Recently, I've sung the praises of meaningful difficulty in games, pointing at Demon's Souls as an example of developers bucking the trend toward "casualization" in game design. Today, I'll contradict myself.
I never played the original A Boy and His Blob (NES 1989). Maybe I was too occupied with DuckTales and Tecmo Bowl at the time (or buried in grad school) to notice when it appeared. So when I saw the fabulous screenshots and trailers for the new Wii version, I thought I should give it a look before diving into the new version. And so I did. Ouch.
The original A Boy and His Blob was a terrific idea for a game, but playing it reminds me how punishing many of those old games could be, and often needlessly so. Demanding sidescrollers like Contra or the Mario games tested us by presenting difficult challenges and teaching us how to succeed via our failures. Applied conditions like timers or scarce resources took a backseat to the gameplay itself. The challenge was largely mechanical, and mastering the system felt great because it felt earned.
The NES A Boy and His Blob focuses on puzzle-solving (and some of its puzzles are serious head-scratchers), and it ramps up the difficulty by applying a layer of restrictive elements that stand in your way: limited lives, no saves or continues, limited jellybeans, and frequent precision platforming. My experience was frustrating because I often felt like I was fighting the game - tossing a jellybean at just the right pixel location; unable to experiment because I run out of jellybeans - and battling the controls. The boy doesn't stop moving when you stop running. His momentum slides him forward in a way that seems to contradict the game's insistence on precision.
The new Wii version clears out this underbrush and gives the player a much stronger sense of agency. Its marvelous art direction accentuates a feeling that this world must be explored, and you have just the tools you need for the job. No lives, no continues, unlimited jellybeans, and frequent checkpoints. A dumbed-down remake? No. A game that rearranges its priorities; enhancing the fun, but still offering a stiff challenge.
This new version of A Boy and His Blob is less a remake than a re-imagining. Visually, its hand-drawn backgrounds and animations, special parallax effects, and impressive lighting establish a game world that's utterly distinct from the original. But more importantly, the game relies on these luscious environments as the central throughline for its gameplay. This A Boy and His Blob is an environmental puzzle game with platforming elements that support and add variety, rather than arbitrary obstacles, to its gameplay.
I should mention that while navigating the game has gotten easier, the new version includes more enemies (and some terrific bosses) plus more environmental challenges. In this regard, the Wii version adds difficulty but removes frustration. Add it all up, and this new A Boy and His Blob represents a thorough reconceptualization of is source material. Other well-received games are vying for your attention at the moment, but I hope you won't overlook this one. I think you'll enjoy it...even if it is "easy."