“Creating a game with a new character like Qbby made me feel happier than I’ve ever felt before.” That’s Yasuhiro Mukae talking. He’s best known for making Kirby games, but we’re not talking about Kirby.

Mukae is a longtime at HAL Laboratory, the game studio behind Kirby. He was also the director of Box Boy, a new side-scrolling puzzle game for the Nintendo 3DS. I loved the game, and consider it one of the best games on the 3DS. We recently did an e-mail interview to talk about the game and how it came to be.

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It was a cool chat, particularly the parts where he broke down how the game’s levels are made. BoxBoy is all about carefully managed challenge. The levels grow steadily more complex while seldom stopping you cold. You’re constantly learning but might not feel like you are; it’s like Portal in that way. With games like that, you constantly feel the hand of the game’s creator, which might be why it was so fun to talk with Mukae.

If you’re in a rush, here it is in convenient bullet-point form:

  • The BoxBoy project took off after HAL Laboratory invited its staffers to pitch some non-Kirby games, though the game’s director had already been cooking up the concept
  • Mukae was inspired by the simpler game designs of NES and GameBoy games
  • The developers considered putting Kirby on the starring role of the game but realized it would look weird to have Kirby sprouting boxes
  • In general, it sounds like HAL may still be focused on making Kirby games but is also greenlighting more non-Kirby projects
  • The main character is called Qbby (“Cue-bee”), not BoxBoy, which you should think of more as his species
  • Qbby’s birthdate and origin are “unknown... but that info might wind up being revealed at a later date.”
  • World 5-4 of BoxBoy vexed some Japanese gamers, and Mukae has a pretty good idea why
  • The developers tried to maintain a gentle learning curve that would enable players to figure out the game’s puzzles on their own, giving them a sense of accomplishment
  • If he had to choose between Smash Bros and Mario Kart, Mukae would put his box-shaped hero in the former. Qbby just doesn’t have the arms to steer a Mario kart.

(Editor’s note: apologies to Mr. Mukae, but I’ve changed his presentation of his game’s title from BOXBOY! to BoxBoy. Maybe that’s not the technical spelling, but better that than it seem like this very nice man is shouting the name of his game.)

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Stephen Totilo: HAL Laboratory is known for making Kirby games, so it is a surprise to see you release a non-Kirby game. How did that come about? Can you tell me more about the character’s origins?

Yasuhiro Mukae, Director of Box Boy: First off, thank you for seeing BoxBoy as a surprise. It’d make me really happy if people continue to devote attention to BoxBoy as well instead of just Kirby!

Now, let me talk about the development process for BoxBoy. One day, the company announced that it would field game design concepts featuring new characters, something that didn’t depend on Kirby.

I had actually thought up the idea for BoxBoy before that point, so I took it as a good opportunity to write it up as a full project plan.

After that, a few staffers that saw the potential in the design created a prototype game we could play within the company. Once we submitted the design and prototype as a set, it was officially established as the BoxBoy project and development began at that point.

As for the BoxBoy character, there isn’t any real original idea behind it; the Qbby character was designed functionally as part of his box-producing ability. He was made square so it wouldn’t look weird for him to be producing boxes; I then added some feet so he could move and jump, along with some eyes so you could tell which way he’s facing, and then Qbby was complete.

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Totilo: This probably isn’t that important, but I want to clarify: is the character’s name Qbby? Or BoxBoy? Or both? (Also: how do you pronounce “Qbby”?)

Mukae: “Qbby” is the name of the character. You could think of “Boxboy” as the type of species or creature that Qbby is. It’s pronounced “cue-bee.”

Totilo: Do you have any older sketches of BoxBoy that you could share with our readers? Im sure they’d love to see how a character evolves from concept to finished product. I’m also curious how much back-story you have for him, such as whether you determine, say, when his birthday is or where he is from.

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Mukae: Here’s part of the original early illustrations that I included in the project plan.

I apologize; hopefully you weren’t expecting anything too special. As you can see in the illustrations, there isn’t much difference from Qbby as he currently exists. In fact, you might think that he’s exactly the same. (There are a few changes, though! The angles of the body, for example, and the size of the eyes.)

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Also, since he was designed from a functional perspective to be able to create boxes, I feel that the character was already very complete even in the early stages.

Qbby’s place and date of birth are currently unknown, by the way, but that info might wind up being revealed at a later date.

BoxBoy is about more than just solving puzzles. There’s a story element that gradually reveals more of the world’s secrets as you go. I think it’d be great if gamers could take the info they get from the game and use that to imagine what makes Qbby and his friends tick and so on.

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Totilo: Going back to the idea that HAL has primarily released Kirby games of late, I’m curious if this game originally was going to feature Kirby. Was it?

Mukae: We did consider having Kirby be the hero at one point, as part of our brainstorming process to figure out BoxBoy’s visual look.

We pondered about how to keep the box-producing action for Kirby from looking weird or unnatural, and that wound up turning into a difficult process.

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So, after considering a number of ideas, we decided that the Qbby visual we had kicking around from the early stages would be the best. The results are what you see now.

Totilo: Many gamers and members of the gaming press will see a studio work on one franchise a lot and wonder if the studio is even allowed to work on anything else. I believe that you and [lead level designer Tatsuya] Kamiyama both worked on Kirby Triple Deluxe. Maybe the rest of the team worked on Kirby games before as well. What is it like at HAL in terms of being able to create new things? Do you guys have to always be working on Kirby games, too? Have you been asking to make a non-Kirby game?

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Mukae: Certainly, as you say, the Kirby series is HAL Laboratory’s main development focus, but we actually have several other projects proceeding along in parallel (not that I can give details on them right now, of course). We also have a few experimental projects in the works with smaller teams, so there certainly isn’t any rule that we must be involved with Kirby projects. Like I discussed in the first question, BoxBoy got its start as an experimental project along those lines.

I was involved in the development of Kirby: Triple Deluxe, but I was also working on the BoxBoy experiment at the same time. Handling both projects simultaneously presented some big challenges, but creating a game with a new character like Qbby made me feel happier than I’ve ever felt before.

Once Kirby: Triple Deluxe development wrapped up, I was able to devote myself fully to BoxBoy This happened right when it went from an experiment to an official development project, and full-on development began at that point. Some of the Kirby: Triple Deluxe team also joined the BoxBoy project right about then.

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As I wrote earlier, our development efforts may be chiefly devoted to Kirby, but there’s no hard-and-fast rule that everything has to be related to Kirby titles. I’m getting the chance to be involved a lot more often with non-Kirby things, such as this BoxBoy project—though, again, I can’t give details quite yet.

Totilo: Box Boy’s gameplay is so simple, at first, and yet I had a hard time thinking of any games that have used these box-sprouting mechanics. Can you tell me where the gameplay idea came from and how you realized it was good enough for an entire game?

Mukae: I thought up the game concept as I took hints from the retro games of the NES and Game Boy era.

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I think you saw a lot of titles in the NES/Game Boy age that feature simple design elements—for example, pushing square blocks around stages in order to reach the end. Adventures of Lolo, one of HAL’s earlier titles, is just one of them.

I analyzed the kind of “use blocks to complete stages” games you saw in this era, trying to bring in my own take and introduce some game play no one’s seen before. That led to the birth of the BoxBoy idea.

I figured that this idea was robust enough to build a full game out of once I saw the incredible amount of variety unlocked by BoxBoy’s unique box-creation skill.

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You have this really simple concept of making boxes at the core of the game, but you can use that to perform all kinds of moves—using boxes as platforms to jump on, making them into a stairway to climb, putting up a wall to block attacks, hooking boxes against a ledge to climb up to high places, creating a “snake” of them to whiz through narrow spots and so on.

As I explored this idea, I realized that there was so much to work with—a simple action that lets you perform a wide swath of tasks—that it was enough to build an entire game from.

Totilo: It’s unusual these days to see any games that are black and white. Why make this game (primarily) black and white?

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Mukae: Our aim with the simple visual look of BoxBoy was to differentiate it from other games. In the modern scene, with tons of games with colorful visuals all over the place, having a simple monochrome visual look like BoxBoy’s makes things look striking. It’s something we thought would draw gamers’ attention and make them take an interest in the game.

Totilo: I was wondering if you could pick a level in the game and walk me through the thinking behind the jumps, puzzles and other obstacles in the level. I can tell that you are usually training the player bit by bit, but if it’s not too much trouble, I’d love to have you walk me and my readers through the design of a specific level that you’re proud of.

Mukae: Let’s talk about World 5, Stage 4, a stage that generated a lot of buzz among gamers when BoxBoy first came out in Japan. I think this’ll be more fun if you can look at this stage in the game as you read, since that’ll make it easier to see why it created that buzz.

[Note from Stephen: Here’s a video of me playing through the level.]

In this stage, you’re using your snake ability to move around quickly, pushing switches to open up shutters. In the beginning, you’re using the basic snake skill to push switches and move on through the stage, but if you want to get the crown just before the goal, then you’ll need to get creative with the snake skill.

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Up to that point, proceeding through the stage is pretty simple; just create blocks in the direction Qbby is going. For that final crown, though, you have to extend boxes out toward the opposite wall, something you were never asked to do before. Coming up with this approach was apparently pretty difficult for a lot of people, to the point where discussions along the lines of “I can’t get the last crown in Stage 4 of World 5!” were really popular in the Japanese Miiverse community. Along those lines, Stage 4 really sticks out in my memory.

By the way, one other stage I recommend is the one in World 14 where Spiky makes his debut. The fact that Spiky is the only enemy character that appears in BoxBoy is one reason for this. Most stages in this world involve you using boxes to guide him around, and it’s something you don’t see in other stages, which I like to have.

Something you see across many of BoxBoy’s worlds is a setup where the first stage may offer a simple puzzle to teach gamers how to solve it. The next one offers a variation on the first stage’s solving method to help people gradually get used to the puzzle and then the last one asks you to apply these solving methods to match with the puzzle presented. Our aim was to present a natural stage progression, letting users gradually figure out how to solve puzzles by themselves. Keep that in mind as you play, and I think it’ll make for a more fun solving experience.

Totilo: What feelings are you trying to evoke from the player when they play this game? It seems to me that you want them to feel smart, but you tell me.

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Mukae: BoxBoy is a puzzle game, so as we built the stages, we were careful to ensure that players felt a sense of accomplishment after coming up with the solution to a difficult stage, like “I finally got this! I’m so smart!” My hope as I designed the game was that players get a feel for the fun and depth behind the unique box-creation element that provides the key to solving the stages.

Totilo: Do you have plans to create more levels for the game in the form of DLC or a sequel?

Mukae: If I have the chance, I’d love to create more! That, and more than anything else, I hope that people pick up BoxBoy and fall in love with it. I think it’d be great if you gave it a chance!

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Totilo: If you could have Box Boy added to either Mario Kart or Smash Bros, which would you choose, and why?

Mukae: That’s a really interesting question! Hmm… If I had to pick only one, I’d go for Super Smash Bros. I say that because the sheer variety behind Qbby’s box-producing skill could see a lot of application, both in offense and defense! It might be pretty fun if you could do things like hook your boxes to the ledge to keep yourself from getting KO’d off the stage.

By the way, as for why I didn’t go for Mario Kart, there’s the fact that Qbby doesn’t have any way to hold a steering wheel. If he ever did show up in Mario Kart, I’m willing to bet that he’d have some trouble with the curves. Although, if he could use his box-hook skill to grab the wheel, maybe Qbby can hit it big in Mario Kart after all. Would answering “Both!” be greedy of me?

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To contact the author of this post, write to stephentotilo@kotaku.com or find him on Twitter @stephentotilo.