Boom Blox Preview

When the Walls Come Tumblin’ Down

As popular tech/media saturation increases (and the time-periods between newer and newer permutations of media-forms decrease), we’re all going to keep seeing new—and in more and more cases, ironic—definitions of “nostalgia.” Already, in this year of 2008 (or, “-15 B.A.,” if you’re into that kind of icky mindset ), we’ve seen countless attempts to instill nostalgia for dubious things that are less than twenty, or even ten, years old (everybody ready to celebrate the cinematic still-birth of The Phantom Menace? Show of lightsabers?)

[image1]George Lucas may be otherwise engaged, but Steven Spielberg wants to use the Wii to digitally resurrect a form of ‘classic’ toy—a toy vastly predating the writer, editor and indeed most of the likely readers of this preview, wherever they are. In any case, the plans look compelling, even those of us who have never touched a real-life ‘building block’ are looking forward to this one: Digitally-represented children’s building blocks, physics intact, both realistically-rendered and goofily-enhanced.

The story goes that, upon playing some virtual tennis with a certain Mr. Miyamoto (you may have heard of this fellow, too) Spielberg was “blown away” by the tactile and kinesthetic possibilities of the Wii, and took it into his head to bring new life to an almost archetypeally-old form of play. Our first exposure to the game (previously code-named PQRS) involved a pretty straightforward tech-demo: We were presented with a tower of wooden blocks, as might be assembled by any random little kid.

Using the Wii controller and the appropriate gestures, a block could be removed from a critical location in the stack, and the game’s physics engine would realistically render the resulting collapse and clatter of the tower, block by block. Depending on how the Wii-mote is used, players can “blow” on the various blocks, simply push them over, or send projectiles at them, such as bowling balls. The rest is gravity, kinetic and potential energy, and creativity.

The “game” aspect to all of this comes in when you’re faced with a large, spread-out configuration of blocks, and taxed to make them all fall down with a limited number of interactions, or more to the point, with a single action taken upon a single block. Topple a single block into a standing row, which then fall like dominoes following predictable physics, and in turn dislodge the key-stone block in a larger structure. Order tumbles down into building-block chaos, and an ancient part of the human mind capers with puerile glee. Hulk-smash!

[image2]Then things get a little more interesting: Specific gameplay properties (over twenty in all) are introduced to the blocks: Some of them are “ghost” blocks which simply disappear without fuss when touched. Others won’t go so gently into that good night, and will in fact violently explode when touched. Others are stable enough by their lonesomes, but undergo a chemical reaction should they come into contact with other blocks, blowing up in great gouts of greenish acid (which in turn can affect other objects in the virtual environment). And now we’ve got the beginnings of a game on our hands. Check this out (and try not to be too disturbed by presenter Neil Young’s rather, erm, passionate reaction to the on-screen events).

This is a Spielberg game, so characters are a large part of the equation. The game will feature some 20 original character types with their own behaviors and personalities, and they will contribute to the puzzle-solving gameplay. Mostly, we saw a bunch of cute cow-creatures that would moo and brain-death their way about their penned-in, block-based environments until—by some unstoppable, Rube-Goldbergian process involving block-removals, explosions, and rapid-fire, domino-effect collapses—something horrible would ultimately happen to them. Presumably, the majority of the game’s cutesy characters will normally fare better.

[image3]We’re already thinking up some of our own Haunted House scenarios—after all, what’s a haunted house without at least one mechanically-gratuitous, ridiculously-circuitous method of extermination? Which brings us to the built-in editor, a promised feature as attractive as it is obvious: Players will be able to impromptuly-construct (or “knock up,” for our British readers) their own sprawling, B-Follows-A-cious structures for their own custom single or multi-player challenges, using all the block types and tweaking their own rules. This one should come with a case of Halo Brand beer.

The block-removing, structure-toppling, puzzle-solving gameplay will be spread throughout levels done up in Old West, Medieval, Tiki and Haunted House themes, and will offer not only the obvious single-player challenges but cooperative and competitive play (for both single- or split-screen modes). The experience has been described at Jenga meets Tetris Blast (and for our money, there’s a bit of the old Worms World Party malicious, predictive physics thrown in there, too). And despite its low-tech nature looks like a promising, compelling title. Rest assured, we’ll still be sitting here—giggling, demolishing carefully-constructed monuments, watching TiVo’d episodes of America’s Funniest Collapsing Buildings, and probably drinking—when full-review time rolls around.