People love to reflect on the platformers of the 90s as this golden age of gaming. I think it’s because Mario 64 was such a game changer, for the time, and it’s equal parts innovation, familiarity and novelty that helped fuel such a vessel. Would a game like that have been nearly as successful if the mustachioed plumber, who had already had several big games, was not attached? It’s debatable, but the fact remains is the game is memorable and hordes of fans and developers have done their best to re-capture the same effect. Now, with just weeks between us and the newest entry to the Mario saga, a self-proclaimed callback to the era has landed on the Nintendo Switch. This is Unbox: Newbie’s Adventure.
In a world where the Global Postal System (the GPS) is both the most important service and also the closest to bankruptcy, the solution became incredibly clear: self-delivering boxes! These autonomous cardboard entities were sure to be the solution to all of life’s problems and save GPS from closing down. However, not every box is as sharp as they come, and several even went rogue, choosing lives of mischief and bad deeds instead of delivering themselves to patient customers. Thankfully, the newest box, YOU, has arrived, and, with the help of some veteran boxes, you’re sure to be able to save the day. Probably. This is a cute premise and certainly different than many that I’ve run across, so I gotta give Prospect Games their due.
If there’s one thing that Unbox captures perfectly, it’s the fetch-quest ideas and conditions of such massive, 3D platformers of yesteryear, particularly the ones on the Nintendo 64. The worlds, though few, are massive, and the items, quests and hidden joys are spread out in a wide yet reasonable effect. You will need to travel a bit before getting to your next quest, and, although there are ways to travel a bit faster (postal boxes can send you back to the start quickly and act as checkpoints), you spend quite a while rolling between locales. Excellent for folk who enjoy looking in all manner of nooks and crannies, not great for people who are following a vague, floating arrow to their next objective. The worlds are filled with hazards, such as water and “Zippies” (bad boxes), who will absolutely ruin your travels in different ways, so be vigilant and on point.
The controls are something that need to be addressed, now. There was some thought that went into how to move as a box and also how that movement would translate into being an autonomous box. As such, Unbox has a pretty interesting take on a lot of it while still being simple enough to pick up quickly. You’re a square object that tries to roll, so it’s a clunky movement that still works relatively well. You can jump and also do a slam attack, which is the best way for a box to attack other boxes and also trigger floor switches. But there are often levels and other items that aren’t on the floor, which then need to be triggered with “A”, and I found myself needing to re-position myself time and again in order to active these sort of triggers. And, unfortunately, a box, at least one in these controls, tends to have uneven momentum while moving. I didn’t expect to stop on a dime, but you have certain expectations when your character has feet. With a box protagonist, it’s hard to gauge where you are and how much you need in order to come to a complete stop. So you end up rolling another couple of rotations and then ruining yourself. You also have some difficulty in guessing where you land when jumping, because the amount of momentum here depends entirely on your clearance. If there’s too much in your way, you get a short hop, whereas you can launch yourself quite far with an empty area in front of you. The effect is… touch and go, at best. I had to do an early quest to jump to the top of a radio tower and it took me far, FAR longer than I care to admit because I kept launching into space, falling forever and then trying my best to not give into rage simply because a cardboard box wouldn’t do what I wanted.
The unbox system, however, is pretty spiffy, which is a double jump mechanic that can be used a finite number of times (max of six) but can be used all at once, resulting in a MASSIVE vertical leap if needed. It’s a system that can be recharged, and the unbox re-charges are plentiful, so feel free to experiment with different ways to accomplish simple ideas. And, once you get your hands on explosives, the real fun begins. Unbox doesn’t focus too much on your box having pinpoint accuracy, just whether you have a clear shot or not. Something is very rewarding about using rockets as a box.
The art of Unbox is very cute and well designed, but absolutely must be played in docked mode. Up on the big screen, everything has a great amount of polish and sheen: the water ripples beautifully, the snow glistens, and the boxes look both fresh and retro in the same swing. However, when playing in handheld mode, the graphics take a pretty significant hint: the boxes all become pretty jagged, and the backgrounds appear like I’m seeing them through a thin haze of smoke. I think this is partially due to the Unreal engine and partially due to some slight optimization issues. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still completely playable, but I honestly was pretty put off when I first loaded it up. The three screens when you start the game are unskippable at first and stay up for a long time, followed by the boxes not looking great….I’m glad I continued and tried docked play, because it felt night and day. It also let me enjoy the fun, fresh soundtrack a lot better through stereo speakers than my own earbuds. The island steel drums of Paradise Isle are straight out of Mario Sunshine, and I’m saying that in the best way possible.
The multiplayer modes are what I’ll definitely keep coming back to once the story is finished (main game is done but I’m still collecting Golden Tapes). Using classic split screen, the races are pretty fun, but the battles are simply ludicrous and actually work great in four player, total pandemonium approach mode. Definitely take some time and customize at least one box before you jump in, and, again, do it up on the big screen. I didn’t experience any lag in handheld mode, but it looked worse and the portable stage is a bit cramped for everyone. It’s the same issue I had with Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, but that had a much larger team working on it, so it was bearable. Unbox tried to do everything that it could for this Switch port and, on most levels, it succeeded. But it’s still a game that’s better as a console and not as a handheld.
I gotta say, I was pretty uncertain about the validity of Unbox: Newbie’s Adventure on the Switch, but this cute 3D exploration is making itself nice and cozy amongst plenty of indie friends. I highly recommend getting yourself a couple of Pro Controllers or possibly some good 3rd party setups, because the JoyCons are ok, but a full controller is so much better. Keep it in the dock and keep the volume up and, as always, give yourself some time to fully adjust to the movement of Newbie. The tutorial is good, but you’ll want to have time to see exactly what it is you’ve gotten yourself into and what’s expected for the best experience possible. With time and the right atmosphere, you’ve got yourself a fantastic ticket back to the days of yore, when the three pronged controller reigned supreme.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Nintendo Switch code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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