A Boy and His Blob

A Boy and His Blob

Overall Rating: 2.5/5 Stars
A Boy and his Blob
In 1990, a particularly unique video game from the mind of David Crane (the man who brought Pitfall to Atari) was developed by Imagineering Inc and Absolute Entertainment was released for the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System home console. This was A Boy and His Blob: Trouble on Blobolonia, a title that defied many existing precedents, genres, and standards for the NES.

Gameplay

The player controls the titular Boy protagonist as the Blob tags along as a sort of pet/friend/helper character. The goal is to save the planet of Blobolonia from the evil king currently ruling it, though the player must first traverse the realm of Earth in order to gather treasure to buy vitamins (which serve as ammo for the Vitablaster weapon against later enemies, of course) in order to stand a chance of survival in further areas, including planet Blobolonia.
A Boy and his Blob
In terms of genre description, the closest parallel may be the classic point-and-click problem-solving-based adventures on old PC software; albeit, obviously, with a controller instead. The challenge is based on the premise that the Boy starts out with hundreds of jellybeans in an inventory, available by scrolling through with the Select button, and available in several different flavors. Each flavor, when fed to the Blob, transforms the Blob into a different object or even creature, which then can, hopefully, somehow be used to traverse a current obstacle or get to a previously unassailable location.

A Boy and his Blob

These jellybeans are tossed with the A button, and actually require a little care in their aiming, lest they be wasted by falling uselessly to the ground (where they are, presumably, rendered disgusting and no longer acceptable for blob consumption). The B button whistles, which calls the Blob to the Boy, if possible. Following this formula of using different jellybean-flavor functions to solve obstacle-based puzzles, the player tries to advance to the end of the game. Solutions include such choices as turning the Blob into a ladder or trampoline to reach a higher spot, a coconut to roll across certain places, a hole to drop through the floor to a lower level, or even a bubble that the Boy can use to enter underwater regions. It can be very difficult to figure out where to go next, but the cartridge does offer a little flexibility in giving a few different open-ended options for where to proceed.

Graphics
A Boy and his Blob
A Boy and His Blob has an interesting appearance. On the one hand, the screen-by-screen traveling can exude a very static feeling, with some background images (giant cornstalks ‘” yes, giant corn) looking better than others. On the other hand, this title definitely has a very whimsical, original atmosphere about it, with the occasional fun details thrown in among the bizarre “enemies” and obstacles. Perhaps the highlight is how the game uses puns and other wordplay-based jokes, such as the literal cherry bombs, or the fact that using the Apple-flavored jellybeans turns Blobert into a Jack, a reference to the breakfast cereal Apple Jacks. The ending screen is also memorable, providing appropriate closure in evocative fashion. There are also the few visual jokes like the way the Boy runs off a ledge but runs in place for a few moments before falling, much like an old-fashioned cartoon.

Sound
A Boy and his Blob
The music is meager and unambitious. There are only four tracks in the entire game, including the title music and the ending screen tune. Thus, the bulk of the quest is occupied by the endless repetition of one piece for Earth and another for Blobolonia. These melodies are not terrible, but neither are they among the NES’s Greatest Hits. The sound effects are okay; in fact, the Boy’s whistle is pretty darn good. But, again, they are lacking, as there are only a few different sounds throughout the entire gameplay. While the Blob occasionally makes silly sounds for certain transformations, and the cherry bombs burst when they hit the ground, there are no effects for entering water, jumping on the trampoline, etc.

Originality

Despite the technical shortcomings of its audiovisual presentation, A Boy and His Blob is undoubtedly one of the most distinctive titles in the NES library. Its creativity and utter uniqueness lends it a sort of quality that has led it to becoming one of the most fondly remembered and beloved cartridges ever released in 8 bits. For many retro gamers, Boy And Blob holds a distinct sway in nostalgic sentimentality.

Yet, when examined on an objective, holistic basis, this is not a game without its flaws. A Boy and His Blob can be daunting, confusing, and just plain hard; for every fun, rewarding puzzle solved, there is a place of frustrating mystery. For every moment of enjoyable visuals, like the interplanetary rocket ride, there is another of odd vagueness, like the bouncing white squares. The quest is potentially rewarding, but lacks much replay value. It seems that A Boy and His Blob is a video game of dichotomy, where its “meh” gameplay aspects are matched by whimsy and originality. In all honesty, if it were not cleverly written or imaginatively drawn, this might be a downright dreadful title. Its refreshing nature saves it, though mileage will vary from player to player. There is a little wonder still left in Boy And Blob, tucked away within its middle-of-the-road rating of two and a half stars out of five.

David Crane speaks on the triumphs and pitfalls of his multi-decade career

David Crane

The first video game boom period of the late 1970s and early 1980s created many superstars that are still known today, from the hardworking Mario to the still-hungry Pac-Man. It also saw a handful of game designers reach the superstar level themselves, including David Crane.

Starting his career with Atari on titles including Canyon Bomber and Outlaw for the Atari Video Computer System, Crane was among the founding members of Activision in 1979. Since that time, Crane has been the driving force behind game titles that made an impact on several generations of gaming, from Pitfall! to NES cult-classic A Boy and His Blob to the controversial Night Trap.

The original Pitfall!, which just reached it’s 30th anniversary, was a literal game changer according to Crane.

“Even during development, we knew we had something special,” he said. “The platformer game genre opened up worlds of new games. In fact, there were hundreds of platform games developed after Pitfall! blazed the trail through the jungle. When the game held the number one spot on Billboard‘s chart for 64 consecutive weeks, a record that I don’t think has ever been broken, we knew the game had legs.”

Today, three decades after it’s release, Pitfall! is among the classic video game titles still found on t-shirts and modern console releases. Crane states that this was not something that he considered the future would hold.

“I would have never predicted the classic gaming movement where people continue to play their favorite games 30 years later and who bring in a new generation by exposing their kids to the classics,” he stated. “Sure, we tweaked the games to a fine point and we felt those games were the best games on the market at the time, but it still surprises me when classic gaming enthusiasts tell me that for pure game play, modern games fail to live up to the standards we set back in the day.”

A Boy and His Blob, Crane’s 1989 title for the Nintendo Entertainment System, began as a tool-using adventure game concept. After recalling a cartoon character creation from his childhood, Crane altered the game’s toolkit into that character.

“When I try to explain the concept and story of A Boy and His Blob people look at me like I have two heads,” Crane said. “As the explanation goes on they become sure of it, ‘So… after collecting all of the underground treasures, the Boy spends it all on vitamins? Then he turns his Blob into a rocket and flies to Blobonia where he vanquishes an evil king with a Vitablaster? Are you insane or just on drugs?’ I assure them that I am indeed sane, and that my drug of choice is peanut M&M’s”

In the decades since Crane’s early success, the video game industry has grown to include various publishing levels. The veteran game designer notes that modern publishers should take notes from the history of the industry.

“In the eighties games were published on ROM cartridges. That was a huge barrier to entry, requiring hundreds of thousands of dollars to publish a single game,” he said. “In the mid-eighties there was a crash, brought on by 30 companies trying to cash in on Activision’s success but without quality games. By 1985 there were 20 bad games on the market for every good game. Consumers were lost.”

“Today there is no barrier to entry,” he added. “Anyone with $99 can pay Apple to publish a game, which explains why there are 100,000 games in the App store. One on hand the optimist will say that this makes it possible for indie developers to make something fabulously new and original. The pessimist points out that there are 1,000 bad or derivative games for every one jewel. Games in the eighties sold for $40; that indie designer who makes the jewel is lucky to net 40 cents on every game he sells. That is not enough to sustain a game development business, so it becomes unlikely we will ever see a second jewel from that designer.”

“The industries of then and now couldn’t be more different,” he continued. “But today’s glut of bad, derivative, or just plain indifferent games has some similarities to the conditions in 1985. Back then that glut precipitated a major crash in the business and it took years for the video game to regain it’s popularity. Hard to say if that will happen again, but those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.”

Crane recently turned to Kickstarter in an effort to create a new Jungle Adventure game as a follow-up to his 1982 classic. The project failed to catch on enough to reach it’s goal, however, despite Crane’s hope that supporters would like to be part of the game development process.

“Ask any game publisher if they would like the e-mail address of everybody that is going to buy a game before the game is published,” he said. “That could be a valuable resource for those times where the designer is struggling with game options. I suspect that my Kickstarter project didn’t get traction because the masses are not ready to commit to a game until they know what it is. Those that understood what I was hoping to achieve backed it enthusiastically, and went out as evangelists to try and recruit others.”

After 35 years in the video game industry, Crane states that he will continue to be part of it for some time to come.

“I design and program games every day,” he said. “I have been compared to Charles Schulz, who drew the Peanuts cartoons every day of his life for 50 years. By that analogy I have at least 15 good years left. I am comfortable in the fact that I know how to make games fun, and that is what keeps me going.”