BoxBoy! + BoxGirl! Review — Learning From Nintendo’s Best
It's no puzzle why BoxBoy! + BoxGirl! is a stellar puzzle game for the Nintendo Switch.
Puzzle games go hand-in-hand with portable devices. There’s something snappy about booting up a puzzle while waiting in a doctor’s office, passing the time during commercials, or simply taking a break. I often find myself wanting to dabble for a minute or two just to look up and see half an hour has flown by. It’s this loop of consumption that keeps me coming back to countless puzzle games on nearly any device I have with me on the go. I find a great puzzle game essential to my arsenal of daily devices.
When Nintendo released BoxBoy! on the 3DS in 2015, it looked like a game right up my alley — I just never got around to it. Then the sequels came out in 2016 and 2017 respectively, but I still never picked it up, despite glowing praise from critics I trust. Maybe the 3DS was fading to the background of my regularly used devices or maybe I was too cheap in college, but I never took the plunge into the boxy world cooked up by HAL Laboratories. The third entry was released shortly after the Switch’s launch and it left many, including myself, hoping to see the series make the jump to Nintendo’s hybrid machine.
It would take a couple of years, but Nintendo decided to cook up an all-new BoxBoy adventure for the Switch and I am glad that I finally had a chance to pick apart the blocky puzzles I had heard so much about. BoxBoy! + BoxGirl! packs a mind-bending punch that stole more of my time than I expected. With the 3DS entering its final days in the portable gaming zeitgeist, it’s nice to see a 3DS series make the jump to the Switch to carry on the puzzle platformer for the foreseeable future.
BoxBoy! + BoxGirl! is a spacial puzzle game, not unlike Portal, but on a 2D plane. You play as either (you guessed it) a BoxBoy named Qbby or BoxGirl named Qucy. These box characters can generate boxes from their own square bodies to create platforms and more. You’ll enter a level with a certain box-limit, capping off how many blocks you can create in one chain. When you start to make a new chain, the old one instantly vanishes. Using the blocks you create, you have to navigate around hazards to reach the doors at the end of the level.
The beginning is often you creating bridges or covering hazards to hop your way to victory. The game ramps up the mechanics quickly though, allowing for far more creative and surprising ways to use blocks to maneuver through each level. BoxBoy! + BoxGirl! shines by using a game design philosophy similar to Super Mario 3D World, which was introduced to me by Mark Brown of Game Maker’s Toolkit. To sum up the design in Super Mario 3D World, levels introduce a mechanic, teach the player about it, and then up the ante until the end of the level, where you can grab the flag with a final flare. Mark does a wonderful job exploring this in his video, I highly encourage you to check it out.
HAL Laboratories takes this four-step level design and stretches it out over the course of a world in BoxBoy! + BoxGirl!. Let’s take the third world in the game for example. Titled “Box Up the Zappers,” the core concept of this world of six levels is to use your cubes to block electrical currents and safely pass them. The first level is an introduction to the new concept and subsequent levels explore and test your ability. This works across the scope of six-to-eight levels because BoxBoy! + BoxGirl! levels are much smaller than a 3D Mario level. When you complete a world, the core concept of that world is never the central focus again. The obstacles or mechanics may appear later on, but you’ll often have to use a new ability or knowledge that is the core of that world to navigate. This keeps the entire game feeling fresh. When the idea is starting to be used too much, then the game switches things up. With 16 worlds to explore in the single-player alone, I never grew bored of a world or it’s core idea.
Tying all the levels together is a simple, straightforward narrative that has a fair share of charm. Some sort of dark matter begins falling from the sky, cutting off members of the Box Community from one another and placing them in a dark-matter induced coma. The only way to awaken BoxGirl, the Box Children, and Qudy is to complete the worlds and get little cube-shaped hearts of light to snuff out the darkness. It’s a cute story and the characters do a nice job pantomiming their way across the screen.
Just making it to the doors at the end of a level isn’t the only goal in each area. There are two other ever-present goals that you are free to engage in or ignore. The first is that each level has three ribbons tied directly to how many blocks you use to reach the end. Keep the blocks you use under or at the lowest amount and you’ll be rewarded with a three-tiered ribbon. The other goal is a collectible crown or two in each level. The crowns are often just out of reach and require a different structure or solution to both snag the crown and make it to the end. These two additional tasks augment the difficulty greatly, giving you as much or as little challenge as you’d like. There were plenty of crowns I ultimately left behind with a solemn vow to return. Sometimes I snagged all the crowns, but used too many blocks. It’s a delight to accomplish both in a level, especially on your first go-around.
Completing a level and checking off the bonus objectives nets you two types of currency: Medals and badges. These can be spent at a shop for costumes, single-use power-ups, music, and more. A single medal can also be spent on a hint in a level. These hints give you kind of a stop-motion flash at the solution, but it doesn’t help you snag the crown. I think this is a fair trade off to make the act of completing the level achievable, but earning 100% in a level is up to you. When you complete each level in a world to 100%, then level stats for that world unlock. These show your clear time, boxes used, and crowns collected for each level and the world. If you can bring all these down, your rank goes up, giving you yet another goal to go after if you’d like to.
Beyond the hints, the shop I mentioned earlier provides an avenue for useful power-ups to help in levels. You can spend medals on invincibility, a speed boost, an extra block, and add an extra oomph to your jump. These have to be equipped before starting the level, just like Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. They aren’t just tools to help on a tough level or make a challenge easier. You could use the speed up to trim down your level time to get that next rank up, for example. I never found myself going to the power-ups to actually solve a level, but they are fun to experiment with. The medals and badges stack up rapidly, so I never felt tight on currency in the shop and felt like I could buy whatever I wanted.
While the medals are for buying hints, power-ups, mini-game levels, little comic strips, and music, the badges are solely used for costumes. I never knew a box could have this much personality crammed into it. There are items for the head, eyes, mouth, and body. You can equip anything to either Qbby or Qucy, even at the same time. Represented by a gumball machine in the shop, you can get some sort of accessory at random for 30 badges. You can’t pick and choose, but the badges flow pretty freely and you unlock even more when completing the extra goals in a level. I never worried about how much I had or grinding to get enough to roll the RNG dice once more. I just could let it flow.
In the same vein as personal character style, the entire art design of the game gave me massive Super Paper Mario vibes. The game world is charming in its simplicity and helps keep your focus on the gameplay rather than visual fluff. There is one area though where I wish there were more visuals. I found myself consistently wishing for some sort of grid system so I could see how far apart blocks were. The background has these horizontal lines that are the exact height of a block, which gives you a nice visual cue for vertical spacing, but there is no such option for measuring horizontal distance. Sometimes it was frustrating to think a certain length of blocks was enough just to be short. To help mitigate this, Qbby/blocks do have a snap to them when near ledges and objects to help line you up. I wouldn’t have minded a visual aid as well though.
For all its visual simplicity, I was surprised to find the game not running smoothly all the time. I frequently ran into frame stutters and tears, in both docked and handheld mode. It was never game-breaking or caused me to mess up a puzzle/platforming section. It often happened when walking to a new section of the level or falling. Nintendo did reach out prior to this review’s publishing and said that they are releasing a patch today, which is one day before public release, to optimize the game experience. At the time of writing this review, I have no idea if this will eliminate these issues or not, but I thought I should mention them nonetheless.
Thankfully, when I messed up, BoxBoy! + BoxGirl! was extremely gracious with its checkpoint system. Each level has numerous checkpoints that always seem to make sense. Maybe it helps that the levels are divided into bite-sized chunks. All you have to do is press the L and R buttons at the same time to respawn at your most recent checkpoint. None of the blocks you may have used before during an attempt will count against your end-of-level total. This allows, even encourages, rapid repetition and experimentation to find just the right layout of blocks to reach the end. It was an invaluable tool for the entire game.
One entirely new addition to the game is a co-op mode. There is an entire story mode dedicated to two player mode, rather than just plopping an additional character in the main story. Although, just like in The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures, you can play the co-op mode entirely alone, just by swapping between Qbby and Qucy on the fly the with press of ZL or ZR. This mode shines when playing with someone else though. It sort of fuses Snipperclips and Portal 2 co-op by forcing you and your partner to create shapes, bridges, and flip switches to reach the end. I dabbled in the mode with my wife the other night and we had a hoot working together to solve the levels. Another treat was that the costumes and currency all carried over, meaning she could dress up Qucy however she wanted to (pigtails and blush, the lipstick was just too much).
In true infomercial fashion, Nintendo declares a “but wait, there’s more!” at the end of the single-player story. Once you clear all 16 worlds, a third campaign opens up with the rectangle character Qudy taking center stage. While not a square himself due to his nonuniform sides, Qudy gives one final spin on the puzzles by being able to stand vertically or horizontally. This means he can make really tall and wide structures. It almost like hitting the reset button on your brain for navigating the world. You’ll have to fit into tight spaces in new ways and it’s quite the trip. It’s a great incentive to keep on playing.
When you boil BoxBoy! + BoxGirl! down, it’s a spacial puzzle game that is a great way to pass the time. What elevates it from good to great is how HAL Laboratories took design disciplines from so many other excellent games. This cross-pollination has helped shape Qbby’s latest adventure into a must-have puzzle game for the Switch. From three campaigns to chasing badges, there is a surprisingly hefty amount of head-scratching puzzles that will pull its weight. Whether you are simply killing time or want to crack some puzzles with a friend, BoxBoy! + BoxGirl! is one puzzle game you should not miss.