Franchise Festival #62: BoxBoy

Welcome back to Franchise Festival, where we explore and discuss noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries can be found here.

This week we’ll be building the history of BoxBoy box by box. Cover art, unless otherwise noted, is from MobyGames. Please consider supporting that website, as its volunteers tirelessly catalog key information and art assets for an often ephemeral medium.

Please note that a more extensive history of HAL Laboratory can be found in Franchise Festival #29: Kirby. Thank you for your patience with my decision to shift this week’s planned Call of Duty article to next Friday.

Background 

HAL Laboratory, which has been in business since the mid-1980s, is known both for its original intellectual property (IP) and for its high-profile collaborations with Nintendo. These two spheres often combine, including the Kirby franchise. At other times, as with the enduringly popular Super Smash Bros. series, HAL has functioned effectively as a second-party developer for Nintendo. Following two decades of commercial and critical success with Masahiro Sakurai’s Kirby character, HAL canvassed its staff for new character ideas in the early 2010s.

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BoxBoy! (2015)

Yasuhiro Mukae informally brainstormed his concept for a new HAL IP in 2011, though it was not officially adopted until 2013. His inexperience with developing complex modern games led him to conceptualize the project as simple in form and function. Taking inspiration from the 8-bit era, Mukae focused on a core set of gameplay mechanics: building boxes to overcome environmental obstacles. Protagonist and series mascot Qbby evolved out of box-building as a natural avatar for the player, while Namco’s Ms. Pac-Man seems to have been the inspiration for his partner Qucy. 

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Dare I say – as stark an opening screen as has ever been seen. Source: PixelsByNight

Production on the game took a year and a half and was carried out simultaneously with work on Kirby Triple Deluxe; Mukae and lead level designer Tatsuya Kamiyama were heavily involved in both projects. The developers considered multiplayer, but opted for a single-player experience to introduce the new character to players for the first time. A monochromatic palette was chosen, in contrast with HAL’s colorful Kirby aesthetic, to set the game apart from its contemporaries

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Qucy (right) soon ups the coolness quotient by at least 15%. She thinks Qbby’s shades and backwards baseball cap are the cat’s pyjamas, I’m sure. 

BoxBoy! was published by Nintendo through the 3DS’ digital distribution marketplace in Japan on January 14, 2015 and worldwide three months later. Critical outlets responded positively to the puzzle-platformer, with Kotaku‘s editor-in-chief going so far as to declare it one of the 3DS’ best titles. A strong commercial reception was aided by the game’s surprisingly low $4.99 USD price point at the time of its release. 

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As in real life, most of the problems in BoxBoy! can be solved by pushing boxes out of one’s body.

A nonverbal narrative establishes BoxBoy!‘s stakes during its opening moments, as the player steps into the role of Qbby and must eradicate a hazy black smog that is eating away at his corner of the universe. Only two brief cutscenes occur throughout the game’s full playtime, placing the emphasis squarely on mechanics and amusing animations to convey the characters’ minimalist personalities and plot. BoxBoy!‘s origins as a gameplay-first concept should serve as a reminder that HAL was not looking to produce an emotionally moving journey with its new IP. 

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This foolish player let Qbby get zapped by a laser. Bummer. 

That core gameplay concept, though, gets an extensive workout across BoxBoy!‘s 20 short worlds. The player initially learns how to create a stack of boxes and use them to manipulate environmental obstacles. Each world then introduces some new impediment, from electrical fields to bottomless chasms, and the player must figure out how to make use of Qbby’s limited skill set to overcome each challenge. Stage design takes its cues from Nintendo’s classic Mario model, as players first encounter a simple version of a new obstacle before making their way through slowly advancing iterations of the same basic idea. 

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Qbby’s got a gun! No wait, that’s just Qbby with a row of boxes on his head. Source: MobyGames

Stages are heavily checkpointed, so players are only punished for failing to successfully navigate a platforming sequence by being moved back to the start of that specific puzzle. This is in keeping with HAL’s characteristic focus on a low barrier to entry, though completing stages efficiently allows the skilled player to accumulate medals. These medals can be exchanged between stages for cute costumes or comics featuring Qbby and his friends. All costumes prompt cosmetic changes to Qbby, though some convey slight mechanical changes (like the ability to create larger box stats or jump farther). Each stage also features three crowns, placed just out of reach, which can be gathered by especially skilled players through careful box placement. Collecting these crowns opens up additional bonus stages. 

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Narrow passages require some tricky maneuvering. Source: MobyGames

BoxBoy!‘s strong critical and commercial performance all but ensured a sequel. Director Mukae confirmed in a contemporary interview that multiple ideas failed to make it into the series’ debut, though his wariness to disclose these suggests that they were being reserved for a follow-up. BoxBoy!‘s simple aesthetic, along with the ease of distribution through the 3DS’ eShop, would reduce many of the production delays normally associated with delivering a new series entry. 

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BoxBoxBoy (2016)

BoxBoxBoy was released on the 3DS on January 6, 2016, and then across all other supported territories on June 30, 2016. In a surprising twist, at least when compared to HAL’s experimental handling of its Kirby property, BoxBoxBoy features very few updates to the format established by its predecessor despite functioning as the debut of a new lead designer named Yusuke Ota. Without much narrative to speak of, the player is more or less simply given another set of challenges to complete. 

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BoxBoxBoy features gates which can’t be opened unless two boxes are placed on separate switches. Source: justonegamr

Qbby remains the protagonist, though he now has the capacity to create two sets of blocks. When combined, the total number of blocks created at any given time cannot exceed a unique box cap present for each stage. As with the first game, players accrue medals and use them to gain new costumes and other bonus content. 

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It’s no Super Mario World, but a rudimentary world map guides players through each set of stages. Source: justonegamr

BoxBoxBoy was another critical and commercial success, cementing the series as one of the 3DS’ breakout original IPs. It is generally considered more effective than its predecessor, as its difficulty curve ramps up more quickly and the player is forced through fewer low-key tutorial stages. Fans who feared that the series might become overly conservative had only to wait for a third title the following year to disabuse them of that notion. 

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Bye-Bye BoxBoy (2017)

The 3DS’ Bye-Bye BoxBoy was originally intended as the conclusion to HAL’s BoxBoy series. Yasuhiro Mukae and Yusuke Ota continued on as director and graphic designer, respectively, but were joined for the first time by level designer Yutaka Watanabe. Unlike the preceding title, Bye-Bye BoxBoy integrates two major new additions to the series mechanical palette. 

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The box limit featured on the 3DS’ bottom screen, not a new addition to Bye-Bye BoxBoy, lets the player know how many boxes he or she can place before the stage’s medal(s) disappear. Source: justonegamr

The first overhaul is the introduction of special powers. Each of the game’s eight worlds offers a unique ability for Qbby to use when producing boxes, including boxes that warp Qbby to their location and rocket-propelled boxes that rise after being placed. These abilities complicated stage design, as BoxBoy‘s puzzles are typically oriented around a very limited set of verbs; the developers consequently decided that powers could not be carried between worlds.

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Qbabies are adorable, naturally. Note too the presence of a colorful sky and a cameo from Kirby‘s MetaKnight. Kirby costumes could be activated by using the relevant amiibo figurine. Source: justonegamr

The other major difference between BoxBoxBoy and Bye-Bye BoxBoy is the addition of Qbabies. These miniature versions of Qbby must be escorted through certain missions, lest they be destroyed by obstacles or get waylaid by bottomless pits. The Qbabies have no capacity to create their own boxes and instead consistently move towards the player character unless halted by their environment. 

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Challenge worlds up the… challenge. Source: justonegamr

Bye-Bye BoxBoy‘s graphics also represent a slight iteration on the series’ formula. Stages now feature more color as a way to distinguish each of the worlds from one another. The developers also opted to use more patterns in black and white areas, making this the most visually dense entry in the historically minimalist franchise. If Bye-Bye BoxBoy was to be the series’ last hurrah, it would be going out with a bang. 

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BoxBoy + BoxGirl (2019)

With the benefit of hindsight, of course, we now know that Bye-Bye BoxBoy was not the series’ final entry. Its name seems downright incongruous in retrospect. That said, it does remain a farewell to Qbby’s adventures on the fully handheld 3DS hardware. BoxBoy + BoxGirl would instead be published by Nintendo on the home/handheld hybrid Switch console in early 2019.

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The two-player campaign represents BoxBoy + BoxGirl‘s most significant innovation over its predecessors, though the developers had been discussing a multiplayer component since the series debut. Source: Nintendo

The developers were inspired to continue their franchise after a gap of two years by the Switch’s unique capabilities, particularly its ability to permit multiplayer at home or in its portable tabletop mode. Players are presented at the game’s start with the option to play a single-player or multiplayer campaign. The former is a new adventure starting Qbby while the latter allows players to control BoxGirl Qucy and the rectangular Qudy. These two characters had appeared in BoxBoy games since the debut entry, but BoxBoy + BoxGirl represents their first playable appearance.

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Note how refined the aesthetic has gotten while still retaining its distinctive minimalism. It would have been reasonable to guess that BoxBoy could iterate on its visual foundation, but that assumption would be wrong. Source: Eddy the Lombax

Most other updates are purely iterative. Color is more vibrant and present in more stages than in BoxBoy, where it had appeared only at the end of the game, or in Bye-Bye BoxBoy. Screen resolution and screen size more generally is increased from the comparatively cramped real estate on the 3DS, though this comes at the expense of that handheld console’s second screen. 

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BoxBoy + BoxGirl introduces a more traditional stage summary than earlier series entries, which had mostly bifurcated their assessments of Qbby’s progress into either medal-winning or medal-losing status. Source: Eddy the Lombax

Finally, the level count has been dramatically expanded to over 270 individual stages. The most extensive roster prior to this was the 190-stage library available to players in Bye-Bye BoxBoy. The Switch’s enhanced hardware was being heavily leveraged by HAL, not only to create an expanded opportunity for multiplayer but also to create the series best-looking and most ambitious entry yet. 

Conclusion

BoxBoy has received no spinoffs and, to the best of public knowledge, no canceled games. As is often the case with Nintendo and HAL software, even the canceled features of earlier games were eventually worked up and used in later titles. Yasuhiro Mukae’s charming little character may well have been a brief diversion from HAL’s juggernaut mascot, Kirby, but Qbby has gone on to establish a massive critical and commercial following in his own right. Thank goodness the studio’s initial farewell to the series proved to be premature.


What do you think of the BoxBoy series? What would you like to see in future entries? How do you think it compares, for better or worse, to the studio’s flagship Kirby property (with which it can’t help but be compared). Do you wish it was RhombusBoy?

Be sure to join us next week as we dive into the foxhole of Call of Duty history. That article will go live at 9:00 AM EST on Friday, July 26. Here is a brief schedule of upcoming Franchise Festival entries (subject to change, as this week did):

  • July 26: Call of Duty
  • August 2: Legacy of Kain / Soul Reaver
  • August 9: Civilization
  • August 16: Danganronpa
  • August 23: Wario