The recent news of WayForward’s completely gorgeous remake of/sequel to David Crane’s A Boy and His Blob has piqued my interest — in part because I’m a sucker for beautiful 2D games in this day and age, and in part because it reminded me that I’ve never really played much of the NES game. I guess I’m just superficial, because I originally overlooked the game because it had the sort of low-rent appearance common to so many American-developed NES releases. I later gave it a shot on an emulator, but you know how that goes: you tend to give emulated games a cursory glance unless you have a vested interest in experiencing them. I didn’t owe Blob nothin’, so its obtuse design slid right on past my brain and I quickly moved along to something more visceral.
But now I’m interested in grokking this strange and somewhat abstract old game, if only to get a better read on the update. Blob is one of those games that gets written off a lot by casual players, I suspect — surely I’m not alone in finding it somewhat less than compelling at first glance. It drops you in media res with no real explanation of your goals or abilities.
As the title suggests, you are a kid accompanied by a simple-minded blob. Your abilities as A Boy consist of walking, whistling to His Blob, and feeding His Blob differently-flavored jellybeans. You can’t even jump. No, A Boy is entirely dependent on His Blob to guide him through the world, and at first glance there’s not even much to move through. Much like Crane’s seminal Atari 2600 adventure Pitfall!, Blob is a series of single screens. You can run along the surface or descend into an underground passage, but there are only about half a dozen screens that can be explored before you bump up against dead ends.
At this point it’s sort of tempting to look at the ugly graphics, the lack of obvious means of advancement, and the general wimpiness of A Boy, and decide to write off the game as a waste of time. Or, you can start abusing His Blob by throwing jellybeans at it, whereupon you’ll discover that each flavor of candy has the bizarre property of transforming His Blob into different shapes — usually very punnish shapes. A tangerine jellybean turns His Blob into a trampoline that can launch A Boy into the air, while a punch bean turns His Blob into a hole. In classic Bugs Bunny style, this hole in the ground allows you drop through to a lower level, at which point you’ll be trapped forever in the sewers. That’s as good an incentive to go on an adventure as any, I suppose.
A Boy and His Blob strikes me as a classic sort of trial-and-error adventure. It’s potentially frustrating to be sure; the first time I used a punch bean, I dropped to the lower level of the underground passage and immediately whistled to call His Blob to A Boy’s side. His Blob dropped to the lower level with me (presumably falling through itself — best not to consider the physics of this game, I suspect) before transforming back to its normal form. So suddenly A Boy was standing on a hole, which dropped him even further into the underground, where he died instantly from the height of the fall. Great.
On the other hand, it’s a trial-and-error adventure with a fairly limited toolset and a simplified interface, which means the abstruse puzzles that killed PC adventure games won’t be an issue here. Once over the learning curve and with a full grasp of His Blob’s capabilities, I suspect I’ll have a fairly easy time of the problems (if not actually implementing them, thanks to the slippery controls). No cat-hair mustaches here, thanks. Who knows? Maybe I’ll even enjoy the game enough to finish it.
Having explored the full extent of (what appears to be) the first area of the game, I’ve come to understand what’s going on here much better. This is definitely a David Crane game, the wacky Saturday morning cartoon answer to Pitfall! and its sequel.
It’s all here: a fairly large series of interconnected, underground caverns, treasures to collect, and incredibly unforgiving difficulty. You’re a dopey kid with a pet monster instead of a rough-and-tumble explorer, but the concept is the same. I was always under the impression that the goal of A Boy and His Blob was to get from point A to point B, but having gone everywhere I can and not advancing beyond the current caverns, I’m going to hazard a guess that my actual goal is to collect all the treasures in this area.
This seems likely to be more easily said than done. Some of these treasures are downright cruel in their placement, like the pile of gold surrounded by jagged underwater stalagmites. You have to hit it just so and immediately pull away or else you’ll bump into the rocks — and the slightest bump will burst the air bubble that His Blob has transformed into (courtesy of a Root Beer jellybean), meaning instant death for the hapless hero, who not only can’t swim but also can’t hold his breath for even a second. I tried playing the game the legitimate way, on an actual NES, but then I realized I have incredibly slim patience these days for an adventure in which I can explore for half an hour only to squander my meagre store of lives in a matter of seconds, game over. No thanks. My time is a precious resource, so I’m going with emulation now: the amazing platform that gives me save states.
Despite this element of frustration, I’m enjoying the way the game rewards you for experimenting, especially with A Boy’s jellybean supply. For instance, some of the beans appear to be completely worthless — the apple/jack flavor, for instance — but I’ve put these to good use by tossing them off the side of a ledge to gauge what’s below. The camera follows the trajectory of a bean as it plummets, even if it moves to another screen. This has greatly reduced the amount of trial-and-error I’ve had to deal with. And I’m slowly coming to realize the value of other beans; the tangerine/trampoline seemed pretty worthless at first, until I discovered that holding up as A Boy bounces allows him to leap higher and higher — several screens high, eventually, which is the only way to get certain gems suspended in midair. And I didn’t see much use for the honey/hummingbird flavor until I became separated from His Blob; I didn’t want to squander one of those precious ketchup beans, so I tossed a honey bean instead and His Blob was soon fluttering back to my side. Not bad. There seems to be no single right path through the game; the cavern layout and the abilities available to the hero offer a lot of flexibility, so I don’t think it’s possible for me to be completely out of luck no matter how I bumble through this adventure.
A Boy and His Blob is definitely a better game than I initially gave it credit for, although the NES version is roughly-made enough that I’m not feeling entirely motivated to see it through to the end — especially with an almost assuredly superior version on the way soon for Wii. I’m not sure the NES game quite qualifies as a classic, but it’s unique and original enough.
Originally published February 2009