Puzzles Are the Star Attraction of Nintendo's Digital Initiative

Puzzles Are the Star Attraction of Nintendo's Digital Initiative

Mario vs. Donkey Kong: Tipping Stars and Box Boy's brain-bending challenges more than make up for their lack of spectacle.

This article is part of our ongoing coverage of GDC 2015. You can find more of our GDC news and analysis here.

Some of the most surprising Nintendo experiences I've had in the past few years arrived in unassuming packages. Captain Toad, Kirby and the Rainbow Curse, Pushmo World: Each of these explored an underlying premise to its logical conclusion, and closed the curtain just before tedium could set in.

These short-burst games remain so appealing to me simply because they don't require a hell of a lot of commitment. I can easily invest three or four hours grinding away on Monster Hunter, but when I'm beset by gaming choices and need to decide on something, these brief distractions serve as the perfect answer. And just yesterday at GDC, Nintendo unveiled a host of upcoming digital releases, though two in particular caught my eye for being so suited to my indecisiveness: Mario vs. Donkey Kong: Tipping Stars, and Box Boy.

Now, the Mario vs. Donkey Kong series has taken some unexpected twists since it emerged in 2004, ten years after the sublime Game Boy version of Donkey Kong. Since then, it's focused on the mechanical Mario dolls that once acted as collectables, and feels much more like a riff on Lemmings than an expansion of Donkey Kong. Though 2013's Minis on the Move attempted something a little different, Tipping Stars—available for Wii U and 3DS tomorrow as Nintendo's first cross-platform bundle—makes a return to the style started by 2006's March of the Minis.

If you've played the three iterations of Mario vs. Donkey Kong that followed this format, Tipping Stars shouldn't be too surprising; as with past installments, you're tasked with guiding mechanical figures of Mario and the rest to a goal while activating bridges, staircases, and other items to assist the minis in their mindless procession. This time around, though, Nintendo is placing an incentive on user creation, offering cosmetic unlockables to those whose levels earn acclaim from the community. And, thanks to its cross-platform status, Wii U users can play 3DS-created levels, and vice-versa.

"What we're trying to do is make the user-generated content experience as solid fun as possible," says director Stephen Mortimer. "So, in the past, people were making levels—and that was great—but it was sort of like 'Why?' You know, what was the motivation behind it? So, Miiverse gave us a chance to let people actually talk to each other, and to say, 'Hey, this level's great!' So you get the user feedback, plus then you can also earn the tipping stars if people like your level, allowing you to unlock more content—so that's more motivation to make good levels."

HAL's Box Boy—which occupied plenty of time during my session—at first looks like a cave painting of the developer's Kirby: He's an even more simplified version of their platforming hero, amounting to nothing more than a square, eyes, and two legs—also, his name is Qbby. And while block-based puzzles have essentially been done to death at this point, Hal offers a take on this familiar experience I haven't seen before. The titular boxes sprout from Qbby himself, and though the early stages simply task you with creating one at a time, later ones up the challenge by placing a limit on the amount of boxes that can be created at once, and in total.

What struck me as particularly interesting about Box Boy is how often it asked me to use Qbby's power to do accomplish more than a single task at once. After learning how to use boxes to hit switches, block lasers, and cross chasms, I played a later level that asked me to do all three at once with a single box formation, which involved a lot of experimentation with Qbby's powers. After a certain point, the direction you force the boxes to grow out of him becomes important, meaning you'll have to come up with some creative, Tetris-y shapes to build a path to the exit. It's an extremely basic premise, but in the three worlds I played (with six stages each), HAL proved just how much they could elaborate on their rules in such a short amount of time.

As the Wii U's future remains uncertain, it's refreshing to see Nintendo commit to these more compact experiences, and finally embrace the concept of cross-platform purchases, though they still have a ways to go—as of now, Tipping Stars remains the only release with this distinction. Still, it's an important move for Nintendo to make, even if its been a long time coming. With ay luck, this experiment will be more than a one-time thing—I'm sure none of us are looking forward to rebuying our Virtual Console libraries for a third time once the next Nintendo system comes along.

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