Version tested: GameBoy Advance
When it comes down to it, we'll probably never tire of shape-shifting puzzle games. However simplistic and retro they look, however old they get, there's simply no getting away from the fact that they're among the most compelling genre of games anyone's ever come up with. Requiring no need for a significant graphical overhaul, no pointless overblown stories and no massive marketing campaign, these staples of mass market gaming have become like timeless board games that no one should ever tinker with.
With that in mind, it's hardly surprising to see Nintendo coming to a similar realisation and issuing a '2 games in 1' pack containing two all-time classics that are still as maddeningly addictive today as they were when they first appeared a decade and a half ago.
The first of the two, Dr. Mario, is a title we had a relatively recent re-introduction to when Nintendo issued its limited run of NES Classics a year or so back. In case you've somehow missed out on it over the decades, it's a fantastic block puzzler with all the furious one-more-go appeal of Tetris.
Doctor doctor, can't you see I'm burning burning
Set inside a familiar rectangular play-field (a jar, as it happens), the idea is to rotate the descending 'vitamins' (in other words two square blocks) that 'Dr' Mario is busy lobbing in, with the aim to eliminate the 'viruses' by placing them appropriately next to one another. Each virus, of course, is colour coded, and can only be zapped if it's joined by at least three vitamins of the same colour in a line - either horizontally or vertically.
To begin with, on lower difficulty levels, it's a nice relaxing, satisfying way to pass the time, chipping away at each level and wiping out the various viruses dotted around the field of play. But as you clear each level of viruses, so another one appears - but this time with progressively more viruses to wipe out. Suffice to say, the action gets pretty hectic after a while as you're tasked with clearing more and more, while trying to find round holes for the square pegs you're constantly thrown. With most vitamins comprised of two different coloured blocks, half the challenge is working out where best to place the piece you don't want.
Sure enough, after a few levels you'll be forced to up the pace, plan ahead and do your best to stop the pile of vitamins from overflowing out of the jar. Game Over, restart, minutes, hours pass. Yes, it's that sort of game.
But that's only the Classic one player experience. In addition, you can also play against the CPU (on whatever level and speed setting you fancy) as well as two player via the link cable (one copy of the game required per player, annoyingly). And on top of that, there's even a Flash mode, where eliminating the flashing viruses is your priority - or surviving longer than your opponent. All in all, Dr. Mario deserves its classic status, and is definitely one game you'll always want in your collection.
The League of extraordinary Puzzlers
Intelligent Systems' (yes, the Advance Wars/Fire Emblem guys) Puzzle League is also an absolute gem of a block shifter - and is one we'd somehow managed to miss the first time around, much to our eternal shame (too busy playing Amiga games, no doubt).
The concept is every bit as simple, addictive and challenging as Dr. Mario, though, and basically involves swapping blocks horizontally until you can line up three of the same colour - either horizontally or vertically. Set, once again, inside a rectangular grid, this time an entire row of coloured blocks rises up from the bottom, meaning you have to swap and shuffle the blocks quickly in the hope of stopping the ever-rising tower from reaching the top of the screen.
Seeing as you're limited to only swapping blocks that are horizontally aligned, the game's a lot trickier than it initially appears, and forces you to take a very different approach to other games in the same vein. One important point to note, though, is that you can shift a shape either left or right even when there's no block adjacent to it. So, for example, if you've got a lone shape perched on the top of a tower and threatening to reach the top of the screen (and end the game), you can shift in off and make it fall down - allowing you to join it up with its identical pals below.
You can also tweak an absolute myriad of settings to vary the speed, number of types of block in the game and difficulty of the 'Marathon' challenge, with options to let the game auto combo, for example, if the shapes rising up from underneath match with the ones you already have.
I like to move it, move it
Elsewhere, there's a superbly addictive and challenging Puzzle mode that tasks you with clearing all the blocks within a set number of moves, not to mention the high score-based Timed mode, Line mode (clear blocks above the line to advance to the next stage), and the curious Garbarge mode, where big horizontal blocks are deposited on the top of your other blocks, with the idea to eliminate the blocks it's resting on before they pile up, reach the top of the screen and wreck your game.
As you'd expect, there's a great two player mode too, either against the CPU of over the link cable (again, one copy of the game each is required, although you can send a single player demo version of the game to them). With various handicap and speed settings to tinker with, it should be easy enough to set up a fair challenge even with total novices.
Needless to say, with so many ways of playing it and an almost infinite replay value to it, Puzzle League is one of those excellent games with which to while away the hours that you can pick up and play anytime.
As a package it's excellent to have two timeless games to dip back into whenever you feel like it, but there's still the niggling feeling that Nintendo's pricing strategy for such things is bordering on insane. When similar puzzle titles can be bought in enormous compendiums on other systems for next to nothing, you have to wonder how it's possible to charge full price for two ancient puzzle games. So that leaves us with a dilemma: we love both games dearly, but would we pay what Nintendo's asking? Not in a million years. One to snaffle up in the post-Christmas sale, for sure.
7 / 10