The classic puzzle game Soukoban has gone by many names here in America as it’s seen release by countless publishers hoping to put a unique face on the same idea (and often the exact same content): Shove It!, Boxy Boy, Sokoban… and those are just the official releases. You don’t even want to know about the clones. For Game Boy fans, however, the only name that matters is Boxxle.
Despite the name, Boxxle was the legitimate descendant of the original Soukoban, a release blessed and possibly codeveloped by the concept’s original creator at Thinking Rabbit. You may know the name Thinking Rabbit from the strangely titled cooperative NES Castlevania clone 8 Eye’s, but Soukoban was the company’s crown jewel, and it was one of those games that found its way to essentially every platform on earth. Game Boy was no exception — in fact, one might argue it was the ideal home for the game in 1989.
As with a number of other early Game Boy releases such as Shanghai, Heiankyo Alien, and Tetris, Boxxle showed up at stores quite innocuously, targeted to an audience that had no clue to its heritage. Eight-year-old kids didn’t care about the fact that Boxxle was actually as old as they were. They just wanted to do something fun with their cool handheld system. Boxxle delivered… but only barely.
By 1989, Boxxle‘s underlying age was definitely starting to betray itself through signs of strain. Despite the upbeat music (oh god, the upbeat music) and the cartoon graphics, the foundations for Boxxle (and many of its puzzles) had been set way back in 1981. Despite being an absolute revolution of game design at the time, the bar was admittedly pretty low for video game innovation in 1981. Given the constraints of its original hardware, Soukoban by its very nature consists of extremely limited and simple mechanics, rules, and controls.
Spectrum Holobyte’s 1984 release of Soukoban.
Soukoban — and, by extension, remakes and sequels such as Boxxle — operates under a deceptively minimal framework. Players control a small man pushing boxes… and that’s it. You can move in any of the cardinal directions in the game’s top-down warehouse view, and you can push crates. You can’t jump, you can’t pull, you can’t perform chain combos, you can’t break boxes. All you can do is move and push.
In the hands of a skilled level designer, though, these rudimentary mechanics translate into absolutely devastating puzzles. Your limited interactions with the game world greatly reduce your options, and as you endeavor to achieve your goal — relocating every box on screen to a target space — you increasingly find yourself forced to think ahead several steps. Obvious moves rarely are the correct ones, and completing your task often involves making seemingly nonsensical or counterproductive moves as you push boxes well out of the way or make other allowances to slide crates around.
After all, because you lack the ability to pull boxes, you have to take great care not to push crates into unwinnable situations. Once a crate moves adjacent to a wall, the only way to separate it again is to push it to a gap in the wall and approach it from the other side. Once a crate is in a corner… that’s when you hit the reset button. Simple rules leading to complex situations: That’s the essence of Soukoban.
Another early PC release of Soukoban.
That being said, Boxxle isn’t exactly the most thrilling take on the concept. It feels extremely sluggish, the incessant music loop becomes a nuisance in a matter of seconds, and despite the pokiness of the controls they manage to feel imprecise and sloppy. You’ll frequently find yourself pushing a crate without meaning to, undermining your progress and forcing you to start over again.
On the other hand, it does fit the platform quite nicely. There’s no scrolling — which means the larger puzzles use a zoomed-out view in order to fit on Game Boy’s 160×144 screen, the game having been designed for twice that resolution — and you can resume your progress across sessions by jotting down passwords. Granted, passwords don’t make a lot of sense for portable games where you inevitably find yourself fumbling for paper while on the go, but at least the option is there, making this the first Game Boy release to offer any sort of persistence across sessions. Despite the inclusion of passwords, Boxxle still falls into the quick-hit, pick-up-and-play format for which the system seems so ideally suited. It’s no Tetris, but what is?
Boxxle also includes a somewhat limited level editor — a nice idea, but in a world predating widespread access to the Internet, somewhat futile. Who was there to share with outside of your limited set of friends and family, who probably didn’t care? Still, points for trying.
Boxxle wasn’t the first time Soukoban had made its way to a portable system. The Game Boy’s failed precursor, Epoch’s Game Pocket Computer, saw an official version of Soukoban as one of its meager handful of releases in the span of its brief life. It worked quite well on that more limited device, so unsurprisingly it translated well to the relatively powerful Game Boy. On the other hand, Boxxle felt somewhat behind the times compared to what was happening elsewhere in the Soukoban canon: Shortly before the Game Boy version debuted, Thinking Rabbit debuted Soukoban Perfect on the NEC PC-9801. It had more than 300 levels compared to Boxxle‘s paltry 108, most of which were deeply hostile and demoralizing (aka “expert level”) challenges made by monstrous humans twisted by years of Soukoban addiction.
Besides cartridge space limitations, the discrepancy between the contemporaneous Soukoban Perfect and Boxxle probably comes down to the fact that Thinking Rabbit (and thus Soukoban creator Hiroyuki Imabayashi) worked on the PC game, while Boxxle was ghost-developed by Atelier Double. The design credit in Boxxle is given not to Imabayashi but rather to Toshiro Inoue, who founded Atelier Double in the mid-’80s as one of the many behind-the-scenes development contractors who assisted publishers churn out material quickly to capitalize on the Famicom boom. Atelier Double’s quality standards appear to be more consistent than those of similar studios like TOSE and Micronics, and much of the studio’s work involved audio and music tools. Though that information just makes Boxxle‘s infuriating background tunes all the more inexplicable.
While Soukoban was regarded as a classic in its day, by 1989 it had become fairly long in the tooth. That wouldn’t stop a number of Soukoban clones from hitting Game Boy in short order, but they feel almost like filler content. Boxxle‘s legacy made its appearance on Game Boy inevitable, even necessary, but it didn’t win any awards (well, maybe just one) and probably won’t go down in history as many people’s favorite. It was a solid, workmanlike release for Game Boy — involving enough to amuse anyone who owned it, but not the sort of thing anyone but collectors would hunt down today.
Japanese title: Soukoban • 倉庫番
Developer: Atelier Double/Thinking Rabbit
Publisher: Pony Canyon [JP] | FCI [US/Europe]
Release date: 9.1.1989 [JP] | 2.1990 [US] | 1990 [Europe]
Genre: Puzzle (box, sokoban)
Super Game Boy: No support
Previous in series: Soukoban Perfect [PC-9801, 1989]
Next in series: Shove It!: The Warehouse Game [Genesis, 1.30.1990]
Similar titles: Kwirk [Acclaim, 1989], Flappy Special [Victor Interactive, 1990]
Boxxle, packaging [U.S.]
Boxxle, packaging contents [U.S.]
Boxxle, box front [U.S.]
Boxxle, box back [U.S.]
Boxxle, cartridge [U.S.]
Boxxle, manual [U.S.]