Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Essentials #24: Pokémon Puzzle League

Panel de Pon / Tetris Attack

Nintendo's Puzzle League series actually began with 1995's Panel de Pon for the Japanese Super Famicom. Developed by Intelligent Systems, Panel de Pon was a competitive puzzler in the vein of Puyo Puyo. Players had to group together panels of like color in order to clear them from the board and send them over to fill the opponent's screen. The game ended when one player's side became so vertically overcrowded that it could no longer contain any further panels that continued to appear.

The original Japanese Panel de Pon featured an original story and graphics full of cutesy fairy characters. Then, as now, the severely risk-averse Nintendo of America had concerns about the mass marketability of a new IP with such a distinctively Japanese aesthetic flavor, so when the game arrived in North America a year later, it went through extensive rebranding. The North American release not only ditched the fairies, replacing them with Yoshi's Island-themed art and characters, but also threw in the Tetris name because the always savvy marketing department concluded that, to Americans, "puzzle game" meant Tetris. The result was Tetris Attack, one of the last titles of consequence on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System.

I remember first encountering Tetris Attack at a demo kiosk at the local Toys "R" Us. I gave it a whirl and found it immediately intuitive, addictive, and incredibly charming, but after about ten minutes of play, I concluded that the mechanics suffered from a crucial design flaw, and so I passed on purchasing the game.

Pokémon Puzzle League

Nintendo gave Panel de Pon another chance in 2000, however, with the release of Pokémon Puzzle League for the Nintendo 64. Produced specifically for North America, the new edition again dispensed with Panel de Pon's girlish aesthetics, this time rebranding the game to tie it into the Pokémon craze of the moment. Specifically, the game was based on the popular Pokémon animated series, incorporating the anime-specific characters, featuring the authentic voices and catchy tunes of the English adaptation, and even including a fully-animated opening sequence.

While the Pokémon theme may not have been to everyone's taste, the power of the N64 afforded several technical enhancements that definitely upped the intensity of the experience. For versus, players could choose from a variety of Pokémon trainers from the anime, most of whom were also recognizable from the first Game Boy titles (although it was missing certain late-game boss characters who had presumably not yet appeared on the show at the time of the game's release). While they offered no mechanical differences, the trainers and their Pokémon possessed character-specific voice clips that, in competitive multiplayer, may have been my favorite part of Pokémon Puzzle League. In a single-player game, the incessant howling every few seconds of Ash's "I'm gonna win!" or Koga's haughty "Work harder, young one!" could become quickly obnoxious, but in versus, that was entirely the point. Any trash talking by the players would be rendered redundant, as the cheesy canned taunts of the characters, like the best fighting game victory quotes, did a better job expressing one's dominance and were also more demoralizing to the opponent when the chatter became one-sided. Even better were the Pokémon themselves. Each trainer had three Pokémon, and as established in the anime, the little monsters could only speak their own names. In Pokémon Puzzle League, this happened whenever a player pulled off a combo, using gravity to cause a chain reaction, whereby one set of cleared panels would set up those above them to fall into place for another clear. Each hit of the combo would be accompanied by your Pokémon yelling its own name, and successive hits would be matched with ever more animated cries, until "Cloister" became "Cl-l-l-l-loister!" to sound the veritable death knell for the opponent, who would know to expect a massive pile of garbage blocks to rain down on his screen.

The fabulous production values were just a part of one of the most feature-packed titles on the N64. In addition to versus play and a single-player story mode that adapted most of the boss battles of the original Game Boy game, Pokémon Puzzle League offered a bevy of alternative play modes. Most of these were single-player affairs of little interest, but the "Puzzle University" mode constituted a brilliant repurposing of the assets toward a fundamentally different puzzle experience in which the player, freed of the pressure of an opponent or time limit, had to solve static stages by completely clearing all panels within a predetermined number of moves. A comprehensive training mode, meanwhile, walked the player through the basics, as well as some of the more advanced techniques, of one of the deepest puzzle games ever designed. Most curious was "3-D" mode, which was essentially just the regular competitive game, except that, in this mode, the left and right boundaries were removed, and the playing field was reshaped into a cylindrical tube that wrapped around, with the pieces lining the surface of the tube. This significantly increased the amount of area that you had to cover, and it could become overwhelming having to keep an eye on the height of the blocks facing away from the screen. The unwieldy mode was basically a novelty that didn't even appear fully implemented into the game's design. One source of amusement, for example, involved trying to play 3-D mode against the CPU. Intelligent Systems clearly never bothered to program the AI to deal with the wraparound field of 3-D mode, and it was almost sad to watch the CPU working just the immediate side of the field, while the the back half continued to rise toward the ceiling. The CPU would often even inadvertently kill itself by manually hastening the ascent to provide more blocks to work with in the front, never realizing apparently that there was an overabundance in the back.

As for that "crucial design flaw" that ruined Tetris Attack for me? Well, it was still there in Pokémon Puzzle League, and it was actually less a flaw than a technical limitation, less a matter of design than of input.

The distinguishing feature of Puzzle League's gameplay is that, rather than falling from the top of the screen as in Tetris or Puyo Puyo, the panels continually arise from the bottom of the screen as horizontal lines that span the entire width of the field. The player has no control over how they are arranged as they appear, so instead of manipulating the blocks, you control a cursor that can highlight two horizontally adjacent pieces and flip them around. My issue with this concept as realized in Tetris Attack and Pokémon Puzzle League was that the directional pads of the SNES and N64 could not possibly move the cursor around as quickly as the human mind could perceive potential moves in the block arrangement. If, say, you spotted an opening on the opposite corner of the screen from your current position, you would have to slowly maneuver the cursor over there through clumsy diagonals, losing much precious time in the process. And that was without even trying to flip any panels along the way. It was comparable to aiming in a first-person shooter using a control pad instead of a mouse, except that, as far as I knew, Puzzle League never had a mouse-controlled version. But to me, it was the same problem of the theoretical game being strapped down by the practical constraints of a crude manual input mechanism that simply wasn't up to task for the concept.

Later Editions

Pokémon Puzzle League received a Game Boy Color port/sequel in 2000 called Pokémon Puzzle Challenge. This followup featured characters and Pokémon from the Gold/Silver era, but, without the production values or convenient multiplayer of the console version, it was missing most of what made Puzzle League worth playing. In 2003, Panel de Pon was included, along with Dr. Mario and Yoshi's Cookie, as part of the Japan-only Nintendo Puzzle Collection for GameCube. Two years later, Nintendo released the Dr. Mario/Puzzle League double pak for the Game Boy Advance, establishing plain Puzzle League as the official international version of Panel de Pon for regions outside Japan. Just as "Pokémon" was removed from the title, the included version of Puzzle League was stripped of all characters--no fairies, Yoshi, or Pokémon.

Most recently, the Puzzle League/Panel de Pon series arrived on the Nintendo DS in the form of Planet Puzzle League, released in North America in 2007. As with the GBA version, Planet Puzzle League has no story nor characters and sports a vaguely futuristic skin reminiscent of other handheld puzzlers such as Meteos and Lumines. The new look is slick but cold, and the livelier personalities of Tetris Attack and Pokémon Puzzle League remain sorely missed.

The loss of character is easily forgiven, however, in the face of the giant leap forward in control offered by the DS. The advent of touch controls finally solves the input hurdle that hindered the earlier editions. Now instead of desperately scrolling around with the D-pad, you can instantly reach the panels you wish to flip by tapping them with the stylus. Traditional controls are still included as an option, but in my opinion, there is simply no comparison, especially when things get tight, and you need those blocks to be moving as quickly as you will them.

The other major addition in Planet Puzzle League is versus play with more than two players, although it is sadly limited to only four players, compared to the eight-player of Tetris DS. Nevertheless, support for three or four players drastically alters the dynamic of the competitive game, allowing a broader range of play styles beyond just slinging the biggest chains possible. I'll admit that Pokémon Puzzle League gradually became less fun for me as it grew ever more apparent that my younger sister was simply leagues ahead of me. I just didn't practice enough to develop the time-slowing instincts and all-at-once vision that allow experienced players to consistently pull off chains of more than four moves. Even with the aid of the game's built-in time-stopping mechanic that paused the action after each link to facilitate further chaining, I rarely ever got four-chains except by accident. That's still the case in Planet Puzzle League, and not even the new stylus controls can bridge that gulf, but the addition of two extra players can open things up a bit. Three lesser players can combine to exert actual pressure against a single powerhouse that would otherwise dominate any one-on-one match, and that can give a steady player such as myself enough room to hang in there for a while and try to outlast everyone else.

Beyond the multiplayer, Planet Puzzle League is disappointingly empty. There's no single-player story, no training mode, no 3-D mode, and no head-to-head records keeping. In many respects, it's a tremendous step down from Pokémon Puzzle League on the N64. In the areas that matter most, however, it's an improvement. The stylus controls are absolutely essential, while the expanded multiplayer support further enhances what was already one of the greatest competitive puzzlers out there.


Riyuu said...

Personally I find the stylus controls to be far too clumsy and slow, but that's just me I suppose.

Czardoz said...

I have two questions:

1. How do you do 10-chains?

2. Give me the 10-chains.

Riyuu said...

I have two answers:

1. Skill.

2. What about a 20 chain? I think that's the highest I've gotten so far.