So, after recent events, I felt I needed to spend time with some games I enjoy. And I thought it'd be fun to approach one of my favorite gaming subjects in a different (by my standards) manner.
I love puzzle games a ton. I can play the hell out of any decent puzzle game and only have a passive grasp on approximate time. Many people attribute Tetris to this kind of “losing track of time”, but any great puzzle game can pull this off. Whether it's a simple “match-[X]” setup like a Puyo Puyo game, a “line up a pattern” like Tetris, or a match-3 like Columns, puzzle games are among the most simple and yet most dynamic titles in the videogaming world
By the time this is posted, “Puyo Puyo Tetris” will have been released and likely be inside of my Playstation 4. I'm totally psyched for a Tetris/Puyo Puyo (more commonly known as “Kirby's Avalanche” on SNES or “Dr. Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine” on Genesis) mashup, and intend on playing the hell out of this game (and uploading highlights to my personal YouTube channel).
So in honor of it, I'm gonna countdown my Top 8 Favorite Retro Puzzle Games.
Keep in mind, the chronological cutoff for these will be the 6th console generation (Dreamcast/Gamecube/PS2/XBox), though only one game on this list will be from that time. Also, I'm looking at games that are primarily puzzle games, so games that try to mix it with another genre (“A Boy and His Blob” or “Bomberman 64” for example) won't be on this list. Also, there's a decent handful of puzzle games I've not played or have only played a small sample/demo of (such as “Intelligent Qube”or “Wetrix”), so don't assume a game missing entry on this list means I think unfavorably of them. Lastly, while I'll try to commit to just one entry per franchise, there are a couple games that share a name that I believe are different enough to constitute two separate entries.
So here we go:
#8 - Tetrisphere
We're gonna kick this one off with a game for the more “modern” retro gamer, something a system like the NES or Sega Genesis could never pull off.
Now before anyone frets, we'll get to a more traditional “Tetris” entry on down the line.
Tetrisphere came out on the Nintendo 64 in the middle of its lifespan. It's loaded with several modes, but I would strongly recommend playing through the tutorial and even through some of the “Puzzle” mode where you'll be putting some of these techniques into action. If you try to jump right into the game's “Vs. CPU” or “Rescue” mode which requires the player to uncover a certain amount of the sphere's “core” to move on, and you'll find yourself staring down a “Game Over” screen in short order.
The game takes place on a spherical playfield, where players must drop pieces onto matching spots on the playfield to cause a reaction. You can also move pieces, and form new pieces on the playfield, but taking up too much time can cause a penalty. This time limit is rather lenient in early levels and refills if you continue to match and form combos at a decent pace. In later levels, this time limit becomes insanely strict. Once you get to the final levels, you'll have to move at a damn-near “tool-assisted speedrun” pace to keep the timer from expiring. It truly takes a puzzle game god in order to conquer the game at that point.
As you can guess, this game is a pretty huge departure from traditional Tetris games. Your Tetris skills will not translate one lick into this game. In fact, the game's strict learning curve is a major reason I can't rank this game higher. A puzzle game this complex at its surface is usually a bad omen. But the game is fun enough to learn and master if you give yourself time to climb the game's strict learning curve. There is also a two-player versus mode, but good luck finding someone else who has a good grip on how to play the game. This won't be a game you can simply scoop out with friends over and not have to teach them how to play. But there's a fun game to be had here, and the gameplay combined with quite possibly the best soundtrack on the Nintendo 64 (Neil Voss freaking NAILS it with each track), is definitely worth hunting down. Luckily, it's a pretty common N64 game, and even at its retail price, it's worth the investment.
#7 - Bust-A-Move 4
Known as the “Puzzle Bobble” series in Japan, Taito went on a roll with various Bust-A-Move games during the 5th console generation with entries on the Nintendo 64, Playstation, and even on the Sega Saturn. My personal favorite edition was the 4th version, which was released in 1998 on the Sony Playstation. In a strange move, the 3rd game was released on the Playstation in the U.S. AFTER this game, in 1999.
The cutesy, heavily-Japanese influenced aesthetics might come off as a turn-off to some. There is a definite overdose on “cute”, giving off the idea that the game might be overly simplistic. But the game itself requires both a strong combination of skills and logic. Knowing where to shoot the bubbles into the playing field above is one thing, but knowing where they go and actually threading the shots to land the bubbles into the right spot are two skills you'll need to succeed in this game. The gameplay at its very core is easy to learn, and takes a TON of skill to get even good at, let alone master. The single-player mode throws many various puzzles at you, each one building the difficulty quite nicely, while the vs. mode becomes a frantic game of blasting as many bubbles off the field as possible.
Any one version of this game is typically pretty good. The original SNES release in the United States is pretty solid, and any one of them from the PS1 or N64 is a pretty safe bet. I just recall playing this version the most, so it's where I'm staking my claim. It again is a pretty common game, with it being possible to snag a copy around $10. There's Bust-A-Move games across almost every major videogame console from the 5th generation onwards, and I'm of the camp that every classic gamer should have one entry in the series in their repertoire.
#6 - Dr. Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine
This was the American debut of the Puyo Puyo series, which would also receive a re-skinned Super Nintendo entry in the form of “Kirby's Avalanche”. I had a Genesis growing up, so I cut my teeth on this iteration.
In this puzzle game, “beans” drop from the top of the playing field in pairs of two. Matching 4 beans of the same color will cause them to disappear from the playing field. Figuring out how to make one move cause a chain reaction is key to scoring well in this game and winning the game's versus mode. This is the first puzzler on the list where a versus mode can really be seen as the primary “mode”. Scoring combos will drop colorless bubbles that require matches made within their proximity to disappear. Large combos will drop gigantic amounts of these colorless bubbles, which can cause major problems for the opponent, usually causing them to build their combo again. Knowing when to keep building a combo and when to just trigger whatever combo you have before your opponent is vital.
This game's “versus” mode is a total blast. Opponents don't just get exponentially harder, but have different strategies as well; some will tile pieces on the first couple rows just to have something to potentially combo later, others will build walls on the side with the same idea, some will spam quick and small combos, while others will take a long time to drop long combos, all leading up to a showdown with Dr. Robotnik himself, who is just a flat-out skilled opponent with little to no flaw.
Using assets from the “Adventures of Sonic The Hedgehog” cartoon, “Dr. Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine” is definitely worth checking out. It's a pretty common Genesis game, and is also available on a few Sega game compilations. And if you need the bonus collector points, the Sega Master System version of “Dr. Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine” is a rather uncommon game valued at just short of $100. And for the SNES crowd, “Kirby's Avalanche” plays the exact same way, replacing the Sonic elements with Kirby ones, and is also pretty common.
#5 - Dr. Mario
One of my earliest videogaming memories is of my father owning this game on our Game Boy. My dad didn't play very many videogames as I was growing up, but he had this one licked. I would always look over his shoulder as he sat at the recliner, trying to angle myself at the right spot so I could see the screen, watching him clear Level 20 on Dr. Mario almost at will. Whenever he'd defeat it and the “ending” screen would play, it blew my mind. I was never able to beat any of the few NES games I owned, so to see an “ending”, to see victory achieved, was amazing. For little kid me, it made my dad a freaking hero.
Dr. Mario involves a playfield filled with viruses. To defeat these viruses, Dr. Mario will throw pills of two different colors onto the field, which can be turned sideways or vertically. Matching any combination of pills or viruses in a row of 4 will clear the sequence. Rinse and repeat until all the viruses are gone, and move on to the next level. The early levels contain a very small number of viruses that are perfect to learn the game on. Later levels stuff the field with viruses, leaving damn near no room for error. The versus mode is a race to clear the field, which on low levels can be a fun race between newbies and on higher levels can be a full out war between skilled opponents, dropping extra pieces onto each other's fields as combinations are executed.
A perfect entry-level puzzler with a good amount of skill needed to win at the higher levels, and a fairly memorable soundtrack, Dr. Mario is a pretty common game on both the Game Boy and the NES. There's also a “Tetris & Dr. Mario” game on the SNES that used to go for a somewhat steep price, but has come down recently to around the $20 range. There's also an Nintendo 64 entry that includes a 4-player mode that was also once fairly tough to find at a decent price, but can now be obtained at a common-N64-game price of around $15.
#4 - Lumines Plus
This is not only a Playstation 2 title, but this might be the most recently released game I've ever discussed on this blog. A touched-up port of the original Lumines on the PSP, Lumines Plus actually came out after the PS3 launched, but was ported to the Playstation 2. In Lumines, cubed shaped pieces consisting of 4 smaller squares (each smaller square being one of two random colors) drop onto a wide but somewhat short play field. It's the player's goal to form boxes of the same color; as long as it's bigger than a 2x2 cube, it will be cleared from the field when a “radar line” passes over. Producing large boxes or a series of squares in one pass of the radar line is the key to high scores in this game.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the soundtrack to this game, an electronic masterpiece of music that actually affects the gameplay itself. The speed of the radar line depends on the speed of the song. Some stages will have the line moving fast, which will clear squares quickly and clear up more room faster, but since drop speed is unaffected it makes producing large combos more difficult. Likewise, a slower song can make large combos a breeze, but if you're in danger of the playfield filling up and a slow song cues up, it can spell disaster. In another cool touch, the music is also affected by the player flipping their current piece and even moving it around the playfield. It truly needs to be played to be experienced properly, and if you have a nice sound system, goodnight.
This game is truly addictive and a fun all-around experience. Lumines Plus would be a strong contender for the top spot if not for one glaring flaw; they can't quite get the multiplayer right. 2 players split a playfield in half but cannot move pieces past a middle border. If one player gets a larger combo than the opponent on a pass of the radar line, the border is pushed towards the shrinking player. Once the border hits a certain point, the game is over. The reason this is an issue is that it becomes VERY difficult for a player to come from behind when they have less room to play with. More room for the player that's already winning means they have more space to make bigger combos. Much too often, vs. matches will be virtually decided within about half a minute. And while it's not impossible to put a comeback together if you fall behind, don't count on it.
But the single-player experience alone is enough of a home run to put it here, along with a very challenging puzzle mode that forces players to create shapes of the same color square. Future versions of the game are a tad better, including excellent entries on the PS3 (that includes a “shuffle skin” mode if you're tired of the same route in single player) and the PS Vita. But again, like Bust-A-Move, it's worth it to find any entry you can. And fortunately, all the Lumines entries are about as affordable as it gets. The PS2 game is easily found for under $10, and both PSP entires and even the Vita version can be snagged for just a few dollars more.
Now, you had to know a Tetris game was going to be on this list. There's no way I could do this list and not have a Tetris entry. The question becomes “which one?”. Do I stick with the OG Tetris on NES? Maybe I pick the GB entry, a legendary videogame by almost all definitions. Or there's the aforementioned SNES collab with Dr. Mario (which I hope to snag someday)?
Nah, I decided to cash-in with a somewhat controversial pick:
#3 - The New Tetris
I always thought this one hit Tetris out of the park, or at least was the first one I played that took Tetris to a level beyond what the original game once did. The big changes being that you're able to see the next 3 pieces coming up instead of simply the next one. This allowed players to plan further ahead and drop pieces with the knowledge that a certain piece is coming up soon. On top of that, this was the first U.S. Tetris game to include a “hold” square, where a player could store a piece to be used later. Both of these features have become a staple of future Tetris games, from the more casual cell phone and 3DS games all the way up to the unforgiving trials of the speedrunning staple “Tetris TGM” series. Seeing a long line piece coming up can help form 3-line clears or “tetrises” (4-line clears), or you can store the long line and wait until you put a series of “tetrises” together.
To go along with this is an excellent 4-player mode that can get heated quick with 4 skilled players. There's even a variety of ways to play multiplayer. "Sprint" mode sets a short timer on the match with the winner being determined by who has cleared more lines. "Hot Potato" will designate one player for a certain amount of time to be "it", and any combos will do damage to the player that is "it". And that's just the beginning.
As well, there are player profiles which allow for new unlockable themes and graphics in the game. In a neat move, all player profiles created work together to unlock these new themes based on how many lines they've cleared altogether. This means even versus and 4 player matchups fill this quota faster. And the unlocks scale pretty evenly, meaning someone picking this game up as a Tetris beginner will still have plenty to unlock within their reach at the start, instead of grinding for long periods of time (though the themes near the end require a TON of play).
The one knock to this game is the “square” feature, which allows for players to form a 4x4 square using certain combinations of blocks. Silver squares are formed when a player can simply make a 4x4 square (with no parts of the pieces formed sticking out of the 4x4 grid), whereas golden squares can be formed by using the same type of piece to form the square. Clearing these squares off the field will result in more points and dropping more “garbage” on opponents within versus matches. Unlike being able to see more upcoming tetriminos and holding pieces, this was seen as an unnecessary step to re-invent Tetris. I was never a fan of this since it distracted from clearing lines way too much. To form these squares, it required a player to completely take their eyes off of forming lines, and it often became a detriment to any player that attempted it, especially at higher levels where other players are clearing lines at a fast pace. It was a fun little distraction in single-player, but it was suicidal in multiplayer. Another knock from Tetris professionals included more leniency on piece rotations, sometimes allowing pieces to be twisted into gaps they normally couldn't be rotated into in previous (and even future) Tetris games.
But aside from that, a fun game of Tetris with (mostly) awesome additions, amazing multiplayer, an awesome soundtrack (Neil Voss strikes again!!!) and being able to unlock new features together with your friends and/or family make this the ultimate retro Tetris experience to me. Hunting this game down isn't too hard. For some time after the next-gen Gamecube launched, The New Tetris was somewhat difficult to find at a decent price. But as time went on and more Tetris games were released that capitalized and built on what The New Tetris introduced, its price has dipped down to around the $10-20 range. If you just want any Tetris experience, it's hard to go wrong with whatever's available on your console of choice (unless it's “Tetris Ultimate” on PS4...you'd think a Tetris game wouldn't have frame drops...oops).
#2 - Columns III; Revenge of Columns
Look at the box!
Why isn't this #1 again?!?
The basis of Columns might be the simpliest of all the games on this list. A set of 3 vertically-stacked jewels falls from the top of the screen. They must stay stacked vertically, but you can change the order of the jewels before they fall to the bottom. Matching 3 jewels of the same color, whether it be vertically, horizontally or even diagonally, will cause them to disappear.
Sega originally purchased the rights to “Columns”, an originally very obscure Atari ST title. Sega saw Columns as their answer to “Tetris”, a game Nintendo was starting to make bank on at the time. While in terms of “financial success” it's impossible to claim that Sega succeeded, when you whittle it down to simply the game itself, it holds all the qualities Tetris did at that time.
The reason I went with this third rendition is simple; they actually got the vs. mode right.
In the original Columns (worth a pickup if you don't have access to Columns III, and is available on several of Sega's “best of” compilations), the versus mode consisted of a side-by-side “Endless” mode where nothing either player did would affect their opponent. Sure, it was a fun little “get down to brass tacks” way of playing, but the competitive spirit was missing. You weren't playing the game any different than in the single-player, and no variety was to be had. The game also included a “Flash Columns” mode, where the first person to clear a certain flashing jewel wins the match. While some people (my younger brother) would argue this was just fine as a “vs” mode, matches were very quick regardless of the difficulty set and would often punish any attempt at forming combos or getting more points.
Columns III (“Columns II” was never released in America, and still isn't available in any officially released form outside of Japan) finally formed a real “vs.” mode. In this mode, two players go head-to-head creating combos and chains as they go. Instead of “dropping garbage”, the playfield is raised up in layers when the opponent hits their combos. While this game almost falls for the “Lumines” trap of giving the weaker player a shrinking playfield, there is also a bar that fills for each player, though it moves faster if you can snag bigger combos. When this bar is full, a “magic column” spawns, with each jewel triggering a different effect. Through this, you can either raise the playfield on your opponent, clear all jewels of one color, or even go on the defensive and drop your own playfield. This vs. mode is pretty damn fun and already adds on an excellent single-player game.
Either of the two Genesis Columns games are pretty easy to find, with Columns III being worth around $10 CiB. And if you just need to get your Columns fix, the original Columns can be found on almost any “Best of Sega” compilation available.
#1 - Tetris Attack
I've hit on several reasons these puzzle games work. Their addictive nature, gameplay that is easy to learn but rewards complexity, combos that can both be set up in advance or improvised as the game goes on, addictive single-player, and awesome multiplayer.
Tetris Attack nails all of those.
Known as “Panel de Pon” in Japan, and later deemed the “Puzzle League” series in the U.S. (enjoying a Pokemon themed entry on the Nintendo 64 and portable entries on the GBA and DS), Tetris Attack consists of a rising playfield of tiles. Instead of dropping pieces, you control a cursor that is two tiles wide. You're able to swap the places of the two tiles within the cursor, and can move the cursor anywhere on your own playfield. Matching 3 horizontally or vertically will cause the tiles to disappear. Within lies the more complex strategies. Being able to cause chain reactions becomes the name of the game, especially in the excellent vs. mode. Here, creating combos drops large bricks on the opponent. However, the opponent can change these back into normal tiles by matching the pieces sitting next to the bricks. This, in turn, can make combos and chains much easier. On top of that, the only way to lose is a few second after the field tops out. Those few seconds can be spent still triggering chains and combos, in which the field will stop moving. As long as you're making progress, the game can continue.
This back-and-forth momentum pull can make some vs. matches last under a minute, while others can become 5+ minute epics. Players skilled in the game will actually allow the pieces to almost top out to make way for more combo possibilities (which can be easily done by holding the R button). The pace is constantly frantic and requires players to walk a fine line between meticulous strategy and twitch-reflex improvisation. You'll need to display both qualities in order to do well, in both the single and multi-player modes.
The visual aesthetic of the game can be somewhat off-putting, with Nintendo using the Yoshi character and a more “cutesy” graphic presentation. But the music is absolutely awesome (if sometimes a little repetitive in more intense matches since one of the two players will likely be in the danger zone for almost the entire match), the graphics are simple enough to make pattern matching and recognition easy, and sound cues will inform players of what's going on with their opponent without needing to take their eyes off of their own playfield.
For me, Tetris Attack is a puzzle game masterpiece, and as good as puzzle games get. This SNES gem can be found for just short of $15. If you prefer Pokemon or don't have access to an SNES, Pokemon Puzzle League is a decent rendition of the game (though the idea of an N64 game that, except for video cutscenes, could have been pulled off just as easily on the SNES bothers me greatly). This is the version Nintendo chose to re-release digitally on the Wii's Virtual Console. There's also versions of Puzzle League available on the Game Boy and Game Boy Color, but the music being reduced to 8-bit renditions and the reduced functions of those systems (thereby slowing the game down noticeably) keep those versions from holding a candle to its console brethren. Then again, no other puzzle game can.