Review: Boom Blox (Nintendo Wii)

Boom Blox
Genre: Puzzle
Developer: EA Los Angeles
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release Date: 05/06/08

Boom Blox is a hard game to wrap your head around. At its core, it’s a puzzle game with a cute presentation that makes solid use of the Wii controls to move around objects, throw things, and shoot things, and it’s something that, by initial appearances, would be awesome for just about anyone. But it’s really hard to note that Steven Spielberg, the guy who directed “Saving Private Ryan”, “Jurassic Park”, “Schindler’s List” and the various Indiana Jones films sat down and decided that he really wanted to sit down and, effectively, make a game that’s one part Jenga, one part throwing bowling balls to make giant explosions, and one part being cheered on by square sheep.

In short, it’s really, really insane.

There are cute little story elements to some of the themed puzzles in Boom Blox, but they’re generally about ten seconds in length, so it’s better to look at what the game offers you in the way of modes. There are multiple single player modes to choose from (two sets each from two different groups of themes, so in one set you’ll be playing in castles and the jungle, while in the other it’s the wild west and fields), as well as the ability to create your own puzzles, and for those who have friends handy you’re offered co-op and competitive multiplayer modes for up to four players to screw around in. There’s a lot to do and a lot to play around with, though the multiplayer modes require you to go through unlocking everything in order before you can play all of the games, which may be a bit annoying considering some of the multiplayer games aren’t as amusing as others; making people unlock the single player stuff makes sense, but locking multiplayer stuff is kind of silly, since that’s a lot of the attraction. This doesn’t hurt the game too much, though, as you’ll find plenty to play around with regardless without too much trouble.

Visually, Boom Blox is cute and pretty and looks nice for a Wii game. The various blocks and special effects and such are bright and colorful, and the backgrounds are also colorful and look like one would expect. The “characters”, IE the square animals in the game, are all laugh-out-loud funny and cute… and when you bean them in the face with a baseball it’s pretty funny watching them spin around in the air. Just saying. The music in Boom Blox is cute and cartoon-esque, and matches the theme perfectly, and the various effects amount to things like lasers being fired and balls cracking into the sides of blocks, and it all sounds good to the ear. There’s little voice acting save in the introductory cutscenes to the few story levels the game offers, but the animals all have little Simlish voices that cheer you on when you’re successful, sob and weep when you fail, and grumble angrily when you smack them in the face with a bowling ball or what have you. This, too, is amusing.

But it’s not until you get down to actually playing the game that you truly understand just how cute and clever Boom Blox really is: aside from being very, VERY accessible, it’s a riot of epic proportions on all levels. Now, to explain how everything in the game works would require a complete dissection of each game section, as most of the game levels are completely different from one another in many ways, so instead the game will be summed up as such: you will be given a task to complete that in some way, shape or form requires using the Wii-Mote, and you’ll have to get down to doing it. Generally, however, all of the tasks assigned are very simple to actually undertake, whether it be throwing things (hold down the button, swing your arm forward and release the button when the time is right), shooting things (works like a light gun game, press the button to fire at whatever you’re aiming at), grabbing and moving things, either to pull out blocks ALA Jenga or to pile up blocks to make huge towers and such (press and hold the button to grab, move it around, release the button to release the object) and so on; all amount to pressing a button and moving your arm around, which just about anyone can do (unless you don’t have any arms or something… um… then it might be difficult… I guess). In other words, the gameplay itself? Not difficult, easy to learn, fun to goof around with, and accessible to anyone of nearly any age.

No, the difficulty itself comes from the actual structure of the puzzles themselves, and Boom Blox is at its best in these sorts of instances. Take, for instance, the puzzles later in the Medieval stages, where you have to remove blocks from a structure while two baby sheep putter around on the top of it; you have to remove the blocks that will cause the absolute least structural changes so as to avoid spilling the sheep across the countryside, and knowing exactly what block will cause what sort of shaking and destruction can be a touch problematic at times, to say the absolute least. When the game is teasing your brain with its combination of physics and timing puzzles, it’s an absolute blast, because the physics in the game are FANTASTIC. Structures topple and fall exactly as your brain expects them to based on how you know the world works, and if you know that, say, taking one block out of a tower will collapse the damn thing, IT ACTUALLY WORKS. This is fantastic and hilarious all at once, especially when you play these puzzles in multiplayer and see them work… or, more often, see them fail. The gravity, mind you, is a little bit questionable, as things tend to fall far, far slower than one would expect, but as several puzzles make use of flinging things into the air, then hitting them while airborne, this makes sense in context, even if it takes some getting used to. All told, though, the game is, simply put, fun and funny, which is not all THAT common, and makes playing the game all that mush more fun.

This is also helped along, in many of the puzzle missions, by the various designs of the missions and the tools used to solve them. Various block types have different effects, from blocks that disappear when hit to blocks that are helpfully labeled with a big black bomb that, yes, explode when smacked to “chemical blocks”, bright green blocks that explode when touched by other chemical blocks, you will often have all sorts of interesting toys to play around with. This also applies to the items given to you to use, like baseballs, rubber balls, bowling balls, and bombs you can throw at the various blocks and such, as well as the helpful (point multipliers and bricks scattered around the levels) and harmful (negative point blocks, which helpfully explode with an off-key sound effect and blue, evil-looking smoke to let you know that yes, you just screwed up) blocks in the various stages, which all help to keep things interesting.

Again, the game is broken down into a number of single and multiplayer games, each of which comes in different themes and tiers, and each of which unlocks more games to goof around with. At first, the game offers simple, easy to manage puzzles in single player to fool around with for those who are interested in learning the basics, but once you complete those you’re also offered some more fiendish puzzles to play around with (most of which, thankfully, only require a score of Bronze or better to unlock, so at least the developers don’t COMPLETELY hate you), both in basic and themed flavors (IE in modes that are just playing the game and in levels that are designed after specific themes, like the Wild West and a Tiki village). There are also a whole bunch of multiplayer levels to unlock, though not as many as there are for single player, which is kind of a shame, as multiplayer is a blast, as noted above.

You’re also offered a Create mode to make your own puzzles to play around with, if such a thing interests you. Unlike the other game modes you can use the Nunchuck to move the camera around (normally you hold a button and swing the camera when playing the game), which makes creating puzzles somewhat easier at least. Initially you’re only offered a few toys to play around with, but as you progress through the single player puzzles and earn the various medals, you unlock different items and themes to work with, which allows you to really build whatever you want. The creation mode is a bit daunting at first, but with some practice and trial-and-error you can figure it out reasonably quickly and have a lot of fun building puzzles of all different kinds.

However, in what is perhaps one of the bigger oversights in a game that could certainly use such a thing, Boom Blox lacks any sort of online component to speak of. Now, before the obvious question of “how in the heck would you play this online” comes up, relax, that’s not what I mean. See, generally speaking, with a puzzle game you have one of two structures to these sorts of games: structured and random. Random puzzle games, like Tetris, Columns, Puzzle Fighter, Bejewled and such maintain their longevity by being random and thus offering you different ways to go about playing them each time. Structured puzzle games, like The Incredible Machine, Lemmings, and yes, Boom Blox, generally offer one way to solve their puzzles, and once the puzzle is solved, that’s it… unless one has a way to acquire more. Now, in theory, Boom Blox has a fantastic opportunity available to it: with a puzzle creator included in the package, it wouldn’t be hard to, at the very least, share puzzles with friends online or, even better, host some sort of service that allows people to upload their most fiendish puzzles for others to solve. The former option is available to you, which is good; you can make puzzles to send to friends and vice-versa, assuming people you know own the game and are making puzzles for it (though if they aren’t you’ll need to make more friends). A broader option to upload puzzles online for anyone playing to download would have been perhaps a bit more ideal, but wasn’t included as an option, which means once you’re done with the game, you’re really only left to play through the same puzzles over again, make your own puzzles (which, as you created them, you should in turn know how to solve them appropriately), or hope your friends don’t make something impossible just to spite you, or even hope that they feel the need to make anything at all (the creator controls take a tiny bit of getting used to, even with Nunchuck camera controls).

Which, in theory, is also how a download service could work, but with twenty million owners of the console, if even one percent of them buy Boom Blox and make puzzles, you generally have better odds that someone out there will make something good.

This isn’t so bad, in that there are several hundred single player puzzles to goof around with, but the amount of multiplayer games is far lower, even if one adds co-op and competitive games together, and as multiplayer is where a whole lot of the fun in the game is, it’s kind of sad that there aren’t a lot of multiplayer puzzles to fool around with (though, at the very least, you can also make more of those, which is neat). The controls also aren’t spot-on perfect; occasionally, the game doesn’t register throwing and pulling actions as well as one might like, which can be a bit of a pain the first few times it happens, though this isn’t crippling as the game offers you an option to retry a puzzle right from the pause menu, and there’s virtually no loading time at all once the initial loading of the game completes, so retrying a puzzle is literally instantaneous.

However, even when one takes into consideration the lack of anything beyond a bare bones friend-trading online component, the not-quite-precision control issues, and the finite replayability of the game, there are two other major issues that keep the game from being all it can be: some modes are better than others, and the balance is all over the place. The former is simple enough to explain: you will find that some of the challenges in Boom Blox are, simply put, not very fun at all to play. This will, obviously, vary from player to player, but personally, I didn’t care for anything that involved shooting at objects; the various shooting gallery minigames that one has to progress through, in both single and multiplayer, are uninteresting and flat, and not very amusing. Ditto the Medieval “throw bombs at invaders to keep them from stealing the gems” games; the first couple were cute, but after the fourth or fifth time, the control issues become annoying and your arm feels like it’s turning into putty. Had these been excised in favor of more puzzles involving less frantic, more precise puzzle action, they would not have been missed in the slightest.

The latter is best summed up with “Chemical Golf”, which I know has cheesed off more than a few players: use a hose to fire chemical blocks at other chemical blocks to cause explosions. Simple enough, right? Uh, no; shooting the water at the blocks doesn’t often result in the blocks flying in the direction desired, which is something of a pain in the ass at the BEST of times; at the worst, it’s downright annoying. Later levels involve removing blocks from Jenga-stacks without spilling a negative point block from the top of the pile, which would be fine on its own, but any blocks you knock off by accident COUNT AGAINST YOU, which the game doesn’t bother to explain to you, and is made doubly frustrating by the high score counts the game asks of you to allow you to progress. Now, here’s the thing: the balance is, quite literally, all over the place, with one stage being simple to grasp and work with, the next being obtuse and virtually impossible, and the following stage being manageable again. Challenging gameplay, whether it be because of the control limitations or the machinations of the puzzles, is acceptable, but the challenge in Boom Blox is literally all over the place; some time spent restructuring the order of the levels would have worked well in the favor of the difficulty.

Now, here’s the thing: Boom Blox is a really fun, cute, creative, and enjoyable game. Even with the balance issues, even with the occasionally spotty controls, even with the finite single and multiplayer challenges, and even with the inability to trade puzzles with people who aren’t on your friends list, it’s fun and amusing for folks of all ages to goof around with.

But it’s not a $50 game, period, and that’s really the biggest problem. Even with all of the flaws, Boom Blox is a WHOLE LOT OF FUN, make no mistake about it, but it’s simply not strong enough on its own merits that one can say “this is a game you must own” when there are over a dozen other games that do similar things to what this does and either do them better or cost less. Is it a good game? Absolutely; it’s fun, it’s enjoyable, and it’s a great all ages game. But it lacks certain elements that would make the experience more worthwhile to the average player, and while most of the game is fun and enjoyable, certain parts can be either frustrating in design or not very amusing, which makes the product a bit harder to recommend at the price. Boom Blox is definitely something you should play, but as something you should own, well, maybe when it’s a little cheaper.

The Scores:
Game Modes: GOOD
Graphics: GOOD
Sound: GOOD
Control/Gameplay: ABOVE AVERAGE
Replayability: ABOVE AVERAGE
Balance: POOR
Originality: GREAT
Addictiveness: GOOD
Appeal: GREAT
Miscellaneous: GOOD

Final Score: ENJOYABLE.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Boom Blox is one of those sorts of games that probably would have benefited from a little more time on the drawing board, as it’s good, but not great, and it easily could have been great with a little more work. The gameplay is fun and amusing, and if you have a lot of casual gamer friends or smaller kids it’ll pretty much pay for itself, as it’s great for some laughs and some puzzling trickery. As a long-term experience, though, it’s not something that’ll get more play than a lot of similar titles on the Wii, as there are too few multiplayer challenges and unless you have a lot of creative friends or a lot of creativity yourself you’re not going to have much to do with it once you’ve beaten it. Boom Blox is certainly something everyone should play, but at $50, it’s not something everyone needs to own.



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