David Crane created something special In A Boy and His Blob. The game first debuted in 1989 on the NES and is about a boy and his um… blob. You control the boy and feed the blob different flavored jellybeans in order to advance through each stage and solve puzzles along the way. Despite the game’s release year, it hadn’t quite caught up with what the rest of the development community was able to produce on the NES. Both in gameplay and graphics, A Boy and His Blob left a lot to be desired. Returning to it today leaves you frustrated for all of the right reasons. The game is inherently an interesting concept, one that deserves to be realized well. It marries our human obsession with extraterrestrial life and our needs for companionship in a way that parallels the best of any surprising friendship story.
1989 brought Mega Man 2 to the NES, along with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and DuckTales. When compared to just these three titles, A Boy and His Blob seems dated. It does little to take advantage of the NES color output, where its counterparts are able to draw and create elaborate and colorful sprites and backgrounds, A Boy and His Blob looks like it was designed for much more dated hardware. Its contemporaries played much better and were part of the pioneering class that defined what we should expect of platformers in the coming years. The likes of Super Mario Bros. 3 really showcased what a developer could do in the late lifecycle of console hardware. Even Super Mario Bros. 3 was still a far cry from something as technically impressive as Kirby’s Adventure, which used the system’s memory and a higher capacity cartridge for Kirby’s expressive animations, but it did things like the giant world and Mario’s varied costumes that make A Boy and His Blob seem underwhelming.
Where the game lacks in its look and gameplay it all but makes up for in its use of artificial intelligence. The fact that the blob acts independent of player control and is smart enough to respond to the player’s issuance of specific jellybeans outshines what most games were doing in those days. Non-playable characters in video games, specifically on the NES, were often on a set path. The sprites would march along the predetermined lines they were designed to wander and repeat the cycles until character interaction or interruption. Here we see the Blob act as intelligent as another player in the game when given specific instruction. It too, in its own way, adds a layer of realism to the relationship between boy and blob, as the AI behaves in a way that aids the player.
Fortunately, WayForward took the idea behind A Boy and His Blob and reimagined it for the Wii in 2009. I think we can often hear the word “reimagined” and toss it aside as hyperbole or something more flavorful than necessary. However, what WayForward was able to do was completely revive an idea that could have been dead to history and remembered as nothing more than a moment in NES history.
WayForward was largely a studio that focused on contract work and a lot of contribution to larger projects. It was at the end of the Game Boy Color lifecycle that WayForward first stood out when it released Shantae, a platformer featuring the eponymous genie character. Shantae represented the first effort by the studio to develop a title based on its own intellectual property. Although released on the Game Boy Color, Shantae held its own as a platformer and used the Game Boy Color’s limitations to its advantage. It used bright colors to make it stand out on the otherwise darkened display of the console.
Many of the studio’s talent have a background in traditional 2D animation that would influence WayForward’s games and the general sensibilities within them. Looking at the company’s history tells the story of a company with a high level of dedication to the craft, even when developing licensed titles that would often receive little attention or care in other hands. The studio’s work on Justice League Heroes: The Flash is just one example of the attentiveness applied to WayForward’s projects. The game released for the Game Boy Advance within the climb of the DS era, but was generally better received than its DS and PS2 counterparts. It’s a testament to the attention to detail that the studio gives its projects. It’s no surprise that some of the studio’s talent, as well as the director to A Boy and His Blob, founded Yacht Club Games and created Shovel Knight. More, one of the game’s producers has roots dating back to some of the first instances of 2D animation in a traditional sense for a game, in the Sega Genesis version of Disney’s Aladdin.
On the Wii, WayForward is able to use then-modern technology to power an animation engine that can support traditional 2D art. A Boy and His Blob is the first effort for the company to really attempt this new style of art, something that would see its way into later releases it would develop. This style of animation added a workload to the teams and created a new challenge that it would not necessarily have when using 2D sprites or even 3D models.
What we end up with is something that looks genuinely stunning. You feel yourself getting lost in the world and taking more of the story in because of the way the world is designed and the story it tells through its visual art. Subtle character animations within both the boy and the blob provide insight into the character’s emotions and thoughts- that would be lost without this style of animation. Specifically, there’s an option to hug the blob. It’s unnecessary to include the option from a gameplay perspective but its addition to the game is integral to the development of the story and the relationship that the characters share. There is new life that is imbued within the title that its NES origins could never carry. There’s something permeating inside of the Wii game that can only come after learning new things about how to make video games for twenty years.
The game’s director, Sean Velasco, felt that the original game had some compelling elements that deserved to be revisited. It was his pitch that got the project started, and really opened up the partnership with Majesco, the game’s publisher. In an attempt to create something a bit more forgiving, the WayForward reimagining does subtle things like quick animations within the UI when selecting a jellybean, so that the player can see what the effect will be rather than being forced to commit the effects to memory. This game also gives the player unlimited jellybeans, as opposed to the original game’s finite number per level that would often result in unsolved puzzles and forced restarts.
The game has been ported to other platforms as of January 2016, fortunately just before Majesco was merged with a biotech company and ceased all video game project involvement. This was shortly after its 2015 announcement where a new CEO was appointed and another project involving A Boy and His Blob was announced. It’s something certainly worth your time, and something that we likely won’t see the likes of again. Unless the company sells the property or decides to reenter video games, this might be the last game created for the franchise.
You can revisit the NES original or its sequel on Game Boy, but really take time to explore what WayForward was able to create. It’s now readily available on most modern platforms and provides a charm that you won’t see from much else. Its focus on 2D animation in the traditional sense may potentially live on in titles like Cuphead, and its ability to grab what was magical about something that wasn’t fully realized and turn it into the game it was always meant to be is something that you should experience.
The studio has continued to stand out with its Shantae series, while still developing impressive licensed content, like games tied into the cartoon series, Adventure Time. They were also behind the DS game Contra 4, which in ways was a reimagining of the classic Konami series for the modern era. I find it really intriguing that a game that really was not inherently fun to play but deserved attention was able to find a new life because of the vision of another developer. While it’s exciting for a developer to create something completely original and see that property come to life, I think there’s a strong value in a talented team using its strengths to do better than a property could have without them.