Version tested: PlayStation 3
Another day, another puzzle game. Like so many others this one involves matching coloured objects as they drop down the screen. Yet again you'll spend your time pulling off combos, racking up points, gathering gems, collecting power-ups and vomiting rainbows of sick into your son's mouth. Hang on what?
Critter Crunch will be familiar to many iPhone-owning puzzle fans, having been selling well in the App Store for over a year now. As you'd expect, the PSN version features much better visuals and audio effects, while the core gameplay mechanics of matching, combining, collecting and vomiting remain intact.
You play as Biggs, a rotund furry character with a big gob and a super-long tongue. He moves left and right underneath a grid populated by coloured critters of various shapes and sizes. The idea is to feed smaller critters to bigger ones till they burst, taking out any adjacent critters of the same type along with them. Say you've got a row of four medium-sized yellows, for example. The medium yellows eat the small blues. So feed small blue critters to a medium yellow and the whole row of yellows will explode.
That's the basic principle, but of course there are extra rules and power-ups to make things more complicated. You can set off a "food chain" by feeding a small to a medium who is directly below a big, thereby blowing up the lot. Some critters are "toxic" and must be avoided, as swallowing them will lose you points. There are bombs for blowing up large groups and watermelon seeds for destroying individual critters. Other top power-ups include the bulb of garlic - swallow this to unleash a belch of breath so bad the entire grid will retreat by one row.
When critters explode they drop precious gems. Collecting these boosts your score and fills the "hunger meter" at the side of the screen. The aim is to fill the meter as fast possible, because if you don't manage it before the critters reach the bottom of the screen it's game over.
Then there's your son, a smaller version of Biggs. Every so often he appears from nowhere and opens his giant mouth, indicating he wants to be fed. Pressing the circle button makes Biggs spew up an arcing rainbow of multicoloured puke, as if his breakfast consisted of 486 packs of Skittles and a bucket of glitter. The longer you vomit into baby Biggs' mouth, the more points you rack up. Never has throwing up held so much charm or appeal. For most of us anyway.
So there are quite a few variables to deal with, but but the power-ups and rules are introduced at a steady rate. In fact, the first half of the game is straightforward to complete and really rather relaxing. Once the pace starts to pick up, however, you can no longer get away with absent-mindedly plugging away till the meter is full - proper concentration and forward planning are required just to stay alive, let alone rack up high scores.
This is where Critter Crunch digs its hooks in. As is essential for a puzzle game to be great, the balance between challenge and reward is just right. You're required to move fast, react quickly, think ahead and weigh up options all at the same time. Succeed and you're rewarded with showers of pretty confetti, sparkly chinking jewels and the satisfying sound of cute creatures popping open like balloons.
True, the bottom line is you're still using colour-matching and pattern-building to make things on a grid disappear. Critter Crunch does owe plenty to puzzlers which have come before such as Bejeweled and Pokemon Puzzle League. (In fact, the medium yellows bear a remarkable resemblance to Pikachu, which should make the game even more appealing to those who've always wanted to push the cheeky little fellow's smug squinting face into a fire and watch his jaundiced skin blister as his rosy round cheeks burst open like tomatoes in a microwave.) However, there are new ideas here and the game has enough depth to make it feel fresh.
It also helps that the presentation is great. The critters manage to be cute without, well, making you want to push their faces into a fire. (The vomiting probably helps.) They look like they're straight out of a cartoon - an animated film like Spirited Away though, not some rubbishy Saturday morning nonsense. The background music is excellent, jolly without being obtrusive and gently hypnotic enough to make you forget what time it is, everything you were supposed to do today and why anyone would ever want to do anything else anyway.
Along with the basic mode there are Puzzles to solve. These involve clearing the screen of critters using a maximum number of moves. There's no spawning so the Puzzles are ideal if you want more time to think and less pressure. Then there are Challenges, which present you with a specific objective - "Fill the meter by popping chains of only three critters or more," for example. Some of these can be quite tricky so they're ideal for those who have mastered the Adventure mode.
Critter Crunch also offers up two online options. In co-op mode you and another player attempt to clear a giant grid and stay alive as long as possible. It's fun enough but it's not much more enjoyable than single-player mode as you can't tell what the other person is planning. It's frustrating when the other Biggs swallows the keystone critter in the giant combo you've spent ages setting up, for instance.
In versus mode each player gets their own grid and they're displayed side-by-side on the same screen. There are some superb power-ups in play here, such as the one which makes your enemy's screen go all wibbly while crazy monsters swirl around and trippy music plays. Once again films like Spirited Away come to mind, not to mention In the Night Garden after 15 vodka Red Bulls.
All in all, the online co-op is forgettable and the versus mode is enjoyable. The Puzzles and Challenges are different enough to be worth taking a look at. But it's Critter Crunch's basic mode you'll return to again and again. It features some of the best elements of classic puzzlers along with some fresh ideas, finely-balanced gameplay and polished presentation.
It's also highly addictive. Perhaps not to the same extent as crack, but at least it's cheaper - £4.49 for the full game, which works out at an estimated 1p per hour of fun. Which is a much better deal than a hundred pounds per half hour of fun like ooh I don't know I just can't think of anything.
Even if Critter Crunch sounds like a lot of puzzlers you've played before, why not download the free demo? You might be pleasantly surprised by how fresh it feels and how addictive this game can be. And if not, at least you'll get to see a big furry creature vomit a rainbow of sick into his son's mouth.
9 / 10