I cannot think of a gaming genre that lives and dies by the sword quite so much as a puzzle game. OK, maybe a samurai simulator – THERE IS A PUN THERE LOOK FOR IT – but realistically, there’s a fine line for puzzle games that separates classic from dreadful. There isn’t much a middle ground. It’s either going to pull everyone in like Tetris and Bejeweled did or it’s going to leave everyone feeling colder than the Antarctic winter.
As I said: there isn’t much of a middle ground. Puzzle games are generally fairly simple affairs that work because the mechanics are simple. When you try to overdo things by adding in endless amounts of special blocks or rules or whatever, you’re in danger of alienating the audience or aggravating them to a point where they begin to wonder why they liked you in the first place.
So for a series of games that gave us 4 games between ’95 and ’99 before being ‘reintroduced’ in the last noughties, how come no one’s ever really heard of this series of games?
Well here’s a hint: it’s not actually because it’s shit.
I KNOW. I AM AS SURPRISED AS YOU ARE.
Well… I say it’s not shit… but there’s something about this version that warrants it to be a bit on the shit side. Otherwise I’d be all like “PLAY THIS GAME NOW, YOU BASTARDS, STOP BEING NOT GOOD AT BUYING AND PLAYING GAMES” whereas I am in fact pretty much saying the opposite of that. I am in fact saying DON’T PLAY THIS GAME, YOU LOVELY FOLK, CONTINUE TO BUY AND PLAY GAMES THAT ARE BETTER THAN THIS.”
But I have to put a bit of a disclaimer on this one because the basic core of the game is in no way bad. If anything, it is generally speaking a good, well-created little puzzle game that makes complete sense and is simple enough to be challenging at the higher levels. It’s just that this version… sucks all kinds of balls for one reason that I will eventually get to.
OOOOOOOOOOH. A PUZZLE GAME WITH A STORY. How bobbins is it on a scale of one to bobbins? It’s utter bobbins.
Basically, there’s a thing called the Magical Drop that can grant the wish of whoever holds it. That is it. There’s a little bit of added spice with the selection of characters who all have some sort of weird love-hate relationship with each other. The characters themselves are based off tarot cards. There’s the Fool, Chariot, High Priestess, Justice, Hierophant, Magician, Death and Lovers (who are depicted as a small girl… and a pig… I shit you not). There are other tarot cards represented as well, including Empress, Hanged Man and the eventual final boss Fortune. In all honesty, this is just another example of a wasted opportunity – but only in this version – as the characters are depicted in unusual ways and the translation of this game is so wonky, it probably barely makes sense in Japanese, let alone English. The abysmal translation is pretty much into the Engrish territory that SNK is so well-known for and there’s some utterly incomprehensible sections of text whereby characters interact without any real reason. Characters call each other nosy and complain about whose book is correct and whether their sword is good in battle… it doesn’t make any sense and if this is the type of dialogue that is expected to move a story on, it’s failing with every fibre of its being.
Here they all are in the bobbins character select screen. It’s perfunctory. It does nothing. It is a placeholder between the starting screen and the game itself. None of the characters have anything above anyone else, in terms of skills or mechanics, and you just end up with a slightly different set of dialogue as opposed to them actually having any impact on your game at all. In other puzzle games, choosing a character might actually have a difference in the way the game is played, such as Puzzle Fighter 2 where characters drop different gems on their opponent’s playfield. In this case, you don’t get that nuance of mastering the game as a certain character. It doesn’t add anything to the game, at least not one that noticeable for one very obvious reason.
Well that’s rude of you, High Priestess. He’s standing RIGHT THERE in front of you, snot dribbling from his nose as per. And anyway, you tried to find out how to understand what he said and ended up meowing in his face, so who’s the fool now?
As for the game’s actual gameplay, the concept is simple enough. You have four coloured drops at the top of the screen that slowly descend over time. You have to pull coloured drops into your arms (as depicted by the little man at the bottom of the screen) and then flick them back up the screen into threes. If you collect three reds and send them back up, connecting to more reds, those ones will also disappear. Occasionally, this can set off a small-ish chain but you can create your own chains if you’re quick enough as the drops take a second to disappear completely, meaning you can pull and throw more drops into place and set of chain combos to increase your character’s attack strength. Not that you’ll know ANY of this seeing as HERE IT COMES – THE GAME’S MAJOR, MAJOR FLAW – YOU CAN’T SEE ANY OF THIS.
Look at the screen above and tell me how you’re meant to know who’s winning. Yes, the Fool does look a bit upset, even with the snot dribbling out of his nose, but this is essentially why this version of the game falls flat on its face. You cannot see what’s going on and there is no getting away from that fact. It’s not easy to reproduce this on the small screen anyway so it was always going to be a tough job for the developers to being to represent this in any way. I mean, unless they make things as minuscule as they did with Puzzle Bobble on the system, then you’re not going to be able to get away with it. The only way to be able to truly tell is with the bar on the right hand side of the screen that…
HOLD THE FUCKING PHONE.
OK… let me get this straight, developers… you could fit, what 3/5 of the screen with the play field… and 2/5 with random stats and score stuff and all that gubbins… but you couldn’t downgrade things to get of that moderately inconsequential crap and give us both sides of the playfield? RIGHT. NO FUCKING EXCUSES NOW. TOTALLY DOABLE. GO BACK TO THE DRAWING BOARD AND FUCKING WELL DO IT PROPERLY. RIGHT. 1/9 OF THE SCREEN CAN BE BACKGROUND STUFF. 4/9 CAN BE YOUR PLAYFIELD. 4/9 CAN BE YOUR OPPONENT’S PLAYFIELD. DONE.
I DID YOUR JOB FOR YOU.
Granted, it’s not as easy as all of that and I’m fairly sure the game might have suffered slightly with that level of stuff going on the screen at once. The game runs superfluidly as is and throwing in more might have been detrimental. I don’t know. I’m not a developer. I don’t do that kind of stuff for a living…
Oh, here’s rude miss High Priestess again. WIN, YOU SAY? BOLLOCKS. YOU DON’T WIN. NO ONE WINS IN THIS GAME.
It doesn’t help the game. It makes it much less fun to play. It basically means we get nothing back in terms of what’s actually happening. We can’t see how our play has affected our opponent and it sucks. It means nothing. What even is the point of the game if you can’t have that opportunity to feel good about the impact you’re having on them? I could be crushing them COMPLETELY and I wouldn’t even know it! It could be way too close to call. I don’t even know what THEY’RE doing to me! It doesn’t make sense. It is frustrating beyond all measure and yes, there is a reason as to why we CAN’T see it – small screen, blah blah fucking blah and all that – but… that’s why it DOESN’T work.
Graphically, it’s pretty much bare bones. I suppose for a puzzle game, it#s not always easy to make something look exciting. Bless Atari, they tried to go 3D with Pong and boy did THAT fucking suck the big one. The Neo Geo Pocket does suffer from being very basic looking. Yeah, it was a worthy alternative to the Gameboy… that was 10 years too late… but the whole game feels exceptionally lazy and underwhelming. The character animations are pretty much non-existent and some of the artwork is a bit cheap and lifeless. There’s no spark, no pizazz… no wow factor. It has very little going for it. It’s not even particularly colourful when the backgrounds are white and the rest of it is all brickwork.
“WHAT SHALL OUR BACKGROUNDS BE? I LIKE BRICKS.”
“I ALSO LIKE BRICKS. LET US MAKE IT BRICKS.”
“BRICKS IT IS.”
“BRICKS ARE GOOD.”
“WE ARE ALSO GOOD. LIKE BRICKS.”
“INDEED, WE ARE LIKE BRICKS.
Said no one ever.
I can’t say the game entertains me enough for me to consider this a good puzzle game. If anything, because it feels very underwhelming, it really doesn’t feel like a decent enough game to recommend, even in other formats. I know there’s a Steam version that came out within the last few years but as far as I’m aware, even that one’s a bit bobbins. It does LOOK like it’s attempting to give the game a bit of fanfare and oomph – which it better fucking well do in this day and age – but if the initial concept isn’t exciting enough, this version is NEVER going to be the go-to version.
If anything, it was probably one of the weakest games on the NGPC for this very reason. Lacklustre doesn’t really cut it.
But hey, let’s all have a jolly good laugh at the hilariously poor endings to the game! I mean, surely given the appalling translations they give us, that’ll be worth a giggle or two, right?
OH FOR FUCK’S SAKE, ARE YOU EVEN TRYING?!?!!