I read Mean Machines. I played Super Mario Bros. 3. I even finished Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. But I'd never even heard of A Boy and His Blob. There. Now you know. What a NES noob.
So, rather than pretend, I'll admit to a spot of research. The internet (which, as you all know, can't be trusted), tells me A Boy and His Blob was a 1991 side-scrolling platformer created by Activision co-founder David Crane. People seemed to like it. I checked it out on YouTube, and it looks good in an old-fashioned kind of way. It does not, however, look like the precursor to Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.
Neither does the WayForward Technologies-developed Wii remake, the game I'm reviewing. That's not surprising. But what is, is how closely this side-scrolling puzzler follows the core mechanics Crane used in the original. Boy meets Blob, and they must work together to save Blob's home world, Blobolonia, from an evil emperor. To do it, Boy feeds Blob one of 15 different jellybeans, each one turning it into a different item. The young boy and alien blob work together so closely, that they're even more adorable and cuddly than your niece and her teddy. It's a relationship that warms the heart, makes you smile and wish for your very own, weird, white, ball of stuff.
If you're a proper Nintendo fanboy, one who played A Boy and His Blob back in the day, then all this will sound reassuringly familiar. Good. We like it when developers take what worked about games gone by and employ an "if it ain't broke then don't fix it" policy for a remake. We like it even more, though, when developers are brave enough to make changes for the better, even when it means messing about with a treasured memory.
The most obvious example of this is the brand new, hand animated art style. WayForward is obviously packed full of Hayao Miyazaki fans, because the game looks like a cross between Spirited Away and The Snowman. It's beautiful. The animations are gorgeous, Boy's interactions with Blob are lovingly realised, and the backgrounds are mesmerising. It's an altogether otherworldly feel, stretched across four distinct worlds: rural, urban, Blobolonia itself and, finally, the emperor's tower. It's all strengthened by a wistful score that rekindles memories of all those fantastical movies you used to watch in the front room as a wide-eyed kid.
Gameplay wise, changes are equally successful. The limited number of jellybeans you had to play with in the original has been dumped in favour of an unlimited supply, which means you're able to spam the world with as many jellybeans as your jellybean-spamming heart can desire. You can even control your jeallybean throw, which you couldn't do before, by holding down the B button to bring up the jellybean's trajectory, then releasing. With any luck, Blob will hop off in hot pursuit, gulp down the jellybean, and magically morph into the object you need.
As you'd expect though, it's WayForward's work on Blob's various forms that's most important. The Liquorice Ladder lets Boy climb from one platform to another up above. From there, the Banana Anvil can be dropped onto the head of one of the evil emperor's black, slimy minions to destroy them. Blob can turn into a Pear Parachute, which Boy can use to float to safety from great heights. Blob can turn into a Tangerine Trampoline, which Boy can use to jump to otherwise unreachable areas. Blob can turn into an Apple Jack, which Boy can use to squish nasties, raise entire platforms and stand on to pass spike-covered ground. And Blob can even turn into a Bubblegum Bouncer: Let's just say letting you bounce across water is only one of its many fun uses.
The water bouncing is key, though, because without it, poor old Boy will drown. I don't want to call him weak, because he's not. Not really, anyway. I mean, he can do everything a real boy can. He can run left and right; he can whistle to call Blob when it's off-screen, and he can jump. But he can only do these things a little bit. And by a little bit, I mean a realistic bit. He can't fall far without collapsing in a heap of broken bones. Neither can he take a single hit from one of the emperor's monsters without biting the dust. In short, he's not your stereotypical video game superhero. He doesn't have a health bar.
So, you've got to be careful, plotting Boy and Blob's route forward with the safety concern of an air stewardess. Each level is, in effect, a series of self-contained puzzles; brain-benders not particularly taxing, but they will have you scratching your head for a minute or two. At first the game's particularly simple, with large signposts letting you know which Blob form you should use to progress. Soon, though, things get more complicated, with levels packed with enemies getting on with their left to right or up to down patrols, door-opening switches, and rocks to push about. The game's at its most challenging when it combines all of its puzzle elements into a few screens of platforming goodness.
There's a catch, though. The jellybeans at your disposal are decided upon by the game. So, you never have access to all 15 beans, and thus all of Blob's forms, at any one time. This approach has allowed WayForward to craft clever puzzles, but the player never has the freedom to solve them in unforeseen ways. This is a shame: A mouse in a maze is never as happy as a mouse set free. But this isn't Scribblenauts we're playing. This is A Boy and His Blob. No doubt simply giving the player all the tools to play with and letting him get on with it would have exposed the game's fragile platforming more so than it already is.
The platforming really is fragile. It's a good thing that most of your time will be spent puzzle solving rather than executing your pixel perfect platforming skills with android-like reflexes, because A Boy and His Blob isn't a great platformer. The lovely hand drawn graphics are brill for making you go all puppy dog eyed, but they're not the best for the kind of gameplay the likes of Super Mario Bros. is famed for. And the cumbersome controls are fine during the slow-paced beard-scratching bits, but they're too convoluted when it all kicks off and you've got platforms coming out of your ears and monsters gagging to munch on your defenceless derrière. Thankfully, the game only forgets what it's good at occasionally.
The problem with the controls is that they're not particularly intuitive. It must have been hard trying to work out how to map the many different jellybean types to the Wii Remote and Nunchuck combo or the Classic Controller. WayForward's solution was not to bother. It settled on a radial menu, brought on-screen by holding the C button, which allows you to pick the desired jellybean with movement of the analogue stick. In theory, it's great. But in practice, you find yourself fumbling over the controls when you least want to.
A thing as simple as getting Blob to turn into a little ball requires more steps than you'd find in a badly written self-help pamphlet. You need to press and hold C, select the jellybean with the analogue stick, release C, hold B to bring up the throwing trajectory arc, and then release B to throw it. And that doesn't even include calling Blob, if indeed he needs calling, to snap out of his current form and head over for a munch. I played the game from start to finish, but even after the ten or so hours it took me to finish it, I still found myself occasionally pressing the wrong buttons.
You can just about get used to the controls, though, and accept the mild frustrations they cause. But the game gets too frustrating to forgive during the combat heavy boss battles. While the bosses themselves are beautifully designed, defeating them is the stuff of gaming nightmares. They all involve using Blob in familiar ways, but they require the kind of quick movement and dodging the game wasn't designed for. You'll die over and over and over again trying to kill these large nasties. They're also a particularly jarring change of pace and difficulty. If playing A Boy and His Blob is like eating scrambled egg, then the boss fights are like chipping your tooth on a rogue piece of eggshell.
Overall, though, it's not that hard a game. In fact, some might reckon it's not hard enough. Perhaps the steady pace with which I worked through the game was a testament to how well it teaches you how best to use Blob's various forms. And, in any case, for the core among you, there are 40 bonus stages to play through, each one unlocked by collecting three treasure boxes hidden in each of the 40 main levels.
It almost seems like missing the point to criticise the game for not being tough enough. It doesn't seem designed to be that kind of game. It's just too calm, pleasant and adorable to be mad at for more than a few minutes. Don't get me wrong, the boss battles made me mad, very mad indeed. But I felt compelled to soldier on. I couldn't abandon poor Boy and His Blob, could I? They make you smile, make you feel good about life, the world and everything.
The game's not going to get your adrenaline pumping. It's not Generic Shooter X on steroids, or By The Numbers RPG on speed. It's the kind of game Postman Pat would have made had he tried bedroom coding as a kid. It's like a long walk on a Sunday afternoon: There's no rush because the beef's got at least another hour in the oven and the football won't be on for another two. I've got an idea. I reckon 15-year-old chavs should be forced to play A Boy and His Blob after they put videos of themselves having a fit over Modern Warfare 2 on the internet. I wonder if David Crane would approve.