Preview: Toybox

July 7, 2012

Let’s face it: mobile games are all about distraction. They’re something for you to do while you wait at your public transport stop rather than push someone onto the train tracks out of boredom. That’s something that I love about mobile gaming and it’s always fascinating to see how developers are constantly pushing the envelope. I was lucky enough to try out the latest of such games, Toybox. Developed by Sam Baird and Julian Frost who form the curiously-named Barrel of Donkeys, Toybox is an interesting peek into this world and a promising sign of things to come.

Rather than being two separate titles such as the Ghostbox Double Combo, Toybox is a fusion of two of the most well-loved genres in gaming: the shoot-‘em-up and the match-3 game. However, in this game, the screen is split, with one section displaying the shoot-‘em-up game and the other displaying the match-3. As a result, your attention is divided between dodging bullets and toy spaceships as well as making sure that the blocks are falling into the right place. It’s simple but to play well, it basically boils down to hand-eye coordination. The control scheme is simple and involves the use of both your thumbs to control your ship and the position of where (and when) the blocks fall on the other side of the screen. Unfortunately it’s still hard to get pinpoint accuracy when it comes to playing shooters using a touchscreen, and Toybox is no exception. For example, at one point I lifted my thumb off the left side of the screen to adjust my grip and my ship immediate slid to the middle, resulting in the loss of one life. However, the fact that you can modify the controls slightly does remedy this problem a bit, but it would be nice if a screen calibration option of some sort existed.

The screen isn’t just divided for the sake of it though, as what happens on one side of the screen affects the other. Destroying certain waves of enemies will cause a block to appear and you have a set amount of time to place it on the game’s (understandably) small grid. On the other hand, making a combo of three or more blocks will destroy all the ships on the field and will sometimes give you a weapon upgrade. You might wonder why this is necessary from the outset as the game is initially quite easy, with very few enemies to shoot down or weave around. But of course, it wouldn’t be a very interesting game without a bit of challenge. As the game progresses things start getting trickier and the whole block receiving/block placing dynamic starts to take a more strategic angle to it. For example, how you decide to place the blocks becomes an important factor, as well as utilising the short delay in dropping the blocks (rather than dropping them yourself).

Despite these mechanics, Toybox does end up being rather repetitive after 15 minutes or so as once you learn the strategy there really isn’t much else to it except to beat scores. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing; as I said before, I totally get the idea that mobile games are more distractions than anything. Fortunately, this is something Barrel of Donkeys is aware of as well, as in the last couple of weeks I’ve had the game I’ve played two different challenges and word is that more will be released every week to sate players’ appetites. There’s even a high-score board which at the moment is rather sparse (saying you come 4th on a leaderboard with only 7 people on it isn’t that great of an achievement). The aesthetics of Toybox are refreshing as well. Rather than the tried and tired pixel indie games you seem to see everywhere nowadays, Toybox uses well-detailed sprites and a charming selection of bright yet gentle colours. The soundtrack is interesting too and is procedurally generated, tying in nicely with the way you play.

Simplicity is the key for a lot of mobile games and Toybox is a great example of one that takes a simple concept but is tricky to do well at. Improvements to the control scheme can definitely be made, but I love the idea of fresh, weekly content and the neat spin on two beloved genres. It’ll be interesting to see how this takes shape in the cut-throat world of mobile gaming, but I’m looking forward to hearing great things.