Getting sand in your shorts was never this much fun.
The definition of “sandbox” gaming has broadened over the years. Originally the term referred to a game that gave ultimate power to a player to manipulate the game world as they pleased. It was like playing the role of a game developer, but doing so from within a carefully developed game world. Modern “sandbox” games generally refer more to “free-roaming” adventure titles that allow the player to choose which path they take, without the player having much control over the game world themselves. Let me make myself clear: The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim is a free-roaming, non-linear game, while a game like Minecraft is a true sandbox title. Unsurprisingly, The Sandbox is about as sandboxy as a sandbox game can be.
One of the biggest downsides of Minecraft is it’s lack instructions or guidance. Sandbox games may be open-ended, but if you don’t know how to use the tools provided to you, you’re not going to have a whole lot of fun. The recent Xbox Live Arcade version of the game helped remedy that, but it’s still pretty much impossible to play Minecraft properly without frequent trips to the game’s wiki page. The Sandbox addresses both of these issues right off the bat. First off, the game forces you to play several levels of it’s Story Mode before unlocking the Free Mode. There isn’t actually a story, but rather a cute/creepy godlike figure that gives you objectives to complete with various elements. This works well to get you used to how various elements in the game interact with each other. The second great feature for new players is the “elementpedia”; an in-game guide with descriptions of every tool and element in the game. While both of these resources give you a good overview of what the game has to offer, I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface with my time spent playing The Sandbox.
The Sandbox is a 2-D world element simulator that allows you to combine and build various materials to create worlds, ecosystems, elemental cycles, machines, and even works of art. The pixelated graphical style takes me back to hours spent playing Lemmings and Jetpack on my 386 during my childhood. Oops, did I just date myself? While you can’t kill little helpless green-haired creatures, you can certainly cause a fair amount of destruction and mayhem. Let me paint a scenario for you. You can drop dirt by selecting that element and holding your finger to the canvas. Dirt will pile up as expected. You can start pouring water on the dirt, which will create mud. (Alternatively, if you pour water over rock, it will slowly form sand.) If you then activate the sun, flowers will start to grow in the dirt. Drop on some seeds, and trees will start growing. At this point you have a nice little hill with lush vegetation. How cute. Change the world temperature from “normal” to “hot”, and everything bursts into flames like a nuke just went off. Water starts evaporating into little blue pixels floating in the sky, and the burned trees start forming ash that, when enough pressure is applied, can be turned into oil. Oil can be ignited with fire, which will start burning rock to form lava. Seriously, this game is nuts.
Did I mention I was only scratching the service? Later “story” levels get into mechanical abilities like electricity, water heaters/coolers, and even musical elements. There’s more, but I don’t want to spoil all of it, as discovery is one of the coolest aspects of The Sandbox. As you know, discovery is nothing without a way to share what you’ve discovered with others. The Sandbox features an in-game gallery where you can browse through other people’s worlds or share you own. At launch, the system is a bit clunky and can be confusing, but it serves it’s purpose well enough. I was expecting to see extravagant contraptions and cool ecosystems, but I was pleasantly surprised to see that people are actually using The Sandbox as a platform to create pixel art as well. Any world you’re working in can be paused at any time, freezing elements and any reactions that could occur. This turns the different elements into various colors of pixelated paint that can be “drawn” in the world canvas. It was fun to download various pixel art worlds, admire the artwork, then hit the “play” button to watch everything react to gravity, heat, etc.
The Sandbox isn’t without it’s flaws, but for the most part they are minor. The zoom feature is finicky, and it’s often hard to accurately paint on elements when your finger is in the way. Electricity seems to be difficult to control, as I wasn’t able to find a way to “turn off” the element without repeating the task for every single pixel if electricity on the screen. As I mentioned before, the gallery could use some more features, such as a search function, and it’s sometimes easy to get lost while trying to find a specific menu. It also should be noted that (at least from what I could see) there isn’t a way to upload a “paused” world. This means that many art worlds will load into your game with your world set to “play”, and you’ll have to pause and then re-download the world again. Speaking of accidents, the “undo” button undoes the last action, but doesn’t revert the consequences of it, which was disappointing. One of my biggest complaints comes from forcing the user to use a poorly responsive in-game keyboard, rather than simply popping up the iOS keyboard when typing out descriptions and names. I understand wanting to keep everything in-game, but typing without errors proved difficult without the classic virtual keyboard we all know and love.
If you weren’t already aware, The Sandbox is a free game, supported by in-app purchases. The currency is “mana”, and it is used to purchase new elements as well as world backgrounds. For $6.99, you can automatically unlock all the elements in the game, which seems a bit steep considering I was able to unlock over 15 of the 30 elements without spending a dime. That said, I feel like the game is really generous with providing mana for free, with mana being granted both for completing levels in story mode, as well as discovering new elements and combinations in free play when that is unlocked. I honestly don’t know if there is a specific point where mana has to be purchased with cash, but the mana packs in the game seem reasonable to me, and the achievements in the game provide a great reason to keep playing to earn more.
Even without spending any money or unlocking every single element in the game, The Sandbox is still a wonderful time killer that is perfect for people who enjoy experimenting, destroying, and building in a fun sandbox environment. The Sandbox does for 2D games what Minecraft has done for 3D, in that it provides a world where creativity is limited only to what the players can come up with. Already I’ve seen circuits, music boxes, perpetual machines, water cycles, and an endless amount of awesome pixel art – and the game hasn’t even been out for 24 hours. I’m looking forward to what new elements we’ll see in the future, but even more so, I’m looking forward to awesome content created by people who are far smarter/more talented than I am. I’m also looking forward to an eventual iPad version… I mean, it IS coming to iPad at some point… right?!
Update: I confirmed that The Sandbox is coming to iPad, and is being localized in 5 different languages. No ETA as of yet.
The Sandbox (not universal) is available on the App Store for free (with in-app purchases).