Friday, 22 April 2011

The Great Genre Expedition: Puzzle Games

This Article has also been hosted at The Yorker and the VG Resource.

Admittedly, puzzle games aren’t quite so ‘out there’ as game genres go, but the market doesn’t really extend outside of Bejeweled – and even the 30-something ‘non-gamer’ market is getting tired of matching three coloured gems. Angry Birds is the new popular mainstay, but I feel it lacks substance. There are other – and better – cerebral thrills to be had.

In this day and age, video game production isn’t solely about the big names any more. Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony will always hog the limelight, but ‘Indie Devs’ – small developer teams that survive by creating games that the bigger teams might overlook – are making waves, and Digital Distribution services like Steam are the best medium for them to reach an audience.

At first look, Puzzle Dimension has little to it. You roll a ball through tiled mazes, collecting flowers (Why? Who knows), and reaching the goal to progress to the next stage. They do a lot with this simplicity – stages ease you into increasing complexity (ice tiles you slide across, tiles that crumble or ignite, invisible routes…), the background music swells and changes as you complete more of a stage, changing them from blocky and retro to rough and realistic. Later stages will have you fail. A lot. Despite that, muddling through stages is still compelling.
Puzzle Dimension is available on Steam.

The Street Fighter series is world-renowned for its competitive multi player status. Countless versions and revisions to the franchise has tweaked and refined the mechanics of the game to keep everything balanced. Apply that ethos to a puzzle game, and you get Super Puzzle Fighter.

Similar to the Puyo Pop series, the aim is to beat your opponent by building up large masses of blocks (‘Gems’ in this game), and clearing them all at once, giving you huge score bonuses and punishing your opponent. Trash sent by your foe can be converted back into Gems and sent back in sweet revenge. It’s a simple system, but as you learn how to play, setting up lengthy combos toes a thin line of finishing a gigantic assault and a misplaced Gem meaning defeat. The no-nonsense game play has made the game both adrenaline-pumping and very popular in competitive circuits. Plus, the cartoony Street Fighter and Darkstalkers characters are just adorable.
The most recent incarnation, Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo HD Remix is available on XBLA and PSN.

Puzzle League comes in many guises. Initially a Japanese-only game called Panel de Pon; the SNES western release was re-branded with characters from Yoshi’s Island characters and confusingly named Tetris Attack. But the series didn’t really take off in the west until the Nintendo 64 release of Pokémon Puzzle League. The series has been known as Puzzle League ever since.

The game plays like a more demanding form of Bejeweled. Blocks steadily rise from the bottom of the screen, and by swapping two horizontally adjacent ones (no vertical swaps for you), matching up 3 or more of a kind will make them vanish. Tactics come in where you think several steps ahead, setting up elaborate arrangements of colourful block destruction. This is one of the few games that will get me into the fabled ‘gaming trance’. Where the control and skill required to play just comes naturally and easily. It’s both relaxing and stimulating – It’s both got my brain whirring in the morning, and winding down before bed. Maybe having ‘Tetris’ in the initial title wasn’t a bad idea.
Puzzle League is available on most Nintendo consoles. I recommend Planet Puzzle League for the DS. Pokémon Puzzle League is available on Wii Virtual Console.

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