I’d been thinking of giving Miranda a copy of Mario Kart Wii for Christmas, but Amazon was sold out of copies on the day that I was ordering presents. Rather than hunt for that game at other stores, I went with my second choice, Boom Blox, which turned out to be a quite pleasant alternative.

Most of the discussion I’d heard about the game described it as Jenga combined with a throwing game, with a good physics engine. And, indeed, the physics engine is quite nice. (Physics engines were a bit of a theme for 2008, weren’t they? Speaking of which, I really need to play World of Goo…) What I wasn’t expecting was just how many different gameplay styles there were.

The main story mode has four sections, each of which has three chapters, and each of those has a different gameplay mode, often with further minor variants. So, to elaborate on the “throwing game” theme: at its most basic level, you throw a ball to knock down stacks of crystal blocks. But then there are minor variants: the crystal blocks are typically stacked on top of a tower non-crystal blocks, and you might do better by knocking down the latter, taking down several crystal blocks at once. And if you throw from the right angle, you might knock the tower down in such a way that it falls into another tower, knocking down those blocks as well. (This is where the physics engine comes in; ironically, at times that can make the game a bit frustrating, in that, if you don’t knock down as much as you’re expecting, you’re not sure if it’s because your approach is wrong or because you’ve hit it at just barely the wrong angle for the physics to work.) And there are further types of blocks that can set off explosions, either singly or in combination.

Going slightly further afield, sometimes there are enemies. So you might be throwing balls to knock down the enemies, or to knock down the towers that they’re standing on, or to set off explosions near them. And maybe the enemies are moving towards a central area, so you have a moving target (moving past different potential obstacles) to deal with. Or, in some levels, you might be throwing a bowling ball instead of a rubber ball, decreasing the number of ricochets, and in other levels you have a gun, removing ricochets entirely. And sometimes your goal isn’t even to destroy the environment or attack enemies at all. And that’s without getting into the levels that are based on a completely different mechanic, namely moving blocks instead of throwing stuff!

So: lots of gameplay styles to entertain you. And, to make it even richer, they give you levels of challenge, even within the basic story mode: a given stage might allow you five throws to knock down the crystal blocks, but you’ll get a silver medal if you can do it in three and a gold medal if you can do it in two. So if you find you enjoy a given puzzle type, you can obsess over it a bit more; the physics engine really makes a difference here in the range of solutions that it allows. And if you get enough of the better medals, you can unlock more difficult challenges in that particular play mode.

Of course, the flip side of this variety is that not all the gameplay variants will be to everybody’s tastes, and certain people will find different variants or individual challenges within a single variant much harder than others. On the whole, I think the game did a reasonable job with this: while you did have to go through the story mode in a linear fashion, the bronze levels in the story mode were generally easy enough that you could make progress through it even if you weren’t very good at one of the variants, and if you didn’t like a variant, you’d see something different after a few more stages. Whereas, if you did like a particular variant, you could go for high medals on all the levels with that variant, and unlock more challenging stages for that particular variant. I did bail out right at the very end of the story mode, where I ran into a variant that I found both unpleasant and annoyingly difficult; but I stuck through the vast majority of the story mode, and in fact put in the effort to get gold medals on most of it, and did a fair number of the bonus stages as well.

So: a good lesson in how to provide variety and how to structure challenges. Plus, throwing balls to knock down towers is fun!

Not much discussion of the game in the blogosphere, but I did enjoy reading Manveer Heir’s Design Lesson 101 on the game.

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