Let’s get one thing out of the way first. Noby Noby Boy is NOT a game. I share that with you up front, because if I had realized that at first, it probably would have saved me a lot of frustration.
Noby Noby Boy (‘Noby’ loosely translates as ‘stretch’) is the latest product from Namco Bandai and designer, Keita Takahashi, of Katamari Damacy fame. NNB shares a lot of the same aesthetics and the same sense of bizarre giddiness that made Katamari a sleeper hit but without all of the goals and gameplay mucking up the works. At its core, NNB allows you to control ‘Boy’, a worm-like creature whose front and rear sections are independently controllable with the left and right analog sticks, respectively. Each map is a flat plane decorated with houses, playground and sports equipment, animals, flowers, cars, and other detritus that looks like it came out of an overturned toy box. There are also people and animals that Boy can interact with, and will hop on his back and ride around the environment with him.
NNB opens with a tutorial ‘quiz’ which explains the basic mechanics and encourages the player to simply relax and play and to not worry about scoring points or beating timers. Oh, if only I had listened. I started off trying to accomplish goals and make specific things happen. I had become so embroiled in ‘beating the game’ that I think I had forgotten just how to play. NNB is no more a game than a ball of Play-Doh or a wad of Silly Putty and offers just as much freedom of expression and creativity.
When I first started playing I was so concerned with doing it ‘right’ that I had worked myself into a frustrated frenzy, ready to grab my Noby Noby Boy around what I presumed to be his neck and squeeze until he was a Noby Noby Corpse. I kept thinking that I didn’t ‘get it.’ That this was some sort of trick. This was the ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ of gaming and I was the only one who saw it naked. So, I stepped back, took a deep breath, and started again.
Letting go of gaming conventions, using NNB as a toy to enjoy instead of a challenge to beat, freed me from the conventions I had boxed myself into and allowed me to simply… play. Running Boy across the world maps becomes a question of ‘What can I do next?’ while crawling around, over, and through the objects provided for you. Should you give the dog in the space helmet a ride around the map or gobble him up? Why not do both? Can you stretch your Boy long enough and still maintain enough control to weave him through the bars of a jungle gym? What happens if you wrap Boy around the base of a tree and try to uproot it?
Changing maps is simply a matter of entering a house on the map (which can also be used to propel Boy skyward, through the chimney) and choosing to switch. Maps are never finished; objects get replenished as you eat, destroy, or fling them into space, and can be changed on a whim with no reward or penalty for doing so. Speaking of eating, you can consume most non-structure objects and the longer your Boy is stretched, the more you can consume. Consumption is never permanent, objects eaten will find their way out of Boy one way or another and back onto the play surface. The maps are colorful, day-glo playgrounds that look like an Eric Carle book on mescaline. Each is a flat, square plane floating in space, and trying to maintain control of Boy as he becomes longer and longer and more and more unwieldy without sliding off the edge into nothingness can be a challenge. Fear not, because falling into the void simply means restarting in your house a few moments later.
Now, just because NNB is not technically a game doesn’t mean it’s without some kind of purpose to the play. It’s just that playing enough allows you to play more.
In the world of NNB, the overreaching goal is to grow ‘Girl’ by stretching out ‘Boy.’ During play, NNB keeps track of how long Boy has gotten. Players can upload those results, which are added to Girl’s aggregate length as she travels through space, from planet to planet. Five days after the game’s release, enough players added enough length to Girl for her to reach the moon and she’s on her way to Mars and beyond, according to the game. Reaching new planets makes them playable game spaces with new objects and physics on each of the maps. The moon, for example, has lighter gravity, more mechanical and space-themed objects to mess with, and characters skinned in space suits and helmets. Players can keep track of who’s contributed the most length to Girl and how much they’ve personally provided, as well as their location in relation to all of the other players. Part of the fun will be seeing how much closer to the next planet Girl has gotten while you were away from the game and what will happen once the edge of the solar system is reached, assuming that enough players maintain their interest for that long.
NNB also takes advantage of the PS3’s hardware and networking capabilities. In-game messaging, screen shots, and the ability to record movies and save them or upload them to a YouTube account are all available. You can also create a 32-character message that will be displayed along the body of your Boy. There is also trophy support and all but one of the trophies are secret, unlocking only after you’ve unknowingly completed the required task. (For those who have to know, there are websites that provide complete lists of PS3 trophies.) The trophy support actually caused a bit of anxiety on my end, because I figured if there were rewards for doing things, then there must be specific things to do and started trying to play it like a game again instead of the interactive toy that it is.
It’s a toy that does have its complications, however. Despite the tutorial that runs automatically when you boot the game up, none of the controls beyond the motions of Boy seem to come very naturally. The camera is especially cumbersome and I kept finding myself losing track of one end of Boy or the other and having a difficult time refocusing. The camera does give you a great deal of control, allowing you to zoom, track, and rotate it along the plane of the map, but the controls for it are so counterintuitive that I had to keep going back and consulting the in-game manual. Same goes for the menu and stats controls. Moving the left stick in a particular direction and pressing the ‘start’ button accesses different functions, which seems much more cumbersome than mapping all of the functions to either the ‘start’ or ‘select’ buttons and being able to select the desired sub-menu or function. Some of the controls can seem a bit wonky as well. Jumping can sometimes be a hit-or-miss proposition and, according to the manual, you can grab and pick objects up, but I’ve had no particular luck in doing so.
The graphics are simple and charming, with shades of the classic Gumby shorts or Pee-Wee’s Playhouse with a coat of electric watercolors thrown on. Occasionally, the base of the map glitches out, revealing the grid beneath. It’s annoying, but minor.
Taking NNB for what it is at its heart — a multiplayer, desktop toy/virtual playground — it’s an enjoyable, surreal way to spend 20 or 30 minutes playing around and trying to do the next weird thing. Add to that the fact that continued support from the community will provide more new environments and the impulse to check in daily and see how far along Girl is to unlocking the next planet and you’ve got a great deal, considering the $4.99 price point. Just keep telling yourself, "It’s not a game."