Portable Puzzlers: An In-Depth History
Resident puzzle fanatic Philip Jones lets his geek show a little bit, with this portable puzzlers history lesson...
I could go into the entire history of Tetris, documenting its development, the inter-company brawls that ensued over the rights but, I won't. Buy a book on it! Read Wikipedia's entry on the subject. What I'm interested in is the legacy that Tetris has given us. Any popular game is going to find itself being copied and Tetris pretty much invented a whole new genre of puzzle game for other game developers to tinker with.
So how did it start? Aaaaah, I remember it well. At the time of the release of the Game Boy, I had my face buried deep in my home computer. I'd read about the machine in a few magazines but didn't know that much about it. I turned up at school one day to find everyone in my class in a massive huddle, an eerily silent huddle. I tried to peer in but couldn't see! All I could hear is that now oh-so familiar theme tune and sound of blocks being rotated. I eventually wrestled my way into the crowd and got up close to the Game Boy, eventually managing to get a very short play on it. I had of course no idea what I was doing, messed up in seconds, and had the machine plucked from my grasp by another excited child.
So that was my introduction to the legend that is Tetris. The Game Boy soon spread around school like wildfire. You heard the Tetris theme everywhere. Parents sneakily played on them when their kids weren't looking. Soon enough the machine and game were everywhere. Naturally, every publisher wanted in on the phenomenon but only a few managed to create a game anywhere near as addictive as our Russian friend.
Now Dr Mario was a game I personally never really got along with on the old Game Boy. Seeing as it was really designed as a game designed around matching colors, only played on the Green as you like GB screen. Not that it was impossible, it just felt a little dull. I also felt, as I'm sure many others did, that already having a superior game in the form of Tetris, what was the point in getting an inferior title? The game was enjoyable enough, I just didn't find it anywhere near as addictive as "the other game". I can't recall anyone I know every saying anything along the lines of "my GOD I LOVE Dr. Mario" either, so I don't think it was just me.
Sega saw the success of the Game Boy and decided it needed a similarly addictive game, one that could also not be seen as a complete rip-off of Tetris. They snapped up the rights to a little known computer game called Jewels and thrashed it out onto the Genesis and Game Gear. Now, the trick with Columns is not that you match falling shapes like in Tetris but match gems (although I always preferred playing as fruits!) of similar colors in rows of three, either going horizontally, vertically or diagonally. Nice and simple but at the same time fiendishly difficult. I remember playing it on my brothers Game Gear, in the dark in my bedroom with headphones on, completely immersed in falling block joy, until the juice hungry Game Gear decided "No more play for you!" that was...
Puyo Pop has been around in various forms since 1991. I remember the games magazines over here in the UK went crazy for the game on import for the Genesis at the time. It saw release on the Game Gear but only in Japan. Sega inserted characters from the world of Sonic the Hedgehog into it and eventually unleashed it upon the west in the form of Dr. Robotniks Mean Bean Machine. Which I thought was a silly name... It would take until the Neo Geo Pocket Color in '99 for us to see a handheld version of the original Puyo Pop get a western release. Now matching colored blocks had been done before but the Puyo games had a little something extra. The blobs themselves had character! Looking around at each other, fidgeting around and looking really quite shocked when you burst 'em. What Puyo introduced though (do correct me if I'm wrong!) is the idea of you as a character, Arle. Being pitted against a variety of foes in a versus battle, only using blobs! With you forming groups of four of the same color or more, in any direction, the main goal being to set up chain reactions so that whole legions of puyos, go pop! Causing empty, colorless puyos to rain down on your opponent, ruining their chances of getting you back.
PSP Launch title Lumines was discounted by many as just a Tetris clone but the way it actually plays is quite different. Your play area is wide instead of tall, your goal is to match blocks of 4 of the same color into squares of 4 blocks, or even multiple linked squares. The blocks vanish not when linked but when a sweeping line moves past them, so you only have a limited time to get yourself ready for an impressive bit of vanishing block combo action. The fun is in setting up these massive combos. In still pictures Lumines looks so very Tetris, it's only when you play it that you realise the only thing it has in common is that blocks fall from the sky... and vanish!
Super Puzzle Fighter 2 Turbo
The great thing about Super Puzzle Fighter 2 turbo is that it's an exercise in silliness from the get go. Based on the characters from Street Fighter Alpha and Darkstalkers, It sounds like a sequel but there was no Super Puzzle Fighter One to start off with. So it's in effect a nice example of Capcom indulging in a little self parody, something we should see more often from every publisher. The game came out in '96 on the Playstation and Saturn but the Game Boy Advance saw a conversion a few years back. Like Puyo Pop it's a versus based game, collecting gems of certain colors together but... BUT! Instead of them just automatically disappearing you have to activate them with whats called a 'crash gem'. Spurting 'counter gems' over to your opponent, which can't be smashed until a timer on them has counted down. So, some nice new additions to the standard versus puzzle gameplay style and a great bit of fun for fans of capcoms fighting games.
Meteos is a fun little DS game. Your little colored blocks fall down as usual from the infinite off screen block manufacturing facility. With you as the player tasked to match them up vertically or horizontally in rows of three or more. That doesn't make them vanish though, oh no. You find your blocks and any that happened to be above them, getting propelled back up the screen! The more blocks linked together, the higher up they fly! The plan is to get them right off the top of the screen, never to return. While it is fun, I myself find it not quite as challenging as other falling block games due to the fact you can just move the blocks as and when you please (although you can only move them vertically). It's certainly good for a quick blast though.
Gunpey has recently been released on both the DS and the PSP. From the happy chaps at Q entertainment, the makers of both Meteos and Lumines, Gunpey is a modern reissue of a game that found its first home on the Wonderswan (not making this up, honest!), a handheld console from Bandai. With Bandai now all friendly with Namco and getting their publishing hats firmly placed on their heads, they tasked Q entertainment with updating their old puzzler and getting it out on the streets in suitable fashion. The Psp version being all super shiny, hyper-cool modern trendiness and the Ds version featuring happy as heck mascots and cartoon stylings. Technically though, it's not a falling block puzzle game! It does have a tall, narrow grid on which panels appear that you have to connect to make a path from left to right. Well, you are matching things up right? Grid? Check.. Matching things? Check.. Things then vanishing? Check! Yep, I'd say it has some kind of Tetris flavored roots. I haven't managed to obtain myself a copy just yet, being a stinky European. We always get things last. The distributor's horse and cart can take its sweet time...
So, what of Tetris itself? Over the years, people made do with the original Game Boy version. Nintendo only seeing fit to release an update when the Game Boy made the change to Color with Tetris DX. Now I actually played Tetris DX a HUGE amount. Simply due to the fact that it had a battery backed memory that recorded your high scores. So over many months my brother and I battled each other in a fight of tetri-prowess. It was a case of sitting back, flicking the Game Boy Color on, and going "WHAAAAAT???" at having been defeated unknowingly. You couldn't possibly rest until you had that score beat.
So with fond memories of Tetris and Tetris DX it was with unparalleled glee I anticipated Tetris DS. The game is great with its retro themed graphics and music but as I'm sure you're all well aware it plays quite differently. The whole 'infinite spin' thing making it easy to pretty much play forever. It got to a point where no matter how fast the blocks fell, I could spin the blocks over the 'landscape' and into waiting slots. Meh! Back to my Game Boy Brick edition then.
Quite what the future holds for these falling (or rising) block puzzles is uncertain. Q entertainment has proved that there is still plenty of interest in games of this type. What with the amount of adults buying into handhelds I don't see them vanishing in any hurry. Tetris itself has become a phenomenon again on mobile phones thanks to some superb conversions. I can't see Tetris needing any further tinkering to make it play any better. It just can't be done