All the way back in 2005, the Game Boy Advance benefited from a range of seven games under the Bit Generations banner. Simple and affordable, they delivered ingenious nuggets of gaming using basic controls and concepts. Or at least, they did in Japan. The rest of the world never got an official taste of these dinky delights.
Thankfully, the world of WiiWare is perfect for just this sort of gaming, so original developer Skip Ltd has rejigged two of the seven, redubbed them Art Style, and added an all-new title for good measure. In keeping with the old cheap n' cheerful approach of Bit Generations, each game costs just 600 Wii Points (that's around GBP 4.20 / EUR 5.40) and will take up only a tiny amount of your precious Wii memory.
But are they any good?
The only one of the three Art Style games not to have its roots in the GBA era, Cubello should be a striking example of how the simple, graceful Bit Generations ethos can evolve to take advantage of the Wii. And it is. Mostly.
At its core, the game is another colour-matching puzzler in which putting four blocks of the same hue next to each other makes them vanish. As always, the goal is to get rid of all the blocks. Mixing things up is the fact you're not just guiding tumbling blocks down a flat plane, but firing them at a constantly rotating geometric structure, using the remote to aim at the facets of the cubes as they swing past.
This structure is inexorably moving towards you, and it's Game Over should it get too close. The only way to nudge it backwards is - yes - to keep chaining together strings of destroyed blocks. There's an immense sense of satisfaction to be found clearing huge swathes of blocks with a well-placed shot. Just by making it a 3D structure, there's a more tangible payoff to successful play. You're not simply erasing lines of flat shapes, but dismantling an apparently solid object.
The 3D is more than just gimmick as well. Success isn't just about putting blocks in the right place, it's about firing blocks at the right time. The structure's rotation is dictated by your shots, so a hit on a protruding extremity can send it spinning rapidly in the opposite direction, while a hit closer to the centre has a less violent impact. This extra wrinkle means that there are dual strategies to be satisfied, and players who like to evolve deeper tactics over prolonged play will be most satisfied.
In concept there's a neat balance of old and new, while the clean, crisp presentation fits well with the stripped-down approach of the series. Sadly though, the gameplay balance that made the original Bit Generations series so fiendishly moreish is somewhat askew here. The game is tough, giving you no more than a few seconds to start knocking blocks off before the proximity klaxon starts to sound, and with no way to discard unwanted colours, clearing those last few blocks can be a frustrating to-and-fro of building up cluttered spires of superfluous cubes while hoping for the colour you need to finally get rid of a solitary group of three.
Often, the only way to effectively clear the stage is to make use of Bonus Time, during which you get an unlimited number of blocks of the same colour. Once all blocks of that colour have been eliminated, the colour changes and you can start chipping away at another set. Trouble is, you have no control over Bonus Time. It's triggered by a series of tumblers in the top right, and only when they match up do you hit the jackpot and get to make big useful strides towards the finish line.
By tying efficient progress to this random system, rather than old-fashioned player skill, Cubello ultimately fumbles the delicate balancing act, which can be the difference between a very good puzzler and a great one, and so it proves.
Rotohex, a fairly unchanged port of Dialhex, is easily the most traditional of the Art Style trio, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. It just makes it harder to appreciate its triumphs when there are at least a dozen similar puzzle games doing broadly the same thing.
It's another variation on the old colour-matching formula, in which tiny triangles drop from the sky and must be wrangled into hexagonal groups of identical colour by rotating areas of the playfield. The aim is to create six groups of each colour, at which point you advance to the next stage and another colour is added. From a fairly simple green and orange start, you're soon juggling a veritable rainbow of shapes, trying to cluster them together before the screen fills up. Two power-ups mix things up a bit, either opening a plughole at the bottom to drain some pieces out, or changing the colour of pieces to make matches easier.
That's pretty much it, and while it's compellingly presented, it's hard to ignore that games like Hexic and even Lumines have staked a fairly watertight claim for this kind of puzzling on today's gaming platforms. There are subtleties to the play that become apparent as you battle through the stages - unlocking a couple of additional game modes along the way - but nothing that won't already be second nature to dedicated puzzle fans.
Where Rotohex distinguishes itself is in the aforementioned game modes, with a marathon survival mode and a timed sprint mode both offering different ways to approach the game as a single player. It's the only Art Style game to boast multiplayer as well, with a fun versus mode that uses a similar mechanic to Puzzle Fighter to reward successful play by dumping more pieces on your opponent's grid.
It's really only the sprint mode that is new to this version, with everything else much the same as it was on the GBA. Multiplayer is now available on a shared screen, which is obviously more accessible than having two game cartridges, but otherwise there's a sense that more could have been done to evolve the bedrock of the game, especially since it's arguably the least distinctive of the Bit Generations titles.
Orbient, an update of the GBA title Orbital, is a physics game. A real physics game. Usually when we talk about physics in a gaming context, what we mean is "making stuff falling over". That's not what happens here. Orbient is a game about momentum. It's also about attraction and repulsion. It's a game that allows you to legitimately use big scary textbook words like "geodesics" and "parabola".
You're controlling a small planet, adrift in a series of solar systems. The A button draws you closer to nearby planetary bodies, in accordance with their mass, while the B trigger pushes you away. Colliding with an object of the same size (marked blue) means you absorb that planet and become bigger. Smaller objects (grey) can also be absorbed, but provide no increase in size. Far better to sweep them into your orbit, so they can provide additional lives for the next level, since you'll inevitably lose plenty of these through collisions with the larger red planets, and various asteroids and other space debris which only serve to scupper your plans. Once you've grown large enough, the goal star is revealed. Get that star into your orbit and you're off to the next level.
You're at your most vulnerable - and least controllable - when moving freely through space. The knack, you soon realise, is to get yourself into orbit around a larger object and then slingshot yourself nearer to the desirable blue spheres bit by bit. Each level brings a more complex system of orbits and planets to navigate, so while the gameplay is far more hands-on and arcadey than its Art Style kin, relying as much on quick reactions as on strategy, Orbient is still very much a puzzle game.
What's more, it's still completely unlike any other puzzle game, purely because you're controlling physical forces around an object, rather than the object itself. You could perhaps argue that it has a little in common with games like Feeding Frenzy, purely because of the concept of gobbling up small things while avoiding big things, but that barely scratches the surface of the mental gymnastics the game asks you to perform.
As with the other Art Style games, Orbient has a fairly steep learning curve and it doesn't waste much time before throwing seriously challenging levels at you. Crack the controls, however, and you can hit just the right arc to glide into orbit around a planet, scooping up moons, before swinging back round and off to the next one, just shaving past a rogue asteroid with pixels to spare, and it's joyous.
It's a weird game, yes, but a quietly brilliant one if you put a little effort in and are prepared to grapple with the physical concepts at its heart. It's certainly the most interesting and rewarding of the three Art Style games on WiiWare, so far.