This article is by Skylar V. Lalonde
When I told Casey I was going to move away from video game reviews for a while, I meant it at the time. But CoolmathGames.com is a force of nature, one which I can never help but to come crawling back to whenever the good ol' ADHD insomnia strikes. When I saw it on the new releases page ten days ago, Chase of Boxes didn't particularly stand out; just another little puzzle platformer with a box-related gimmick among hundreds. But 3:30AM is not kind to me, and I was craving mental stimulation enough to give it a go. The credits attribute the programming and game design to MapaCarta, a 31-year-old Turkish man who has been publishing games like this one since September of 2010. I might have had higher expectations had I gone into the game with this knowledge, but be honest, when was the last time you read the credits on CoolmathGames?
Chase of Boxes is, indeed, another little puzzle platformer with a box-related gimmick. The hero of our story, a cute little pixel cowboy, can throw boxes to solve puzzles in most of the usual box-throwing ways; namely, using them as stepping stones, hitting switches, and blocking projectiles. Signs placed near the beginning of each level relate a first-person account of how the cowboy uses those boxes in their life, which mostly serve as pointers on how to progress. There are ten levels in total; the first nine all follow this formula as they introduce new elements to interact with. It's a very standard puzzle platformer, and my CoolmathGames addiction makes me about as close to an expert as you can get. The tenth level, though... Well. In due time.
Before I get to that, let's talk quality. It's clear MapaCarta isn't a digital artist, but it's only clear because the actual creator of the assets is credited as Thomas Lean on Itch.io. It's great practice to let other people fill in your weak points (especially when you pay them for the use of their labor, like Thomas Lean requires), so that's an A for Attribution. The music and sounds come from playonloop.com, and while some of the game's sound design is a little cheesy (the slide-whistle jump comes to mind), I give that another A for Almost certainly exactly what I would do. The movement physics are pretty good, actually. The cowboy has a natural-feeling jump cycle, and is only the tiniest bit slippery; if Celeste is an A+ in basic character movement (it is), Chase of Boxes is a solid B. Finally, there's the box throwing, which is kind of the focus of the game and all. The speed they come out at is frankly shocking; this cowboy apparently never forgot how to fire from the hip. The game makes it work, though, with puzzles that don't require much precision and in fact do require box speed, so I have to give kudos for that. You can hold down Z to charge up your box, and it only throws when you release the key, which is a nice feature that makes jump shots and timing pretty easy. The sheer velocity of those boxes still feels wrong to me, probably because boxes almost never move that quickly in real life, but upon reflection they're a solidly designed game mechanic.
And then I came to level ten. Level eight had seen a sudden spike in difficulty, with a mini gauntlet of slow tracking projectiles that could be tricky to hit sometimes, so I probably should have seen something coming. But cognition can be hard at 3:30AM—and nothing could have prepared me for level ten. Narratively, it's a cute and funny resolution: "And finally," declares the last sign, "[I use boxes] to stop this small gorilla." At the other side of the mostly featureless room stands the small gorilla in question, and it's rocking a huge top-of-the-screen health bar. This is an honest to god boss fight, in a game that has so far been about jumping on platforms and hitting projectiles with boxes. I really, really wish I had known what I was getting myself into.
The gorilla fight can be broken down into two phases, which I'll call Running Phase and Throwing Phase. During Running Phase, the gorilla simply approaches the cowboy, moving slightly slower than they can. It might be tempting to just jump over them, but every few seconds the gorilla will jump nearly twice the cowboy's max jump height, and touching it will instantly send you back to the beginning of the fight, so every overhead juke could be your last. I didn't really test it, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the gorilla actually has semi-intelligent pathing and will deliberately jump into the player, too. To get out of this phase, you need only hit it with a box, but once again, the gorilla will semi-intelligently jump over the boxes, requiring you to time your shot so it catches it just after it lands. If this was the whole fight, I would probably be happy, honestly, but then comes the Throwing Phase. Once hit, the gorilla stands still for several seconds, then jumps to the wall furthest from its current location and begins throwing rocks. These rocks come in bursts of random quantity, move much faster than other projectiles, and like all hazards, reset the level instantly on a hit. Even if you could destroy them with boxes—I honestly don't know—they always come from above, and you can only throw horizontally, so your main defensive tool isn't an option. The rocks are individually aimed on random arcs based on your current position, and it can be incredibly difficult to figure out where each one is going to land before it arrives. You just have to wait this phase out, dodging 4 or 5 waves of rocks before the gorilla drops down and returns to Running Phase. Repeat three more times; after the fourth hit during a Running Phase, the gorilla is vanquished, and the game is over.
You may remember my Sundered review from Tuesday (shameless self-promotion). Sundered is a game all about combat, and its boss fights are—spoiler alert (not really)—hard. And I can still honestly say that if you've ever struggled against a boss in Sundered, the Chase of Boxes gorilla is worse. This little fucking ape has some of the most bullshit attack patterns I have ever seen, and I've had to deal with the Embrace route's final boss. The gorilla's rock trajectories are clearly random, but since they're almost impossible to predict even after they're thrown, your only option is to move randomly and pray the RNG blesses you. And if you survive that, it's still not over, because when the gorilla jumps off the wall after a Throwing Phase, its speed and trajectory are based on your position. If you're standing near it or around the halfway mark, you'll probably have just enough time to get out of the way. But if you decided to try your luck too close to the far wall, it will hurl itself at you at speeds approaching a max-charge box launch, an unavoidable end to what could have been the perfect run. And to top it all off, (almost) every video game boss you have ever struggled against has one major advantage over the gorilla: you do not die in one hit. Chase of Boxes makes you slog through three whole Throwing Phases, any of which could end your life in an instant. Sundered's final bosses were tough, but I beat them each on the third or fourth try. This gorilla took me over fifty.
Here is how I beat the gorilla.
When the gorilla enters throwing phase, move almost directly under it. When you're that close, the randomly generated rock arcs are much more tightly grouped, and their near-verticality actually gives you a chance to predict where they'll land and dodge accordingly. It's best for the gorilla to be on the left wall, meaning you hit it out of Running Phase while it's on the right half of the room. It's alright if you can't get it there, but the doorway you came in from gives you a bit of extra leeway to make the shots almost perfectly vertical. This isn't an automatic win, but it at least makes the fight possible. On my second playthrough, I managed to beat the gorilla in only four tries with this strategy.
I was initially not very impressed by Chase of Boxes, but as with many things, writing this review made me realize that it was better designed than it seemed to me ten days ago, triumphantly celebrating the death of the gorilla. You could find a few different lessons in this—don't judge a book by its cover, don't underestimate eight years of browser game design experience, write an in-depth review of every piece of media you consume—but the one I am choosing to take away is that I should not play little browser game puzzle platformers at 3:30AM if I am not prepared to get my ass kicked by small gorillas.
Experience: 2 full playthroughs, 50+ gorilla fight attempts, uncountable hours playing other little browser game puzzle platformers
Score: 1 special box, ripped from the cold, dead hands of a small gorilla