a review of Noby Noby Boy
a videogame developed by keita takahashi and friends
and published by bandai-namco games
for the sony playstation 3 computer entertainment system
text by tim rogers
For starters, we were going to display our hip dissatisfaction with the entirety of the videogames industry by posting a review of this game — Keita Takahashi’s lunch-priced, perpetuity-aspiring, micro-concept, tactile-fun-exercise Noby Noby Boy — on its release date, February 19th, 2009, and call it the “Game of the Year 2009”. We didn’t not do this for any boring reasons like we decided to grow up and/or be mature — no, we didn’t do it because we already are grown-up and mature, and we have, like, lots of things to do every day (like take six showers, stare at ourselves in the mirror, et cetera). Today, it’s November, and it’s about as cold as it was in late February, so we remembered Noby Noby Boy. (Here’s a bonus, a line from a novel we are writing in our head literally as we write this: “November came twice that year; one of those times, they called it ‘February’.”) We turned it on and had about sixteen minutes of fun with it. Things have changed since we last played it, about nine months ago. There’s more, uh, stuff in it, now. It’s still basically the same thing. It’s neat. It’s cute. It’s neat-cute. It’s nute. (That’s pronounced “nyute”, not “newt”.)
Noby Noby Boy is a game-like experience in which the player takes control of a surrealistically presented nominally male otherworldly character-thing whose defining traits are doglikeness and symmetry. The character-thing’s name is “Boy”.
Pay attention to this part: the boy has a face, and a tail. The face is present on the front of one sphere. The tail exists on the rear of another sphere. The spheres have legs. Now, imagine that the spheres are not connected. Now, realize that they are connected. This is important: the connection between the spheres is negotiable. You can move the two spheres apart from one another.
You have a controller in your hand. It’s a Sony Dual Shock 3. Hey! That’s a nice controller. It has two analog sticks. Tilt the left analog to the left, and the sphere containing Boy’s face begins to move to the left. Tilt the stick a little bit, and he crawls; tilt it all the way, and his feet flutter in a hurry. Now, try tilting the right analog stick to the right. Tilt it all the way. The sphere containing Boy’s tail rushes to the right, feet fluttering. Now you see the body between the halves: it’s a long, stretchy, taffy-like, rubber band of a body. Let go of the analog sticks. Boy’s two halves spring back together.
You might stop right there, and give the controller back to your friend. He forces the controller back into your hand. Keep trying, he says. “Keep trying to what?” Your friend’s expression darkens. Come on — just try to do something.
You see a structure. It’s an arch-shaped fence thing. Like everything else in the world of this game, is has been dropped into your little playground randomly. You use the two analog sticks, and rudely waddle over to the structure. You lead Boy’s face sphere under the arch. You resist with his tail sphere. He stretches. You maneuver his face sphere around one side of the fence. You move his tail sphere around the other side of the fence. He stretches. You manage to get a good stretch going on. Boy is now maybe three meters long. You let go. He doesn’t snap back. He stays this length.
“Oh”, you say. You feel like you learned something. About what, who knows?
You can stop there, if you want. Or you can keep playing. You are free to discover that you can use a button to lock your tail or head sections on to the ground, thus facilitating stretching to a certain degree. You are free, eventually, to discover that stretching effectively makes you able to fly. You might find that the clouds in the sky have holes in them. You can feed yourself through a hole and pull yourself back down to earth. You can stretch in and around a dozen square-shaped holes hundreds of times. You can tie yourself in knots. You can knock over and destroy any structure, no matter how huge. You can eat objects larger than your head, which then create lumps in your body, which might serve as an excellent anchor to keep one portion of your body in place, while you stretch further.
Noby Noby Boy is the kind of game — no, let’s call it a “thing” — where you can walk into the room and see one person doing something with it that you didn’t realize you could precisely do with it. It’s like a musical instrument, in a way: familiar as you are with its general purpose (to make musical sounds), every once in a while you see someone using it in a way that you hadn’t precisely imagined up until that point. We’ve seen a man play a cello with a power saw, for example. If you look around the internet, you can see people stretching their Boys to near-incomprehensible distances.
Noby Noby Boy is the video entertainment software equivalent of a Rubik’s Cube. Did you know that most people in the 1980s didn’t know that a Rubik’s Cube was something you were supposed to solve? They just thought it was something play with. Okay, so we admit that we just pulled those figures out of thin air. We’re pretty sure we’re right, though. We’re even surer that a great many of the people who did know the Rubik’s Cube had an actual solution didn’t think they’d ever stumble upon that solution. The Rubik’s Cube was (and is!) a terrifyingly complex puzzle; to be able to solve it quickly from a randomly shuffled form is a sign of a savantistic mathematical genius so deep and severe that the government should lock you up. What many Rubik’s Cube non-solvers must have thought, back in the heyday of the puzzle, was that you could just keep it sitting around in the house for long enough, and someday the damn thing might solve itself. Eventually, the Rubik’s Cube became an artifact, a stress ball of sorts, to be picked up and crunched over at an idle moment, while sipping a bottle of beer or a glass of milk. In a tender moment, one might look upon it with sensitivity for its cause: every side wants to be the same color. We might try to help it reach its goal. Or we might be feeling snide; we might just screw with it randomly, just cracking and chacking the plastic sides all over the place until it’s even more messed up than it had been when we picked it up. Of course, the Rubik destroyer must — this is us being optimistic — entertain, somewhere in the back of his mind, the small hope that randomness and recklessness — not precision or sincerity — might yield the accidental solution of the puzzle. (You’re probably better off playing the lottery.)
In game-design terms, Noby Noby Boy is about as interesting as a Rubik’s Cube with all the sides permanently painted one color. Enough of that, though — that’s not the point. Telling someone why Noby Noby Boy is fun is like trying to dictate a Rubik’s Cube to a blind man obsessed with solving it. You really do need to take it into your hands for yourself. The point of Noby Noby Boy is how it feels. Noby Noby Boy is a game entirely focused on the sensation of stretching something. In the real world, you can’t stretch anything as far as you can stretch Boy. In the real world, we have to worry about things like the laws of physics. Noby Noby Boy is a weird little palm-sized-like virtual playground-thing on which you play a queer sport with a score and no buzzer. We like it a lot.
Keita Takahashi, Game Designer previous helmed the Katamari Damacy series, which he intended as a one-off. (We called the original Katamari Damacy one of the best games of all-time.) He told Namco, after the first one was in the bag, that he had tons of other ideas to turn into games. Namco basically told him that, here at Namco, the Tekken team makes Tekken, the Ace Combat team makes Ace Combat, the Tales of . . . team makes Tales of . . . games, the Soul Calibur team makes Soul Calibur games, the Ridge Racer team makes Ridge Racer games, that he and his crew are the Katamari team, and that he could go ahead and complete the sentence if he felt like it. This deflated Takahashi a bit, understandably. It took him several years of producing Katamari sequels before he was able to begin Noby Noby Boy. A short tech demo of the game emerged nearly two years before its release. The demo showed a stretching Boy on a flat green play field in which cartoon livestock roamed. Boy stretched, spun in the air, created something of a tornado, and even ate a few medium-sized animals. The people in the audience giggled like the room atmosphere was helium. Still, by the end, we were all wondering: how would Takahashi make this into a game?
The “game” part is where Katamari — one of the best games ever, remember — fails. In Katamari, you roll a ball; objects stick to the ball. The ball gets bigger. The bigger your ball, the more stuff you can pick up. Shoehorning level design and a goal structure into Katamari required what some games would consider a chance for oodles of stilted exposition. Katamari managed to be charming. It was, however, a tiny bit weird. Eventually, the charisma took center stage. The joy of rolling a ball retired into the background.
In Noby Noby Boy, Keita Takahashi and crew have already sold the world on their sense and style. They conscientiously opted to not tell us a story, and just let us stretch forever. (We can always press (and hold) a button to retract, if we want to start over. Or we can go into the little house and choose to generate a new stage, if we get tired of the one that we’re in.)
How could Noby Noby Boy have been more like Katamari Damacy? Well, it would have been like this. There would have been a big stage. A disembodied voice would have told you to stretch to a certain length. A group of objects would have been positioned perfectly. A time limit would start counting down at the top of the screen. You would have to stretch your Boy to the right length within the time limit. Complete a stage to open a new stage. The new stage starts you at your normal length, features more objects, and sets a higher length quota. Eventually, you’d be stretching to insane lengths.
How could Katamari have been more like Noby Noby Boy? Maybe you’d be rolling a ball in a world. Your ball would have a default size. As you rolled, it would constantly be getting smaller. The trick would be to roll up everything in the entire planet at a steady-enough pace. Hey! That sounds like it could be pretty good! Maybe even better than the original Katamari!
You just can’t make a game this way as a “new intellectual property”. See, Katamari would have been fun to play if the main character had just been a tiny sphere, and the objects had been cubes of varying sizes. It would have had a feeling, a certain friction. However, no one would have cared. The wallpaper was dead essential. It was necessary to make that sphere a thing that a cute little alien-thing is pushing, to make the pick-up-able objects little telephones or tree frogs or sumo wrestlers. Now, if you commission all that art, it’d be pretty hard to convince a game publisher to let you make your game some sort of renegade with regard to flow.
In short, Noby Noby Boy is a small concept brilliantly executed, and the volume of content is limited only by your willingness to enjoy yourself.
The presentation is perfect. The art is delightful. The sound effects are just the right level of fruity. The game is so anti-huge-business that we can’t help loving everything about it, right down to the bizarre game icon. Before the game was released, the press puzzled over how to cover it. “What kind of game is it? Who knows?” It was a real rollicking great story idea. Every time Namco released a new screenshot, another video game website editor threw it up on the news page, wrote a sentence about “Wow, this game is weird!”, and then rewarded himself with another delicious Twinkie. Takahashi himself fueled the weird fire by near-exclusively detailing the depth of the game’s “modes” and “story”: apparently, the game was about a Noby Noby (that means “stretchy”) Boy and a Noby Noby Girl. The Boy is on earth. The Girl is in space. The Girl is on a journey in space. There are apparently millions of Boys on earth. Those boys are the players. Every centimeter the players stretch their boys on earth — all around the world, via an online ranking system — is added to the length of the girl. If you get ten players stretching their Boys 100 meters each, Girl grows 1,000 meters, for example. Takahashi (and Namco?) told players that if Girl reached the Moon, the Moon would be unlocked as a stage, with all kinds of new stuff to do. The next stop, after the Moon, was Mars. Mars was, however, so far away that unless Noby Noby Boy became the highest-selling game in history, selling about a thousand times more copies than the PlayStation 3 had sold units, we would have invented nuclear fusion before Noby Noby Girl reached Mars. It kind of reminds you of that math problem — if you fold a piece of paper over fifty times, its final height will literally reach well past the moon. Of course, you can’t fold a sheet of paper in half fifty times.
Keita Takahashi must like little things like that. Well, eventually, Namco gave the players Mars. Back on earth, Takahashi is relating to journalists his first-person shooter idea: in which the player grows as he shoots, making some weapons too small to shoot, making some once-too-big weapons just the right size. Then there’s that rumor that Takahashi said he would rather make playgrounds for children than make videogames. That’s actually an interview question taken out of context. Someone had asked him what career he would have chosen if he hadn’t chosen to make videogames, and he said he would probably be designing playgrounds. Shigeru Miyamoto once said that the best videogames should be like playgrounds. You enjoy them, you grow fond memories. And then you put them in a drawer, until you have a “whole drawer full of playgrounds”. Noby Noby Boy is one such playground, only the era of digital downloads has rendered it impossible to put into a drawer. Anyway, someone actually asked Takahashi to make a playground. He’s in the middle of designing it right now. He says it’s going to be full of “soft objects” so children don’t get hurt. Having played Katamari or Noby Noby Boy, with their sinister undercurrents (Noby Noby Boy consumes livestock to create lumps in his body so as to better anchor himself for stretching; in Katamari, human beings — men, women, children — are just items on the ingredients list for your big ball of stuff, which will eventually be compacted and exploded into a star), we probably wouldn’t let our children (which don’t exist by the way) play on a real-life playground Keita Takahashi had designed. The virtual playgrounds, though — sure, go ahead.