Version tested: Wii
The best candidates for the remake treatment are generally not those blessed with classic status, but ones that came close without hitting the bull's-eye; games that had lots of great ideas but never quite delivered on their promise. In a modern gaming landscape where old titles are dusted off purely to cash in on their name, A Boy and His Blob is already off to a good start - it's been remade for all the right reasons.
The 1989 original, designed by Activision co-founder David Crane, may be recognisable to NES scholars but it's hardly the sort of marketable franchise that gets the accountants excited. A puzzley platform game, it was full of clever concepts but hamstrung from the start by brutally tough gameplay and some very fussy design. In bringing the game into the 21st century, WayForward Technologies has amplified all that was good in Crane's original while minimising the less appealing aspects. As an example of how to ride the remake pony, it's hard to beat.
As the title suggests, it's the tale of a young boy and the gelatinous alien blob he befriends. Together they set off to defeat the evil emperor of Blobolonia, for no better reason than he's evil and needs to be defeated. Their chosen weapon in this struggle is rather unusual, however: jelly beans.
By feeding Blob different flavoured beans, you can transform your undulating companion into a variety of useful forms. Tangerine turns him into a trampoline. Licorice turns him into a ladder. There are dozens of different abilities, and the game's story mode does a good job of introducing new forms while still coming up with ways to deepen your understanding of the ones you already have.
The Boy is a fragile thing though, and not exactly athletic, so he needs all the help he can get. Contact with the eerie black gloopy minions of the Emperor spells instant death for our hero, as do large falls or contact with water. He can't jump very high either, which is to say he can jump about as high as a real boy - fine for sports day, not so great for navigating perilous caverns.
The gameplay therefore becomes a series of "how do I get past this?" moments, as you work out which combination of jelly bean powers will eradicate or avoid the roaming bad guys, while keeping both Boy and Blob together through the levels. Half the fun is simply experimenting with what you have, and discovering that - yes - you can turn Blob into an anvil and push him over a ledge onto a monsters squishy head, or use him as a parachute to float down from otherwise fatal heights.
While the one-hit-kill toughness from 1989 has been retained, checkpoints are almost always on the same screen and there's no penalty for repeated failure. Thankfully, the finite supply of jelly beans from the original has been ditched - you can now lob beans around with cavalier abandon until inspiration strikes.
The level design offers a nicely scalable level of difficulty, with novice players simply able to concentrate on getting the duo to the end of each stage, while more determined types can try and find the three secret treasure chests hiding in trickier areas. These chests unlock bonus stages, one for each of the game's 40 story levels, so successful play essentially doubles your entertainment.
Control is crisp and intuitive, with the Z button bringing up a circular jelly bean selector, and the B trigger tossing the selected confection for Blob to gobble up. Hold the trigger down and you can aim your throw, essential for later puzzles where getting Boy and Blob to different areas without losing their interaction is vital. A tap on the C button calls out to Blob, but if he's unable to reach you there's always the option to toss him a blue jelly bean. This transforms him into a balloon, capable of reaching Boy wherever he is, freeing the player up from the fear of getting stuck permanently. Whatever your position, Blob can bounce, float or carry you to safety, somehow.
What you don't get is any choice in which jelly beans to equip - each level gives you only the beans you'll need, and even prompts you where to use them in the early stages with enormous banners. While there's a more distinct challenge in solving the puzzles using a restricted tool set, it does lead to some claustrophobia over the full length of the game. A little more freedom to find your own solution, rather than simply working out which one the developer chose, would nudge the game closer to true greatness. Once you've got a grasp on what each bean can do, the difficulty curve flattens out considerably and experienced puzzlers will likely romp to the end of the story without too much trouble.
Even with these minor considerations, A Boy and His Blob is one of the more confident and worthwhile games to grace the Wii and its appeal is only heightened further by the exquisitely charming presentation. There seems to have been a plethora of whimsical hand-drawn 2D games recently, but there's a simple grace to this low-key tale that makes it more than a cheesy affectation.
There are moments of humble beauty, such as when Boy and Blob tramp through a nocturnal forest to Boy's house entirely in silhouette, but even the normal gameplay is enlivened by the warmth of the art style. If you'll forgive the bizarrely specific comparison, it looks like a French-Canadian TV cartoon from the mid eighties, all muted tones, sunset haze and soft edges. Even the hardest gaming heart will have to crack just a little when you discover that, for no reason other than sheer loveliness, pressing up on the d-pad makes Boy give Blob a big hug, with an accompanying sigh of contentment.
That's the game in a nutshell. There's no sense of urgency or pressure to break the mood. It's a game that invites you to wallow in its languid depths, wriggle your toes, stretch your brain a little and take in the view. So satisfying and immersive is this distinctive experience that even some rather ill-advised boss battles can't ruin the autumnal ambience. Gently challenging without being frustrating, and quietly ingenious in its construction, A Boy and His Blob is one of the Wii's sweetest surprises.
8 / 10