It's hard to know just what to make of BoxBoy at first glance. The black-and-white palette and no-frills presentation put the focus squarely on the mechanical underpinnings. The concepts are simple, but it quickly starts to stack on itself, and it grabs hold with seemingly endless inventiveness and iteration. BoxBoy is a proving ground for indie-style minimalism that serves to show an idea we may overlook. The indie spirit is well and alive in Nintendo, because so much of the indie community imitates Nintendo's impeccable design philosophy.
BoxBoy is the latest from HAL, the studio best known for its Kirby games. Kirby has been Nintendo's laboratory recently, with wide latitude to use the pink puffball to try different play and art styles. Given that pedigree, it's easy to see where BoxBoy fits. The cute, simplistic character design is the square equivalent to Kirby's more rotund physique, and if not for the lead character's shape it's easy to see how BoxBoy could have become a Kirby game itself.
It stars Qbby, a surprisingly expressive little character considering he's just a square with legs and eyes. Qbby can make other boxes extend from him to create platforms, and at its most basic form, that's what BoxBoy is about. You help Qbby navigate stages by using his power to create objects, with a limited number of boxes in each of the bite-sized stages.
That premise is deceptively simple, though. It isn't long before BoxBoy becomes a smorgasboard of creativity, using the simple mechanics to press buttons to open doors or transport through a gap. The stages are kept relatively small, with each puzzle distinctly separated and generous checkpoints in-between each one. Through more than a dozen worlds, we're introduced to a brand new twist with each one. Every world plumbs the depths of a concept, and then moves on to the next.
The puzzles slowly get fiendishly difficult, requiring quite a bit of trial-and-error as you sort out the solution. Fortunately, if you're just hopelessly stuck, you can use a Play Coin to receive a brief glimpse at the shape that will solve the puzzle. Even then, though, I sometimes found myself staring at the shape I had created and puzzling out how to actually use it. It's a puzzle game, but knowing the solution isn't always enough.
To the extent that it tells a story, it's a light one. BoxBoy stumbles upon some other characters, and making his way through the worlds has an impact, but it's treated more like a fable than a plot. The details are hazy, and it imparts a simple (if somewhat obvious) metaphorical lesson.
Game Boy Memories
The combination of a monochrome aesthetic and simple gameplay conjures memories of the original Gameboy. Qbby would be right at home there, and nothing about the game would be particularly impossible on that system. In fact, the constant reinvention reminded me of Donkey Kong for the Gameboy, another devious puzzle game from Nintendo that repeatedly introduced new ideas throughout.
That's really the highest praise I can pay to BoxBoy. It expresses such a purity of design that it captures that breezy magic that defined Nintendo's golden era. It's a game that revolves around play and discovery, and it does it so well it doesn't need to rely on the company's well-loved stable of characters. This debut is so good, Qbby may become one himself.
This review is based on a 3DS download code provided by the publisher. BoxBoy will be available on the Nintendo eShop. on April 2 for $5.99 The game is rated E.