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Puzzling: The Puzzle Phenomenon on the Super Nintendo

Tetris may have started the genre, but it certainly wasn’t the only influence. As a relative outsider to the genre today I investigate the puzzlingly popular phenomena of the Match-3 genre on the Super Nintendo. Showcasing each game’s hidden history, we pull back the steamy curtains on such games as the quizzical Pac Attack, the effervescent Puzzle Bobble, the strangely familiar Kirby’s Avalanche and the delicious treat that is Yoshi’s Cookie, and I describe my own personal experience trying to come to terms with, and perhaps even coming to love the genre.

Pac-Attack

Pac Attack title screen for Super Nintendo

The History: Pac-Man is one of Namco’s most recognizable icons. The lil hungry yellow disc is responsible for countless quarters being wasted in the eighties. He, his wife, and the four undead specters they repeatedly devour have been starring in various arcade and home console incarnations since at least 1980. Released in 1993, Pac Attack is Namco’s attempt to break into the Match-3 genre, and one of many of Namco’s attempts to broaden the Pac-man franchise. (Subsequent entries for the Super Nintendo would eventually include a pseudo-point ‘n click adventure style game called Pac-Man 2: The New Adventures of Pac-man, and Pac-in-Time, a platformer.)

The Experience: My brief time spent with Pac-Attack was filled with confusion and fear. The GUI looks like spraypaint on a brick wall done in MS Paint. Pac-Attack starts you out with no tutorial and one is expected, even on easy, to understand the complex and sometimes arcane objectives. There are exactly four pieces in Pac-Attack: brown bricks, red ghosts (I am told these are the Blinky fellow), Pac-man himself, and a fairy. Random assortments of bricks and Blinkies fall from the ceiling until enough Pac-man’s unholy presence arrives.

Pac Attack for Super Nintendo screenshot
Pac-Man the Ever-Hungry Arrives

Pac-man himself descends at random; compelled by the force of gravity, Pac-man will chow through the ghosts completely and totally at random. (I attempted to divine a pattern… but perhaps the intelligence required for this game is beyond me. Pac-man seems to start off facing right, except when he starts off facing left, and woe betide you if he has to point down, for he dies, as is his fate every time he’s eventually placed.) According to the manual, Pac-man summons the Fairy once he devours enough ghosts, but since I only saw it happen once I can’t verify that myself. Bricks, like Tetris, will disappear once a solid row is laid, as I discovered after my third game over.

I’m sure I’m missing something. I played about an hour of the game between the 1P arcade mode and Puzzle mode and I still left the game without even the beginning of a strategy in my head. The one time I thought I had successfully derived the formula for Pac-man’s movements and created a nice, winding corridor for him to eat his way through he turned the opposite direction and immediately committed suicide via dead end. C’est la vie, my lil hungry friend.

The Outcome: Equivalent in trickiness as a Rubix Cube. Or maybe I’m just dumb.

(Afterword: At my editor’s insistence I went back and waited at the loading screen. To my surprise a series of demo levels played out. Using tips from these I was able to enjoy some of the levels afterwards, though the puzzle aspect still eludes me.)

Bust-a-Move

Bust a Move title screen

The History: Taito’s bubble shooter stars two tiny dinos, Bub and Bob, as they attempt to prevent themselves from being squashed to death. Based on the platformer Bubble Bobble released on NES and in arcades everywhere, this bubble-bouncing billiards-meets-Breakout mix garnered some decent critical praise in its time.

The Experience: Bust-a-Move is cute, its music is soda-pop catchy, and the best part of all: it’s easy to pick up on. You position which direction to shoot multi-colored bubbles. Match enough of one type of colored bubble and the whole group detaches from the ceiling and falls harmlessly below. All the bubbles hang from other bubbles attached to the ceiling. So aiming a well-timed shot can drop multiple groups of bubbles at once.

Bust A Move screenshot
Easy… easy….

Quickly a strategy forms in the mind: calculate where and how to stick dud bubbles that don’t match, and try to bounce your bubbles through tight spaces and strange angles to knock as much of the next tricky structure off in one go.

The Outcome: Hours were spent whiling away the time. If you like addictive, fun-to-play and gently sloped difficulty curves, Bust-a-Move is for you.

Kirby’s Avalanche

Kirby's Avalanche title screen

The History: Originally released as Super Puyo Puyo in Japan, Kirby’s Avalanche is a graphical western remix reminiscent of the stylistic changes done to benefit Western audiences ala Super Mario Bros. 2 for the NES. As with much of the Puyo Puyo series, the gameplay loop remains the same: back and forth automated AI, where the goal is to stack as much debris in your partner’s window as possible by way of matching four-sets of similarly colored blobs together.

The Experience: The similarity to Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine cannot be understated, but that makes sense, seeing as they’re both Puyo Puyo clones. Hanging at the title screen gives you a great demo explanation of moves you absolutely must learn, including chaining combos together to ensure complete and total devastation to your foes. By the time I loaded the tutorial up I had mercilessly wiped the floor with the weakling that Kirby is first faced with.
Kirby's Avalanche screenshot
“Um, can we just walk together?” the frightened lil monster asks. “That’s not in the rules!” Kirby triumphantly declares. Presumably right before he devours the poor thing whole.

Out of retaliation, possibly for his eaten friend, the next round had me facing a winged character who proceeded to bend me over and make me beg for the forgiveness of the Lord. Within seconds black monotone-faced blobs had fallen all around me in a stream. My combos kept getting blocked. I… died.

Kirby's Avalanche screenshot
It’s Super Puyo Puyo, it’s Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine. Yet somehow it’s a lot cuter, more graphically pleasing, and a little harder to play.

The Outcome: Had a great time, and would play it again for fun. Probably the best introduction to the Puyo Puyo genre I’ve ever received.

Yoshi’s Cookie

Yoshi's Cookie title screen

The History: Echoing episodes of The Super Mario Super Show, at some point, Mario and Yoshi gain control over a bakery. Fortunately for them both, Yoshi likes cookies. Matching the cookies up in a straight line allows the player to clear the line of them out. Hijinx ensue as Yoshi and Mario scramble to fit the cookies into decent lines before the sorting bin runs out.

The Experience: I tried out the 1P and Puzzle mode. 1P is appropriately decent. You start off with a certain amount of cookies of various types and must match them in lines from edge to edge. More cookies hover ominously in the distance, watching and waiting for the perfect time to interrupt your combo. Holding the ‘B’ button speeds the cookies’ descent towards you. Stuck with single cookies that don’t match? If you get a Yoshi-faced Cookie he acts as a special cookie that matches all others.

Yoshi's Cookie screenshot
Mario jumps and hits the counter every time you move a cookie.

Puzzle Mode gives you a certain amount of moves and no additional cookies. Once your moves are out, you get a GAME OVER and are asked to try again. I got fairly far in my limited run. It’s very satisfying to twist and turn rows of cookies rook-style and match them in a certain set of moves, though a few tens of levels in it starts to get… difficult.

The outcome: I left my time with Yoshi’s Cookie pleasingly satisfied, and hankering for something sweet.

In Conclusion

Has my opinion on puzzle games changed? I don’t know. To be honest I’m not entirely sure I had an opinion on puzzlers beforehand, other than maybe time sinks for those with twitchy fingers. My little experiment satisfied my curiosity, at the least. I understand more now how addicting puzzle games can be, and I understand a little more how ultimately satisfying that twitch can be. My advice: even if you haven’t tried them before, try a puzzler out.

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Roleplaying Games in the 16-Bit Era

Role-playing Games.  On the surface, they’re similar: Grab up your sword, barge into your neighbor’s house and grab anything not nailed down.  Kill the surprisingly common wildlife along the way.  Queue your attacks, pick your skills, and wait patiently for the ATB gauge to refill before striking the definitive blow and hearing that oh-so-familiar fanfare begin to trumpet.  Save the world with the power of friendship, world maps, spells, and (more often than not) a handy guide book.

The games on this list represent an (unfairly) skewed representation of Super Nintendo RPGs.  Though this article covers a minute spread of RPGs, it’s important to note this is only a small fragment of the total RPG collection and in no way is intended to be a greatest hits.  It’s also important to note the distinction between Western-styled RPGs and Japanese-styled RPGs.  Though each share certain aspects (namely, stats, point of view, etc.) this article covers primarily Japanese-styled RPGs, and those unique enough to stand out from the herd.

Earthbound:

Earthbound screenshot

Psychic kids.  An alien hellbent on possessing or destroying all life on earth.  A descent into madness via suburbia.  Hippies.

Earthbound Super Nintendo screenshot
I can feel myself shuddering…

Earthbound has a lot of great things going for it: on the surface a fairly standard modern RPG, when it was released it was a one-of-a-kind experience.  Never before had the expanse of America been considered fertile ground for an RPG.  Gone were Goblins and Griffins.  In their place were soccer moms and evil taxis.  No longer were airships and boats de rigeur: now you rode on Tessie and fought the occasional UFO.  Often imitated, both for its unique and trippy battle system as much as its quirky sense of modernity, Earthbound is considered a cult classic and beloved by many a fan.

Try it or Buy it:  Do you like RPGs set in the modern day?  Are you interested in the cult phenomenon that inspired such modern day bestsellers as Undertale and LISA?  Do you dig a non-standard, genre-breaking experience in your classic JRPGs?  Then definitely buy.

Chrono Trigger:

Chrono Trigger for Super Nintendo screenshot
Picking Morels in the forest…

A classic in every sense of the word, Chrono Trigger’s timey-wimey storyline sets it through nearly every age of a world on a far-away planet in an effort to dislodge the eldritch alien life form that will eventually consume your whole world.  Your cast of protags: A mute, katana-wielding ginger.  A plucky female scientist.  (How’s that for progressive?  Chrono Trigger came out in 1995!!!)  A princess with a mean bowgun.  A cavewoman as strong as an ox.  A robot with anxiety.  A bipedal frog with more culture than you.  If you play your cards right, you might even find a mysterious stranger in a purple cloak joining your team…

Crono’s early morning exercise routine
Crono’s early morning exercise routine

With artwork by Akira Toriyama of Dragonball renown, and gameplay and story done by the fabulous Square dev team of Final Fantasy fame, it’s easy to understand how this game became so popular.  Boasting multiple endings and a New Game Plus feature, Chrono Trigger is truly in a league of its own.

Try it or Buy it:  Do you like cinematic battles?  Do you like combo attacks?  Do you like a massive linear storyline that spans time and space?  Buy it, man.  You gotta.  Or else the world may one day be devoured…

7th Saga:

Lux, the Tetsujin in 7th Saga
Lux, the Tetsujin

An Enix RPG, 7th Saga follows the player as he chooses one of seven different characters and embarks on an adventure throughout the realm of Ticondera to find seven runes.

Look, I have to be honest about this game.  It’s not pretty.  The character graphics on the map and the map itself is basic at best; the storyline is practically nonexistent in the beginning, and to say the game is difficult is an understatement (depending on character choice.)  A cryptic NPC in the first town tells you to defend before you attack, every time.  Battles are fast-paced and frequent.

7th Saga screenshot
Answering the age-old question of Robot v. Ghost

But the amount of characters you can play as, coupled with their unique stats, the random nature of the story, and its nonlinearity ensures this game remains fresh.  And when you enter into a battle, the monsters and characters are not only animated, but animated gorgeously.

The music is catchy and blood-pumping.  And as you go, you can randomly pick up some of the other characters you chose not to be to help you on your journey.

Try it, or Buy it:  If you’re a fan of grueling, old-school dungeon dives with challenging, fully-animated battles and a story where your allies change every time you play, buy it.

Illusion of Gaia:

Illusion of Gaia title screenA little non-standard RPG here, but Illusion of Gaia is one of the Blazer series, a similarly themed trilogy of games beginning with Soulblazer and ending with the European-only release of Terranigma.  Illusion of Gaia stars Will, a charming young man who spends most of his day dodging class at the beach.  When he and his friends go away on an adventure, he discovers that the world he lives in is one which has gone through a cycle of destruction and rebirth; by visiting famous landmarks on his world (that echo those of Earth’s history) and destroying the evil within, he is awakening the old world once again.

Illusion of Gaia screenshot
A friendly childhood game of Test Your ESP…

Illusion of Gaia is haunting.  It’s an action RPG where you have a storyline cast, but in the end you’re really just controlling Will, either as Will himself, his alter-ego Freedan the Knight, or the enigmatic Shadow.  Themes of poverty, despair, slavery, and more are explored.

Try it, or Buy it:  Have you ever wanted to trek to the Seven Wonders of Earth? Get lost at sea?  Whack enemies in the face with a flute? Transform into a more dashing, powerful version of yourself?  If so, Buy it.

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Nintendo Hard: Insane Sidescrollers in the Golden Age

Ah, the good-old platformer.  There are ledges to scale, jumps to be made, and heads to be bounced on. It can be argued the typical platformer started to diverge from its Mario-esque roots in Nintendo’s sophomore outing, the Super Nintendo.  Gone were the copious coins and relentless empty bricks to smash.  Rather than continue in the same mold as their previous gen iterations, some platformers became a little more weird and wacky, a little more dangerous and debonair.  Not only were there jumps to be made, but these jumps were decidedly non-lethal to your enemies; furthermore, jumping into your foe was, more likely than not, fatal to you.

Jumping as an attack was replaced with fists, blades, or other melee weapons.  Power ups were replaced with magic systems.  Gone were the sometimes smooth walls of yesteryear.  In their place: ways to climb, ways to stick, ways to move in more than your standard left or right.  Sonic booms that flew across the screen, magic meters, spells, and more turned the typical platformer into its more evolved format: the sidescroller.

However, despite their prevalence, only a few truly stand out for their level of difficulty.  Gone was a long timed cakewalk with an occasional bounce: now there was only pain.  The following games were dedicated to squashing every last bit of patience from the player.  Cheap deaths, pitfalls from nowhere, and annoying enemies await the player who dares to play these games in the face.

#5: Earthworm Jim

Earthworm Jim
A different kind of space worm…

You have to hand it to Shiny.  It takes a certain level of diabolical genius to craft your mascot character as a nightcrawler in a spacesuit.  On paper, none of Earthworm Jim’s disparate elements should work together: your Earthworm main character is a space traveller, in an intergalactic playground where even hell is just another planet.  He fights enemies with his limited capacity gun, or alternately, whips the enemy with his own body.  The first level has you launch cows from catapults while you dig through a massive junkyard, fighting off crows, rabid dogs, and a pervasive sense of weirdness.  It goes even further than that:  later levels include a recurring space race minigame against your arch enemy, and one level even has Jim descend to hell.  The tortured screams of the damned play alongside orchestral muzak as the boss, Evil the Cat, dances in the background.

The difficulty?  Though Jim has a health meter, it depletes quickly.  Bosses are often obtuse, and though patterned, they do not play nice.  Enemies are best killed as quickly as possible.  The mad dogs in the first level take off a good third of your health per chew alone.

The outcome: Worth a play, if only to say you’ve experienced the depths of madness.

#4: Skyblazer

Skyblaster
*Cue Spider-Pig theme song*

Skyblazer is an underappreciated cult classic.  Though certainly challenging (hidden enemies galore, a first boss that immediately kills you as part of the storyline) it’s also interesting inasmuch as it’s ahead of its time.

Raglan, the introduction screen states, God of Chaos and Destruction, has arisen.  He requests that Ashura the Demon Lord ravage the land.  Sky, the titular character, is a sort of clingy magic ninja—and the son of a great magician, the Skylord.  A powerful magical descendent, Diana, has been kidnapped by Ashura, and Sky’s tasked with getting her back.

Skyblazer feels like a game developed for a different platform, like a gen one Playstation game.  Sky can punch, kick, backflip, and send bolts of energy out at his foes… all in the first level.  When approaching a wall he sticks to it like Spiderman.  Levels are made to take advantage of these skills, and they’re expansive.  The first real playable level has the player jump in and out of trees.  The only trouble is the moving, monstrous, oh-so hungry flowers within.  The ease with which Sky darts through the level hides an equivocal level of danger to the player.  One cannot hope to bounce and fly from tree limb to tree limb.  Enemy placement is determined to make you utilize every ounce of strategy you have at your disposal.

The outcome:  Well worth the play for a game well ahead of its time.

#3 Blackthorne

Blackthorne screenshot
Stealth Shooters meet World of Warcraft

Kyle Blackthorne, alien prince, has been living on earth for twenty long years after an invasion of Orcs kills his father and enslaves his tribe.  Delving into Earth’s military forces in the twenty year gap, he adopts a kickass machine gun and a Rambo cut.  One night, after breaking out of prison, right before hijacking a car in the middle of the desert, he’s teleported back to his homeworld for the vengeance he’s long sought.

Blackthorne is very much a sidescroller: Kyle jumps, hides in the shadows, picks up powerups, and uses his unlimited machinegun to pick off Orcs one by one.  At least Interplay chose to include a tutorial: despite its thoroughness (and a nebulous message towards the end that asks you to ‘experiment with the controller to see what else you can do’) the controls are still mind-numbingly precise in origins.  To get an idea of the exacting nature of the controls, consider: You can crouch, roll, jump up on ledges, and jump-run… talk to allies, hide in the corner, duck, and there’s even an option to fire behind you.  But there’s no move cancel, or frame animation cancel.  Each time you make a motion Kyle will complete the motion in its entirety.

The controls are just not fluid.  The mechanics work, of course, but someone looking for the relative quickness of a sidescroller like Skyblazer may want to skip it.

The outcome:  If you’re looking for a well-oiled, miss-a-single-button and you die sort of game, Blackthorne’s gritty, Conan-meets-Phantasy Star-meets-Rambo dungeon delver will be sure to please.

#2:  Battletoads in Battlemaniacs

Battletoads screenshot
Makin’ Bacon

So I know what you’re thinking.  Technically, isn’t Battletoads a beat ‘em up?  Well, yes.  But there’s also enough other things tossed into the mix this incarnation that it’s impossible to classify it as anything other than a sidescroller.  The ‘Toads use their polymorphic kung-fu to literally BOOT enemies off the screen, ramhorn them into the abyss, or drop anvils on their head as finishing blows.

Battletoads screenshot
An awful lot of animal cruelty…

After the deceptively standard first level, Battletoads literally flips the script.  Level 2 is a hoverdisc ride vertically down through a tree trunk filled with angry robotic hornets and flying rats with pointy hats.  Level 3 is another of the Battletoads classics: the hoverbike race.  Any brave soul who faces it and lives to play another day is met with an insane platforming level composed of holding onto giant snakes that function as platforms and avoiding spikes.  Another level involves yet another insane race, this time running from a rat wielding a chainsaw with an arguably better motorcycle engine than your own.

The outcome:  Any attempts to beat this game will involve many hours of hair pulling, controller throwing, and possible crying.  At least the music is good!

#1:  Super Ghouls and Ghosts

Super Ghouls and Ghosts screenshot
A collision course with inevitability.A different kind of space worm…

This is the only game in the world to give you a double jump and then punish you heavily for even daring to use it.  Super Ghouls and Ghosts is the sequel to the NES platformer Ghosts ‘n Goblins.  You play as Arthur, whose wife was kidnapped by the ultimate evil, Sardius.  Embarking with an unlimited amount of throwing lances and some very flimsy chainmail, Arthur must face a horde of ravenous undead and monsters thirsty for his very blood.

Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts is hard.  That’s an understatement.  Most levels have the player up against tricky jumps, insane amounts of enemies, and a completely random powerup system that has a chance to kill you.  One touch from a caustic ghoul causes Arthur’s armor to simply explode off of him, after which he runs around in his skivvies.  There are ways to get another set, and even an upgrade, but doing so is different for each level… and each armor drop point also has the nifty little ability to possibly kill you, depending on timing.

To cap it all:  Even when you think you’ve beat it, Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts tricks you again, making you start again from scratch in order to face the final boss.

The outcome:  Just save yourself the trouble on level one and double jump into that first zombie’s open, waiting arms.  Walk with me through this piece of fanfiction fridge horror: The corpses that continuously churn from the ground all look the same because they are all previous players who have died and died again.  Arthur is Sisyphus, pushing that eternal boulder in his own personal hell.

Are any of these games in your collection? Any games you think should be added to the list? Leave a comment below.