Some of you, the ones who still regret the demise of Top of the Pops and Wimbledon FC, will remember the original NES game, A Boy and His Blob, from 1989. You might remember its huge play area, its unique mechanics or its ridiculous final boss. You might remember it fondly. Or you might not. Because most of you who played it won't remember it for its innovation or quirkiness, most of you who played it will remember it because, even by the standards of the time, it was a complete, unremitting bastard of a game.
For those who never experienced the original, here's the premise: A boy, unsurprisingly, befriends a blob, and said blob enlists boy on a quest to save his home planet of Blobolonia from an evil dictatorship. Blob, however, turns out to be pretty unenterprising, and needs the boy to shepherd him about in order to get anything done. Progress is only made via the unusual medium of jelly beans, of which the boy carries a number of esoteric flavours. Tossing a bean to the mercurial blob transforms it into a number of different useful objects, depending on the flavour. Ladders let you climb to nearby ledges, holes drop you through floors, trampolines bounce you upward, keys open doors. Well. One door. Right at the end.
It was lovely concept in 1989, a delicate synergy between the rudderless yet versatile blob and the helpless but motivated child, like a buddy movie with Jim Carrey and Eddie Murphy. The trouble was, a great deal of the experience was trial and error. Using holes to drop through floors was an experimental process, as any drop of more than a screen would kill you and there was no way to see what lay beneath, so a fair wedge of gameplay involved dropping through holes and hoping that instant death didn't await you. Running out of appropriate beans was also an issue, especially with top-ups few and far between, and no way of knowing when they'd come and what sort of problems lay between you and them. There were five lives, with no top-ups available until more than halfway through the game. Hard times indeed.
If it was to succeed as a remake, then, A Boy and His Blob needed more than just the obvious visual update. Some of that toughness had to be mitigated - the random nature of the sudden deaths and exploration ameliorated. But not all of it - the challenge was all part of the process, puzzles the game's core.
Luckily, WayForward seems to be doing a stand-up job of filleting the tender meat of the experience from the unwieldy carcass. The premise remains the same, albeit disassociated further from any semblance of reality, with a number of environments to traverse collaboratively on the way to casting the yoke of oppression from Blobolonia's gooey shoulders. Beans remain the fuel of the piece, but are now infinite, albeit limited in the scope available on each stage - focusing the puzzle elements in discrete packages rather than forcing you to plan blindly for the future as in the original.
Everything (water, enemies, falling) still destroys the fragile hero at once but lives are also now unrestricted and restart points are never far from your point of expiration, with each short stage divided sensibly into problem sections. Whistling for your amorphous companion reverts him to blob form again, but three whistles in quick succession will transform him into a ghostly balloon, traversing walls and obstructions to return him to your side.
It's a neat piece of topiary on the hedgerows of difficulty which obstructed enjoyment beforehand, but don't be fooled into thinking that challenge is no longer a factor. Stages start easily, with signposted solutions to basic problems introducing each new power as they become available, but before long real head-scratchers start to appear. Traditional platforming responses, in the form of tight jumps and well-timed actions, aren't a huge part of the action, but combinations of bean use are, with plenty of multi-stage solutions soon to compose. Frustration kicks in once or twice, with a few counter-intuitive puzzles in what I've played, but you overcome this relatively quickly.
A major hurdle is the fact that the problem-solving half of your partnership, your globular toolbox, is never directly under your control. It's the essence of the game, really, and a difficult thing to pull off without inducing a bit of hair-pulling, but the Wii game makes a good fist of it. While your ungainly protagonist is directed with either nunchuk analogue or the classic controller, the blob stays behind you and can only be sallied forth with a well-placed sugary treat. This is made considerably easier this time around with a ghosted direction indicator - holding down C to distribute a bean lets you position its final resting place to accurately place whichever object it is you're conjuring.
Actual tools have been expanded too, with a Braid-like shadow-boy and a zooming rocket-ship. Old staples return, like the hole, which can now be used to drop enemies through floors and away from the hero. The collectable treasures of the first game have been replaced with chests, three to a stage, which add a piece of decoration to the various dens which serve as the game's level hubs once collected. Gathering all three unlocks a challenge room - usually a themed puzzle - and these reward the player with the usual concept-arty bonuses, showing the evolution of characters and environments.
And what art it is. This is an undeniably beautiful game, one of the best-looking on the system. Gentle pastel colours and subtly shaded assets give rise to a definite air of Studio Ghibli, particularly in the dark-hued monsters which patrol the floors. Parallax-scrolling backgrounds vary from the pastoral to the cutely industrial and the boy and blob themselves are soft-edged and smoothly animated. For what is essentially a pillow with eyes, the blob is hugely expressive, growing increasingly pink with frustration when separated and glooping almost seductively as it morphs into its different forms. The boy has more than a shade of Earthbound's Ness about him, and portrays the hesitatingly awkward exuberance of a six-year-old child without being clumsy. The infuriating and often deadly slide, which was a particular bane whenever changing direction in the NES title, has also been banished.
WayForward could be on to a winner, converting a much-loved yet flawed classic to a new platform with just the right gentle touch of freshness - improving both challenge and charm without gimmick. Actually, there's one gimmick - and it's my favourite touch of the whole experience. Pressing a button performs a gently squeezing hug between boy and blob which serves no purpose other than to elicit an almost unbearably cute "ahhhhh" from boy and heighten the emotional bond between these two unlikely companions. Like being shot in the face with a marshmallow gun by a kitten in a Santa suit. Lovely.
A Boy and His Blob is due out for Wii later this year.