Monday 3 December 2018

Saturn Puzzle Games - The Forgotten Genre?

It seems my education about the Saturn is ongoing. I learn new things all the time... this year I found out that you could unlock Pepsi Man in Fighting Vipers. That sort of thing really tickles me, as it brings new life to an old console. So as I'm sure you can imagine, uncovering a whole genre that I had never really acknowledged existed on the Saturn, has caused my retro-gaming to career down yet another unfamiliar path. It started at the Play Expo in Blackpool. Here, I bought several cheap, import games, and it dawned on me that I'd stumbled onto a whole genre that I was barely aware of.

When was the last time you engaged in a discussion about your "favourite Saturn puzzle games"?  People don't often recall puzzle games when reciting their top ten Saturn titles. Sure, Super Puzzle Fighter II sometimes makes an appearance, but I'd always thought about it as more of a Street Fighter novelty spin off. I had it in my collection, but for years it had languished in solitary isolation, without a puzzle game friend to rub shoulders with, in the Saturn section of my game collection.

But as I came out of the Blackpool Play Expo, I had eight new games and half of them were puzzle games. Bust-A-Move 2, Hanagumi Columns, Columns Arcade Collection and Monsterslider. "Puzzle games"... it's a genre that is alive and well. But full price physical CD copies of puzzle games haven't appeared on consoles for a number of years. The block falling magic of Tetris may have sold on the Gameboy, but it wasn't going to cut it on the PS3 (although the hyper-casual shovel-ware marketed on the Wii made sure the puzzle game would have it's last hurrah  as a genre, on a big selling console...)

When mobile phones became "smart phones", with touch screens, the puzzle game became the perfect way to pass time at bus stops, on the train to work, or during your break time. Bright, brash, snappy and colourful, connecting and destroying bricks, jewels, fruit and a host of other nonsense, with satisfying crunches, munches, plops and squelches, all to a jolly, easy listening soundtrack, they could either be bought for peanuts or downloaded for nothing at all. They were satisfying to play and uncomplicated to master. But their compatibility with smartphones and tablets meant they would cease to be released as physical discs for consoles.

Gamers... that's REAL gamers, didn't play puzzle games. Now that they had become popular with housewives, children and chubby night security guards, they weren't going to fly with the shmup guys or the RPG crew. So as a genre, they seem to have all but  slipped from our consciousness. You don't often see your favourite YouTubers dissecting Bust-A-Move 2 or extolling the virtues of Hanagumi Taisen Columns, (although, being the visionary he is, our own Nebachadnezzar has just produced an ahead of the game analysis of Tetris Plus.)

So, would I enjoy the puzzle games I had bought? Let's take a look at my little collection and I'll fill you in on each one. What they're about, whether they're fun to play and whether I'd recommend them to you in 2018.

Tetris Plus:

Let's start with the grandad of puzzle games, Tetris. As mentioned earlier, my colleague and good friend Nuno has made an excellent video about this game, so make sure you check it out! Tetris Plus (published by Jaleco 1996) is an arcade based variation on the original Soviet tile falling game, which requires the player to quickly tesselate falling polygons against the clock. A completely filled line of blocks with no spaces in it will disappear, clearing some of the ever increasing layers of bricks. When the bricks meet the 'ceiling' of the window of play, the game is over. Tetris Plus has another string to it's bow however, in the form of both Puzzle Mode and Versus Mode. Puzzle Mode involves the game's mascot character, a cartoon archaeologist. Your mission is to rescue him by showing him a way out of a tetris based structure, in one of a number of geographical locations including Maya, Knossos, Egypt and Angkor Wat.

The game is both fun and annoying, as the professor you are attempting to rescue will be increasingly crushed by a downward ceiling of rotating spikes, Even those with the most brilliant of spatial awareness and tessellation skill will struggle to beat the game, as the speed the game drops the bricks at can be quite relentless. Still, it's a game I would definitely recommend to those who are prepared to test their own patience. Despite my annoyance at my inability to get past the first few levels, I've still sunk hours into it, so it must be good!

Hanagumi Taisen Columns and Columns Arcade Collection:

I'm going to attempt to kill two birds with one stone here and describe my two Columns games for the Sega Saturn. Columns by Sega was one of the first of the "match-three-of-the-same-type-falling-blocks" games, first hitting the Game Gear in 1990, but making an appearance in one form or another on every Sega console after that, Columns sees you matching three falling jewels of differing colours in order to make your "jewels" disappear. The player is given advance warning of which blocks will be falling, in order to best strategize where to place them. In case this isn't enough, hints are given in the form of flashing blocks showing the player where to place them. Chaining the disappearance of several columns causes your opponents jewels to fall faster and more frequently (your opponent either being the CPU or a friend in the form of player 2.) I first encountered this game on the Dreamcast in the form of the Sega Smash Pack and was immediately smitten with the game's presentation and music.

Hanagumi Taisen Columns: is an attempt to tag the Sakura Wars franchise onto the game, so that with each level there is dialogue and interaction between characters from the Sakura Wars universe. As I have no interest in the franchise and since I do not speak Japanese, this is all rather superfluous to my enjoyment of the game - which is still the columns I love - and presented in a perfectly playable way.  The anime style pictures and music are pleasant enough, but as you don't have a clue what's going on, you just find yourself waiting for all the superfluous stuff to stop.... I did get a free sticker set with my game and I love that sort of little secret gift being hidden way in a game! Recommended for a play in 2018? Only if you're a Columns or Sakura Wars fanatic!

Columns Arcade Collection: Now this more like it! Columns Arcade Collection comes with the original Columns that I first encountered on the Sega Smash Pack. Released in 1997 in Japan as part of the hugely successful Sega Ages franchise. As well as my first love (bog standard Columns with that killer musical score), you also get the graphically gorgeous and polished Columns 97, which is essentially just the classic game with a new lick of paint. Columns II is a variation on the classic game, involving the burying of a key tile which is positioned within an existing tile stack. The player has to use the falling blocks to uncover the key tile, by causing it's covering tiles to disappear. When the player manages to connect with the key tile, the level is complete and a more difficult task awaits the player as he now has to connect with two or more key tiles to complete the level. This adds a completely new challenge and may as well be a different game entirely, along with it's complete change of aesthetic, the tiles now including pictorial spirals, shells and other patterns.
The game also includes Stack Columns which as far as I can make out is some sort of weird combative gambling tournament where you take on (amongst others) a shady looking Sheikh, a chimpanzee (who moons you if you lose) a member of the Borg Collective and a Triad Mob Boss... all competing at a more aggressive and speedy form of... COLUMNS! I guess you're getting the picture... it's lots and lots of Columns. Personally, I still prefer the original to any of it's later iterations. So I could have stuck with my Game Gear version. Or my Master System version. Or the one I have for my GBA. Or the Megadrive version. Or the one on my (two copies of) Sega Smash Pack on the Dreamcast... But you know... these were on the Saturn. So I HAD to get them... OK? Look! Just get off my back will you? Recommended for a play in 2018? Most definitely!

Bust-A-Move 2

Bust-A-Move 2 is an arcade originated bubble busting sequel, to a spin off of Bubble Bobble, Puzzle Bobble. Renamed with the far hipper 'Bust A Move' for the European and US markets. Published by Taito in 1995, the game sees you playing as a cute dinosaur/dragon, firing coloured spheres from some sort of steam-punk cannon, towards clusters of coloured spheres above, which drop away and disintegrate, each time you link three. All this is done to a cheesy soundtrack, whilst all the time your mini reptilian is yelping in some unintelligible language. For those of you with a creative flair, the game provides an "edit" option which allows you to craft your own level design. This was quite an innovative feature for the time, so the game gets some credit for that. This is the least likely to get a playthrough in the Krishna household, as my command of the correct angle at which to fire my cannon, coupled with the annoying sounds emitted by my dino-pup, make it something of a non-starter. Recommended for a play in 2018? I'd have to say honestly, no.


There's not too much to say about this one other than it has some great animations involving classic monsters from the film franchises of the 20th century - Wolfman, Frankenstein, the Mummy etc. as well as witches, skeletons and vampires etc. These characters all interact in Japanese, so the story element of the game is lost on me. It seems very bright, colourful and child friendly, with the look of the characters taking on a very cartoon quality. Of course the puzzle play is combative, but with the extra mechanic of being able to tilt the floor onto which your coloured blocks are dropping... this causes them to slide (Monsterslider, geddit?) and connect with other blocks, which predictably causes them to... disappear... resulting in ever faster falling blocks landing on your opponent. Would I recommend it in 2018? Yes, but only at Halloween, as a horror themed distraction.

Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo:

In 1996, revered publishers Capcom decided to cash in (even more) on their Street Fighter franchise, by knocking out a Street Fighter themed puzzle game. Or rather a Pocket Fighter themed puzzle game. Rather than being the second in a series, the name of this particular title, parodies Super Street Fighter II Turbo and according to Wikipedia, elements of the presentation and music spoof the game even further. The game was made in response to the popularity of  Sega's Puyo Puyo and basically presents another combative falling block game, this time jewels which grow bigger and bigger as you cluster four together in a certain square formation. Certain falling tiles will shatter these mega-jewels, which will in turn cause jewels to fall faster on your opponent, but also freeze their ability to rid themselves of their blocks for a short period of time. This of course could be a friend or the CPU. The jewels shatter with a satisfying "breaking glass" sound. Each player plays as a fighter from the Capcom universe including characters from Street Fighter and Vampire Savior. Your character's Pocket Fighter avatar will perform animated battle moves on their opponent as you begin to dominate. As you beat each successive fighter, a more difficult opponent will appear, just as in Street Fighter. This was my favourite (and indeed only) puzzle game, until I received the final entry in today's review... Would I recommend this game in 2018? Hell yes

Baku Baku Animal:

Baku Baku Animal, was published by Sega in 1995. No surprise that the mightiest videogame developer of all time should nail the game that defines the puzzle genre. I've saved this gem until last, because it is now, by a million miles, my favourite puzzle game. There is something so satisfying about the game's key mechanic, that it compels you to want to keep playing. Baku Baku Animal has the same "matching falling blocks against an opponent" gameplay, that is so prevalent within the genre. There is also a completely bizarre and unintelligible story, involving what looks like cupcake princesses and robot muscle men (no shit!) but we'll gloss over these factors, to highlight the game's genius... what falls from the sky in this game are animal heads - monkey, dog, panda and rabbit. What also falls, is food for said creatures... bananas, bones, bamboo and carrots. Connect the right head with the right food, and it will proceed to munch noisily through however many matching tiles you have managed to amass.

                                                  ********** WARNING! ***********

This game is videogame crack! I cannot stress enough, how addictive this particular set of animations are! The pleasure you will get from watching a monkey head munching through piles of virtual bananas is through the roof. Before you know it, you will have wasted hours of time that you could have spent gaming on titles that have a purpose... For after all, puzzle games are really just ways of passing time... sure, you can attempt to beat a goal (or an opponent) you can gain the satisfaction of speeding up your reaction time and honing your reflexes, you can become more strategic in your tile placement. But at the end of the day, you are simply wasting time. That's my assessment of the whole genre. Do I still love it? YES! Would I recommend you play it? YES! But like crack itself, keep it for weekends and special occasions only!

*I hope you will forgive my piss poor descriptions of the gameplay and mechanics of these games. I hope you will give this genre a spin. If you're a collector, you can get some real bargains in terms of Saturn games, which is rare for the RPG, shmup or action title

s. Like sports games, the retro market has not inflated their prices yet, so get your puzzle on!


Tsundain said...

I only have a couple puzzle games in my Saturn collection, yet they are so full of content that I'm still trying to get the most out of them.

After reading your article I do feel I would like to add Puyo Puyo and Puzzle Fighter. The way you described their relationship makes me want to try them for myself and see how each stack up.

fatherkrishna said...

Why thank you sir!