By Patrick Murphy
Embracing the puzzle game philosophy of deriving complexity from simplicity, 2015’s BOXBOY! for the 3DS was a charming surprise, what felt like a side project from the folks at HAL Laboratory, born out of passion and whimsy while on a break from mega-franchises like Smash Bros. and Kirby.
While its tetragonal protagonist, Qbby, is as two-dimensional as they come, his adorable nature and the refreshingly unique mechanics used to to navigate through the many bite-sized, brain-teasing stages of his angular world meant that mascothood and a sequel was only a matter of time. Nintendo’s cleverly-titled BOXBOXBOY! fulfills at least one of those destinies, and while the magic of initial discovery may have worn off, it’s still hip to be square.
The gist of of BOXBOXBOY! remains basically the same as its predecessor: using Qbby’s power to create a finite string of boxes (which resemble lifeless clones of his own body…), players are tasked with running around on those little twig legs and platforming a path to each level’s exit. How one gets there depends largely on how those boxes are manipulated. Whether set down in the shape of straightforward stairs to allow access to greater heights, placed over a chasm or tossed atop deadly spikes to form a bridge, or constructed as a barrier against buzzing laser beams, the incredible utility of these plain, ordinary cartons is limited only by one’s own inventiveness. These actions will be pleasantly familiar to anyone who embarked on the first adventure, and while that game exploited them quite thoroughly, there is still much satisfaction to be had in the execution of a leap of faith to grab a supposedly unreachable ledge or conceiving the perfect configuration to connect switches and open the door barring your little parallelogrammical guy’s route to victory.
The new angle to BOXBOXBOY! is that now Qbby can create two strings of boxes that can be used independently of each other. This may not sound as sexy as Mario getting a game-breaking cape or Link finally learning how to jump, but the opening tutorials demonstrate the immense promise such a seemingly minor change can have to the established formula. Now solutions must be found via combinations, forcing the player to approach situations from a different perspective. Sets of blocks can be stacked to give your box/boy hybrid higher steps to scale, ceiling switches can be hit by raising one set of boxes up with another like jacking a car, and snaking through a narrow passage that leads to a bottomless pit is no longer a problem when the perfect floor can be formed and pushed on out before taking the plunge.
This new concept gives BOXBOXBOY! a certain amount of freshness early on, but after the mechanics start to become second nature, unfortunately the true potential never feels fully exploited. Despite the presence of more moving parts, anyone with enough time logged into the original game will find that all-too-similar tactics are still effective. Much of this is due to the same obstructions to overcome. From conveyor belts to sticky walls to gravity changes and those little black sparky-blobby monsters that appear out of thin air, there’s not much here that fans haven’t seen before. Sure, the ways in which they’re applied is occasionally somewhat different at times, but never in any game-changing sort of way. Those expecting the same sense of discovery and gleeful gratification they got from sussing out the particular logic of every new concept thrown at them may be slightly disappointed, as in the end BOXBOXBOY! resembles something more akin to an expansion of the first game than a stand-alone sequel.
That’s not to say this is too much of a bad thing, however, as more BOXBOY! will always be welcome. Like with so many Nintendo platformers, the controls and physics are so rock solid that the mere acts of running and jumping making playing a pleasure, and though the puzzles themselves don’t really break much new ground, they are still cleverly devised for the most part. BOXBOXBOY! also does a good job of easing players in, introducing the various impediments gradually and saving true tests for the later stages, especially those opened up after the main campaign, which will test even veterans by throwing everything but the kitchen sink at them.
For those not content with merely completing the minimum requirements, there are “crowns” to collect in each level, accessible only if players restricts themselves to using a certain number of boxes along the way. Nabbing these collectibles not only offers additional challenge, but also grants extra cash upon completion, which can be exchanged for music tracks, pun-filled comics strips, and more importantly, various costumes, some of which enhance Qbby’s meager abilities. In the original game these crowns were devilishly placed, often necessitating real thought and care as to how they could be gotten with so few boxes available. Snagging each one and unlocking all the extras was a real accomplishment, but HAL may have been a bit lazy this time around. Rarely did I not hundred percent a stage the first time through. The allotment of boxes is a little too much on the forgiving side, and frequently it was nearly impossible to miss nabbing a crown, as it was directly in the path to the exit.
Despite some flaws, I couldn’t help but play BOXBOXBOY! with a smile on my face. Qbby and his quadrilateral friends are as adorable as ever, their blank stares strangely appealing, and the clean, crisp black and white visuals, such a stark contrast to Nintendo’s normal color bombardment, are minimalist eye candy. There is a dreamy atmosphere to the vague “story” that soothes the brain after wracking it, enticing players to continue on, and luckily plenty of content allows for just that. While not the out-of-left-field delightful surprise that was the original, and despite the unfulfilled potential of the new mechanics, BOXBOXBOY! is still a pleasant way to pass your time, with the unbelievably simple Qbby belonging squarely in Nintendo’s stable of mascots, hopefully with many more boxes to make and plenty of puzzling adventures still to come.