional content, one that matches the length of most of its contemporaries. Furthermore, it is important to note that even though the game only features four worlds, both the stages and boss battles occur inside a wide range of different scenarios, since the locations to be explored suffer slight changes as the the duo advances deeper into each one of the lands. And it is in these slowly changing levels that A Boy and His Blob will bring forth its unique leisurely paced mixture of platforming and puzzle solving, which will use both physical obstacles and blob-shaped enemies to challenge the pair.

As players take control of the boy, they will use the Wiimote and Nunchuk combination to go through the adventure. The control stick will move the character around, the A button will make him jump, the down direction of the D-pad will make him tell the blob to stand still, while the Z button will cause him to call the creature to come towards him (an action that, truthfully, could have been more responsive as sometimes it takes the blob longer than it should to come over). And right there lies the complete summary of the actions he can do on his own. Of course, given that limited number of abilities, A Boy and His Blob would not be much of a game if it were a solo quest, as none of those skills would allow the boy to make it very far into any of the levels. The meat of its gameplay and the core of its originality lie on the blob’s flexibility and his interaction with the boy, as the former can – when fed with jelly beans – transform into a variety of useful tools depending on the color of the candy that is thrown to him.

When pressing the Z button, players will summon a wheel of jelly beans, and after selecting one of them it is possible to – by holding the B button – aim and throw the treat. If it is physically reachable, the blob will automatically run towards it, gulp it down cutely, and reveal one of his many forms. In total, the character has fifteen distinct abilities. However, in a smart choice by WayForward, they are never all available at the same time. Firstly, because the game opts to introduce them little by little as the levels go along by throwing basic puzzles at players and indicating, with a painted sign, that the new skill has to be used at that point. And secondly, because even after all the deck of transformations has been revealed and explained, the levels themselves determine what beans will be in the wheel, with that number reaching – at most – eight. It is a choice that has a couple benefits: it makes the learning curve quite pleasant to younger gamers, as they can grasp the quirks of the blob’s abilities slowly; it allows developers to, for each stage, focus on a handful of transformations; and it completely eliminates the possibility of solving puzzles in ways different from those that were intended.

a_boy_his_blob4Other than being positively lovely due to their animation and form, the blob’s transformations are excellent – even if some of them do not control very naturally and take a while to get used to. Their incredible variety paves the way for some solid level design. The cuddly creature can become: a ladder, which lets the boy reach high areas; a hole, which allows him to drop through thin platforms; a trampoline, for jumping over pits; a space hopper that floats over water; a shield, for protection; a parachute, for gliding over traps or slowing drops down big chasms; a canon, which will turn the boy into a projectile that other than breaking through walls also flies pretty high; a jack, for lifting all sorts of objects or enemies; and more. It is an arsenal that keeps the gameplay fresh during the entirety of the adventure, as there is no shortage of puzzle possibilities, and it is bound to lure in both a younger audience and more experienced folks; however, at times, it feels like A Boy and His Blob has a bit of trouble balancing its wishes to please these two groups simultaneously.

Overall, the game’s pace is very slow. After all, as a puzzle platformer, instead of being focused on action-centered activities, like enemy stomping or jumping from platform to platform, the levels of A Boy and His Blob are chains of environmental riddles that will have players wondering how to proceed by using one of the beans they are carrying. And that moderate progression, made even more sluggish by the characters’ relaxed movements, is certainly not for everyone even if it walks perfectly alongside the game’s overall quiet tone, which is prominent everywhere: from its sober visuals to its peaceful soundtrack. Additionally, on what was probably a move seeking to make the stages friendly to the little ones, A Boy and His Blob has the habit of using way too many signs to announce the skill that needs to be used at certain parts of its stages. Surely, kids will likely not mind the extra help; they will probably welcome it intensely. Longtime gamers, though, may feel the hand-holding is excessive and that the puzzles would have been more interesting if no clues were offered. An option to turn off such indications would have done the game some good.

Strangely, and acting somewhat against that accessibility, A Boy and His Blob offers a few frustrating situations to players. These are, almost always, a consequence of the one-hit-kill quality of pretty much everything surrounding the characters. Spikes, enemies, falls, and all kinds of traps have the annoying ability to kill the boy in one hit. Such punishment, which is sometimes handed out because of really inconsequential mistakes, feels unnecessary even if it may be a statement on the boy’s frailty. Thankfully, the feeling of annoyance that may arise in these occasions is diminished because these deaths do not lead to considerable losses of progress, as developers cleverly spread out a nice number of checkpoints throughout the stages. Still, giving the boy a little more health would have helped reduce the restart and redo patterns that take over in some areas and that will bother all players regardless of age or gaming background.

a_boy_his_blob3The one very significant area in which A Boy and His Blob thoroughly succeeds in embracing all kinds of gamers is in the structure of its content. Going through all of the game’s stages is quite easy when following the regular flow of the quest, but each course features three hidden chests. When going after these, not only will players be rewarded with full completion of the levels, but they will also watch the game reveal some of its greatest and most challenging riddles, which are delightful to solve because of their brilliant design and appropriate level of difficulty. Moreover, after finding all three chests in a stage a brand new level will be opened, and beating it – in turn – will unlock nice extras such as early concept art, production videos, and other nice morsels. In the end, therefore, completionists will have a whopping total of 80 stages to travel through. Truth be told, these extra levels are very short and usually focus exclusively on the mastering of one or two transformations, making them feel and play more like challenges than full-fledged stages. Nevertheless, when a game presents so much high-quality carefully designed content and does so in a way that is effective, as its hardest challenges (even if they are not really that tough) will be there to those who look for them, one cannot feel anything but joy.

Although it certainly has issues, it is impossible not to recommend A Boy and His Blob to absolutely everyone. More importantly than being artistically adorable, it is a game that carries a ton of heart, for the lovely innocent friendship that lies at its core is the fuel not only for much of its visual splendor but also for its clever gameplay mechanics. And these, in particular, are so flexible and unique they safely carry the game through more than eighty levels of varying degrees of difficulty. A Boy and His Blob does not just rescue a long-forgotten and irregular property born during the NES days from total obscurity; it fleshes out its central concept, dresses it up in charming hand-drawn animation, and puts it in the hands of a generation of younger gamers that may – in a few years – remember this child and this likable alien as one of the very first contacts they had with the medium. As for more experienced gamers, even if the adventure may at points be too easy, A Boy and His Blob is a chance to play a well-designed sidescrolling puzzle platformer. One that, overshadowed by other bigger releases of the genre that happened during its renaissance in the arms of the Nintendo Wii, is sometimes forgotten.

Final Score: 7 – Very Good

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