Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 87, Pushmo (series) and No. 86, BoxBoy! (series)

Very different takes on puzzle platforming from two developers known for other franchises.

I’m ranking the top-101 Nintendo developed/published games of all-time, and you can read about the thought process behind game eligibility and list construction here. You can keep up with the rankings so far through this link.

As I explained before starting to publish top 101 Nintendo game rankings, on occasion, there would be moments where ranking a series as a whole would make more sense than picking out individual games from it. In this instance, that’s the case for both of the entries you’re about to read about.

Pushmo arrived on the Nintendo 3DS as a downloadable game back in December of 2011. It, like so many other high-quality downloadable titles Nintendo has published since the DSi first introduced an eshop, showed up kind of out of nowhere, and to little fanfare other than the standard announcements for new releases: Nintendo published a trailer on YouTube just a couple of weeks before the Intelligent Systems-developed game released in North America, and then it was here. Y’all really need to do a better job of promoting these things. “The Fire Emblem crew made an adorable and engaging puzzle platformer” should be said over and over until everyone knows it exists.

Pushmo received glowing praise from various gaming websites, however, and would also receive three sequels, two of which did more than just shake up the gameplay a little, and one for the Wii U that was more of the same as the first, but in a good way.

There is some division over which version of the puzzler is best, be it the original Pushmo formula or its followup variant, Crashmo, but, in my own experience, a lot of that preference has to do with how your own brain solves puzzles. Pushmo sees Mallo, a little puffball-looking protagonist in what appears to be a sumo’s mawashi, working his way through a 2D puzzle by pushing — hey guess where the name came from — and pulling parts of it out into three dimensions in order to ascend and reach your goal. Meanwhile, Crashmo, still starring Mallo as all of these games do, is three-dimensional from the start and focuses more on having pieces fall into place so that you can reach the puzzle’s goal. I’m a big fan of Crashmo, but I’m also comparatively total ass at it compared to Pushmo, where I always feel like I’m being challenged to think things through and experiment, but never like I’m stuck or failing to make progress.

Crashmo, embarrassingly, stumped me as early as the lessons that teach you how to play. That didn’t stop me from playing and figuring it out, of course, it’s just a different kind of approach and feel than the game it’s a sequel to. And my brain has to work overtime because of it.

One way to think of the difference is this: Pushmo sees you climbing from the start, trying to work your way up through experimentation until you get stuck and realize you took a wrong turn. You can then rewind a bit — a nifty little feature that helps you undo mistakes — or start the whole puzzle over, if that’s easier, and try again. Crashmo, on the other hand, sees you setting up more of the climbable puzzle at once by making more pre-climbing moves. You need to get pieces into place before ascending, rather than almost exclusively while ascending. It’s taking things block-by-block vs. winding up the puzzle and then setting Mallo loose, in a way. And it’s impressive that Intelligent Systems was able to twist the core concept into two extremely different yet obviously related games, both of which are highly rewarding and great fun for their own reasons.

The pacing of both individual puzzles and the difficulty increases in Pushmo are excellent, and there is no shortage of puzzles, either: there are 150 base levels, and 50 additional bonus stages. The actions you have at your disposal are few — you push blocks of varying size in or pull them out, depending on what’s needed, and you can make small jumps up or across gaps — and yet, Intelligent Systems managed to squeeze an exceptional amount of depth into 200 levels where there are only so many different button presses to make.

It’s probably worth looking at some of the gameplay, so you can envision all of that. Here’s Pushmo…

…and here’s Crashmo:

Pushmo eventually adds additional features, like the holes to climb in and out of that you need to make sure aren’t blocked when you need to utilize them, but at its core, everything comes down to pushing and pulling, and how much of each you need to do. You can’t always fully pull out a block, as that could keep you from reaching another one you need to get to in order to ascend, and sometimes you absolutely have to pull blocks out all the way, or else you won’t have the leverage you need to pull out blocks further up, since there won’t be anywhere for you to stand while you do it.

Both of these versions of the basic pushing-and-pulling-blocks idea are superior to the third iteration, Stretchmo, which added — wait for it — stretchable blocks to the mix. Stretchmo, Intelligent System’s experiment with a free-to-start version of Pushmo, is a good game, don’t get me wrong, but it also might have been the last we see of the series, too: the 2015 release was the last of them after four consecutive years of Pushmo goodness. It’s possible that Intelligent Systems ran out of ideas for new iterations, but that’s fine, too, given there are already hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of Pushmo-series levels for you to make your way through. And it’s not like replaying a puzzle game with the level of depth these have is impossible years after the fact, either, as it can feel like the first time again after time away. Hell, I did it for this project, and I had a blast. That’s why you’re reading about them now!

Pushmo might have seen its end in 2015, but right on the heels of that franchise came another downloadable puzzle platformer for the 3DS of a much different variant, this time from HAL Laboratories, developer of the Kirby series. That game was 2015’s BoxBoy!, the start of a series where the only negative thing anyone has really had to say about it was that the primarily black-and-white art style was too plain. I rolled my eyes while typing that, if you’re wondering how important I think that is to the quality of this game. We stray too far from the light sometimes, says someone who was and is perfectly happy playing Nintendo games on what was effectively a brick with a calculator’s green-tinted screen so long as the games themselves are good ones.

Speaking of the Game Boy, that style was the inspiration for the look of BoxBoy and its protagonist, Qbby. Obviously, being on the 3DS instead of the aforementioned brick stuffed with Double A batteries, HAL was able to make a much more expressive character, with more detailed graphics when the game called for it. The black-and-white style, though, is certainly reminiscent of the days of the Game Boy, which HAL, thanks to the creation and proliferation of Kirby games, was inarguably one of the stars of.

Enough about how it looks: how does it play? Extremely well, as you might imagine. You are a box named Qbby. You have legs for walking and eyes for seeing (and also so the player knows which way Qbby is facing). You can create other boxes without legs or eyes to use as platforms, or built into the shape of a hook to catch yourself on a ledge, or to squeeze yourself into tight spaces you can’t jump nor walk to. You have a set number of boxes you can create at a time in a given level, in addition to a maximum number of boxes you can deploy in total in each stage before the collectibles are no longer available to collect — more on their importance later.

You need to be careful on many of the stages, whether it’s avoiding falling into a pit, or avoiding being electrocuted, or crushed, or falling into spikes, or… Qbby lives in a very hazardous world. Failure to stay safe means you get sent back to your last checkpoint, which, conveniently, is the start of every little puzzle within a stage. The game is broken down like this: you are in one of 17 worlds (or five unlockable bonus worlds) which focuses heavily on a particular game concept. In that world are individual levels where that concept is introduced and then the difficulty of is increased as you progress. And within each level are the challenges themselves, which are separated by these invisible checkpoints. Make your way successfully through a door you’ve opened? Checkpoint. Avoid falling into the death trap of spikes and electricity? Checkpoint. It keeps you moving, and lets you focus entirely on the new puzzle before you, one puzzle at a time.

The solutions for early puzzles will seem obvious, but the game keeps adding layers and layers, and then expects you to remember them all and how your individual previous lessons might be applied in concert. There’s a surprising amount of depth here for $10: not to get all bang for you buck about it, it’s just genuinely surprising that there is so much game here for that amount.

And it’s not just about solving the puzzles: you also want to collect the crowns strewn across each level. Some are hard to miss, or basically impossible to miss, as they are right in the path of whatever action you need to take to complete a puzzle. Others are purposefully acquired in a way that might even, at first, seem to go against your goal of completing a puzzle. Figuring out how to get those crowns is a significant part of the fun, but there are also practical reasons for collecting them. For one, they help you unlock additional content, but they also remove the limit on total boxes you can use, once you’ve collected all of them in a given level.

The first two sequels to BoxBoy! are both worth playing if you enjoyed the original, but are mostly more of the same, at least to a degree. BoxBoxBoy! feels like an expansion on the original concept, and is even shorter than the game that preceded it and the ones that follow. That game sees you able to control two sets of boxes at once instead of one, which opens up the concept and allows for new types of puzzles and new approaches to solving them.

Then there is Bye-Bye BoxBoy!, which introduced escort missions where you had to open up a path for Qbby and whoever was trailing him. There are also completely new ways to play thanks to the introduction of powered boxes, like boxes that act as rockets, or boxes that warp Qbby, or boxes you basically have to make a string of in order to move them around obstacles after the fact, sometimes while Qbby is riding them… and trying not to fall off because you didn’t think through what shifting the boxes would do to where he is in relation to them. This felt more like a true sequel than BoxBoxBoy!, but the greatest and best change was yet to come.

In 2019, BoxBoy! + BoxGirl! released on the Switch, and introduced co-op puzzle platforming. Couch co-op puzzle platforming, even. The game is perfectly lovely to play solo, as the other BoxBoy! iterations are, but it truly shines when you get to play with someone else. The game will assign different box maximums to each player, so you need to think through who is responsible for what actions, and who can act as a living platform for the other and when. It’s the kind of shift in gameplay that likely ensured we’ll continue to see BoxBoy (and BoxGirl) adventures for some time. Good news, that. Almost as good as the ability to make BoxBoy wear a mustache, which you can also do in this game.

BoxBoy! + BoxGirl! introduced a tiered ranking system for levels, based on the number of boxes you used to complete it. It goes all the way up to S-rank, so if you’re like me and can’t stand not getting S-ranks in games you enjoy playing, this shift will have you coming back again and again to get things right. And it also makes you think even harder on your initial play of a level about box management and how best to tackle a problem, which, to me, enhances the whole rewarding feeling of it all upon completion.

Oh, yeah, and there’s some color now in the games. Are you happy yet, you monsters?

You don’t need to play every BoxBoy! variant in order to enjoy the series. Really, if you’ve just got a 3DS, the original or Bye-Bye would be fine. If you’ve got a Switch, you’ve only got one choice, but even if you have both, the Switch version is probably the one to get, especially if you have someone you can play with. It’s just an adorable little puzzle platformer series, with just enough challenge for you to feel a sense of accomplishment, and enough depth to ensure you’ll have that feeling again and again.

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