Version tested: Wii
Play Boom Blox for a few hours, or ten, and making a cup of tea becomes a whole new experience. Normally, you'd pluck a mug from the higgedly-piggedly pile in the cupboard without thinking about it. Now you're wondering whether you can pull out the red one from the bottom without smashing the lot. Normally, while the kettle boils, you'd mull over mundane topics like the weather or the broken drawer or the fate of Patrick Kielty. Now you're wondering whether throwing a bowling ball at the microwave would knock the toaster into the sink. This is one way you know Boom Blox is a great puzzle game.
But Boom Blox isn't just a great puzzle game. It's a great Wii game, which isn't a phrase some of us get to use very often. In fact, it's the best Wii game I've ever played. (Bear in mind Wii games I have played include AMF Bowling Pinbusters, Cruis'n and Game Party, I don't care for Super Mario Galaxy and I still haven't played Okami, Super Smash Bros. Brawl or forthcoming rodeo sim Professional Bull Riders.)
Too many Wii titles feel like traditional videogames with remote and nunchuk bits tacked on for the sake of it. This is a particular problem with multi-platform titles such as Tomb Raider Anniversary, but it also occurs in Wii exclusives. Shaking the nunchuk to make Mario perform a spin move feels a bit pointless, jerking the remote around so Link will fire an arrow a bit silly. Wii Sports makes excellent use of the controllers, offering an experience you can't really get from any other console at present, but the novelty wears off and what you're left with doesn't have much depth.
Boom Blox has novelty and depth in spades. Along with instant accessibility, long-term challenge, immense scope for creativity and monkeys wearing cowboy hats. It's all about physics. Each level presents you with a structure built out of blocks, and an objective. This might be to remove a minimum number of blocks without toppling the structure, Jenga-style. Or to knock it over by lobbing balls in the right places and with the right amount of power. Or to protect it from approaching enemies by throwing bombs at them.
There's huge variety in the blocks the structures are made out of. Wooden blocks will wobble when you hit them, perhaps causing the load they're bearing to fall, while steel ones won't budge. Vanishing blocks will disappear on contact with a ball, bomb blocks will explode. Chemical blocks also explode, but only when they come into contact with one of their own kind. There are many more different types, but it would be a shame to reveal them all here.
Then there are the tools you get to solve the puzzles, such as different projectiles with different properties - for example bowling balls pack more power than baseballs, obviously. There's the grab tool, used for pulling out blocks in the Jenga puzzles. A hose which can be used to spray blocks as they fly through the air and change their trajectory. Again, there are many more.
The different elements combine to create more than 300 diverse and entertaining puzzles. Some are more entertaining than others, but few feel like filler. Some can be solved on the first go while others will take many attempts, or for someone else to come in the room and instantly see the trick you've been missing for the past 40 minutes (thanks, Oli).
The brilliant physics technology is what pulls it all together to form a superb game. Blocks wobble, see-saw, fall and knock each other over in exactly the way you'd expect. It's incredibly rewarding to watch a tower topple into another tower because you lobbed the ball at precisely the right block. You'll hold your breath as you nudge a beam from the bottom of a structure with the utmost precision, then sigh with relief as you pull it clear. And, best of all, you'll smile with sheer joy and satisfaction when yet another huge pile of blocks comes crashing to the ground.
The throwing physics work too. To lob balls you aim the remote at the screen and press A to lock your target. Then you flick the remote and release the button to throw. The recognition of whether you went for a soft or hard shot is excellent, and balls never fly off in directions you didn't expect. At first the on-screen pointer feels a little too sensitive, but it becomes apparent that lining up shots just right and pulling out blocks with careful precision are all part of the challenge. Similarly, when you first start playing the Jenga puzzles the physics don't feel quite right; the blocks seem too light and floaty. However, once you've gotten used to this (which doesn't take long) everything makes sense.
Before you know it, you're addicted. All you want is to be left alone to make things fall over and stop things falling over and watch things explode. But then real life comes blundering in and someone's standing next to you saying, "Can I have a go?" When this happens, say yes.
Do not be afraid that you'll have to spend ages explaining what all the different blocks do and how the physics work and why they're not doing it properly (even if they're one of those people who still couldn't throw a Wii Sports bowling ball after 48 minutes of patient tuition), because Boom Blox is the very definition of pick-up-and-play. Everyone's played Jenga, and everyone understands the concept of throwing a thing at another thing to make it fall over. The game's control system is so intuitive and the gameplay so appealing they'll be hooked instantly.
Boom Blox features both co-operative and competitive multiplayer modes, and both are brilliant. As anyone who's played Jenga knows, it's great fun working out which block to pull to leave the tower standing but your opponent in shtuck. But there's a whole different kind of fun to be had discussing which block to pull with your partner, then berating them for a tiny mistake in the moving which just cost you the game. Again, not all the puzzles are equally entertaining; the ones where you have to knock over a huge number of point blocks go on too long. Almost all the rest, however, are superb.
Pleasingly, Boom Blox doesn't require you to possess any nunchuks to enjoy multiplayer. In fact you don't even need more than one remote, as many of the puzzles are turn-based. There's no nonsense about unlocking things in single-player; the co-op mode is entirely separate, and all the competitive levels are available right from the start. There's even a sampler option where you're given a selection of throw, attack, blast and grab levels, so you can work out which type you and your friend prefer (or friends - there's support for up to four players).
Once everyone's gone home, which might not be for some time, there's the level editor to play with. This is almost fantastic. There's a terrific thrill when you first view all the toys there are to play with. (Your reward for completing puzzles in the main game is more elements for the toybox, but there's a decent selection from the start.) You choose what type of puzzle to create, which blocks to place where, the tool the player gets, whether there's a time limit and so on. You can playtest your level at any point before returning to the editor to make refinements.
There's just one problem - the pointer's high sensitivity. This might add challenge when you're playing through levels, but it adds frustration when you're trying to create them. Getting the arrow in precisely the right position for where you want to place a block is fiddly enough. You then have to press the A button to actually place it, and all too often this movement causes the arrow to nudge out of position and the block to end up in the wrong spot. What should be an exercise in exploring your creativity ends up being more about trying to keep your hand as steady as possible.
There is an option to share your creations online, but it's limited - you can only send levels to people in your Wii Friends address book and play ones friends have sent you. It's a shame there isn't a Boom Blox channel where you can try out the best levels other gamers have come up with, as is the plan with LittleBigPlanet. However, online sharing is the only feature of Boom Blox that feels like an afterthought. Both the solo and multiplayer modes are solid and highly entertaining, and I can't think of another Wii title you can say that about.
The game isn't without flaws. The cartoon visuals are cute, but not quite charming enough; the characters don't have the same unique appeal of a character like, say, Sack Boy. There's something a little bland and corporate about the whole thing. It's more obvious in some areas than others, like in the puzzle where you have to knock down a wall which has the letters EA spelled out in gems. Companies with pedigree like Nintendo and SEGA can get away with this sort of nonsense; sorry, EA, but you can't.
But these tiny grumbles mean nothing when the birds have started singing and the dawn is peeking through the curtains and you don't care because you've just worked out if you hit the vanishing block at the bottom of the left tower the small chemical block will hit the big chemical block which should send enough concrete bricks flying to topple the tower on the right and smash the gems. Nor when you're watching someone who claims to hate videogames take sheer delight in throwing a virtual bowling ball around. Boom Blox is brilliant alone, fantastic with friends, a superb addition to the puzzle genre and a game that will make you glad you own a Wii. Here's hoping it's only the first of its kind.
9 / 10