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.
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-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.)
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.