As much as the Switch has become something of a bastion for smaller, digital-only games of late, there are more than a few successful examples that got their start on another popular Nintendo console — the 3DS, including some from Nintendo’s own partner studios. HAL Laboratory’s minimalist puzzler, BoxBoy!, was something of a surprise hit when it launched on the venerable handheld, and quickly spawned two more sequels. Maybe it’s because the most recent entry was titled Bye-Bye BoxBoy!, or maybe the 3DS as a whole has been unceremoniously ejected from my memory banks to make room for more quotes from Vine compilations, but the announcement of a new BoxBoy game for Switch took me by surprise. The games are fun and all, but is there really enough life left in this simple concept to warrant a brand new game on a ‘home’ console?
The answer is yes. Unequivocally.
If you’ve played a BoxBoy game before you’ll already know the drill here. In BOXBOY! + BOXGIRL!, the adorable little square boi Qbby and his pals find themselves in trouble, imperiled by a nasty black essence that threatens their world of clean, minimalist line art. In order to stop the impending menace they’ll need to solve their way through levels upon levels of block-based puzzles, learning new abilities along the way. If you’ve never played a BoxBoy game before, well, that’s it. That’s the game. Minimalism really is the name of the game here in every sense, from the starkly basic visual design to the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it story, and even to the flow of the game itself. Monochromatic shape-people have no time for world-building exposition or fancy overworlds — you’re here to solve puzzles and damn it that’s what you’re going to do!
Comin’ for the crown
Just like the previous games, BB!+BG! is all about making it from one side of each small level to the other, using Qbby’s ability to sprout boxes from three of his sides to navigate obstacles. Those obstacles start out simple enough — you might need to drop a row of boxes across a gap like a bridge, or stack them in a staircase fashion to scale a ledge, for example. Boxes can only be produced in one sequence at a time though, and each stage has a set limit on the maximum number of boxes in a sequence, so most situations call for some very creative thinking in figuring out how to use the boxes economically. That goes doubly for completionist types, because simply making it to the end of a level is only part of the job. Qbby will need to collect crowns scattered throughout, while also trying to pass with the absolute minimum boxes used, in order to pass with flying colours.
Not every puzzle can be solved with just boxes though, so Qbby will pick up a plethora of neat abilities along his journey, as well as face all manner of new obstacles. Early on he’ll learn to do things like pull himself up onto ledges with a trail of boxes or use them as a makeshift pogo stick to cross spiked floors. Later on, once his moveset has been filled out, the levels themselves start to incorporate new tricks like zero-gravity fields and platforms attached to flying drills. A lot of what’s here is carried over from previous games, but there’s a fair amount of new stuff, and some of the more superfluous old ideas have been cut. The brilliance in the game’s design is that, most of the time, there’s no ‘perfect’ solution — there’re definitely going to be times where you’ll get real creative and wind up wondering if the developers even thought of doing it the way you just did.
Why Qudy and not…Qubert? Quegene? Qulysses?
I’ve spoken exclusively about Qbby so far, but the truth is his story is only one third of the game. Playing through the main story mode will only get you part of the ending — BB!+BG! features not one but two more campaigns to play through. Once you finish with Qbby you’ll have access to Qudy, an oblong box with his own adventure to go on and all-new levels that take existing concepts and twist them to suit his longer form. As if that’s not enough, there’s also a brand new two-player cooperative mode for Qbby and Qucy (the titular BoxGirl) with another story full of puzzles, remixed to suit the addition of another character. I wasn’t ready for how much fun BoxBoy is with another person. Mostly because it’s a different kind of fun to what I’m used to in a co-op platformer. BoxBoy games are usually a pretty chill time, and adding another person doesn’t change that at all. My partner and I tend to devolve into arguments in games like Snipperclips, but the simplicity and satisfying puzzle-solving here had us working like the tight-knit team we are.
I’ve said it already but a lot of that is down to BB!+BG!’s easygoing art style. The same stark, monochromatic visuals from the 3DS games return, albeit this time presented in crisp HD. There’s a little more flair in the backgrounds of some areas with splashes of colours and patterns, but it’s also very subtle and unintrusive. You’d be forgiven for thinking that staring at hard, black lines on a white background for hours at a time would be tedious, but there’s enough personality shining through those lines that it’s never anything less than pleasant. Background music is the same; equally as charming as it is basic, and contributes nicely to the relaxed feel of the game. My one gripe is that there is a fair amount of slowdown in some of the later, busier levels (and even the busiest is still pretty tame), which is disappointing. The Switch is no powerhouse but I definitely couldn’t see a good reason for it to be struggling with this game.
Something I can’t fault the game for is being positively stuffed with content given its meagre $15 AUD price tag. For the money you get over 270 levels spread across those three modes, and once you’re through with those there’s still a ton of replay value. With costumes, music, mini challenges and more to unlock there’s good reason to keep going back. Most addictive of all though is the chase for those perfect runs, where you manage to nab all of a level’s crowns and with minimum boxes used. The game not only tracks and rewards you for those two criteria, but if you do well enough in all of a world’s stages it even gives you detailed stats and ranks to improve on. This game is a perfect example of great design, where rather than overload the player with tutorials and information, the simple quest for self-betterment will drive most players to find the answers (and the challenge) on their own.
BOXBOY! + BOXGIRL! is that special kind of puzzle game that only comes along once in a while. The kind that is as accessible as it is satisfying. The kind that knows the difference between challenging the player and encouraging the player to challenge themselves. The kind that stars a sentient square who is gendered for no reason but can also dress in drag. Perfection.
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch // Review code supplied by publisher