Version tested: GameBoy Advance
Tetris. Differently shaped chunks consisting of four blocks raining from the sky, and the only way to clear them is by arranging them into a series of complete, horizontal lines. That's just genius, isn't it?
And it works so well! The speed levels gradually ramp up, there are pre-built scenarios to try and work your way out of, there's that ever so catchy theme tune which preys on your mind until it's all you can do not to hum it, and there are even dancing Russians and space ships. We pity every poor bastard who claims to have topped it.
Except Capcom, for two reasons: firstly, it claims to have topped it in its own press material, which is a bit cheeky, and secondly, it has come closer than virtually anybody in living memory.
The paradoxically titled Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo, then. How does it work?
It's rather like the bastard offspring of Tetris and Bust-a-Move. You and an AI or human-controlled opponent have six block wide boards with your little Street Fighter or Dark Stalkers characters facing one another in the centre. Similar to Tetris, you're faced with coloured gems tumbling from the sky on your side, this time in pairs, and the idea is to arrange them adjacent to other gems of the same colour with the usual Tetris-style controls. Horizontal lines aren't important - it's all about getting the biggest possible arrangements of same-colour gems lined up and then shattering them. If you make a little square of four, they will merge to become an almighty square "power gem". Throw on a couple more and it's an even larger rectangular gem, and so on.
Every so often, you won't get a gem from the little gap at the top; you'll get a coloured circle with a dot in the middle, or a little spinning jewel. The circle is a "crash gem", which when placed next to a gem of the same colour will - you've guessed it - shatter that particular gem, and any adjacent gems of the same colour, and then any adjacent to those, and those, and so on. And if you can snake a little colour train round the board and then destroy it with a crash gem, you will create big problems for your AI or human opponent on the other side of the screen.
But before we get onto that, we should mention the little spinning jewel, known as the rainbow gem. These are surprisingly rare and destroy every gem corresponding to the colour of the one they land on. Handy for clearing out a particularly packed board.
However, unlike Tetris, Puzzle Fighter is about beating an opponent. Whenever a crash gem has its effect, "counter gems" are dumped on your opponent's board. Counter gems fall in a specific coloured pattern for each character, which you can view on the character select screen and in the manual, but sadly not in the heat of the battle, and each is fronted by a number which counts down from 5 to 0 - one count per gem pair - before solidifying. As such, you can plan for the onslaught by lining up your existing gems in a suitable colour array to receive and incorporate them to your advantage. Failing that, you get a little warning before each onslaught of counter gems, and smashing some of your own with a crash gem (if possible) will lessen the subsequent "counter dump". And while gems are counting down, any crash gem-related clearance will destroy adjacent counters.
Another good ploy is chaining attacks. With a bit of preparation, you can get a row of blues to blow up, which in turn drops a lot of greens on top of a strategically placed crash gem, which in turn dumps some reds on another crash gem, and so on and so forth. The bigger the number of chains, the heavier the punishment in store for your enemy - all the while your little Puzzle Fighter character smacks his chum around in between the boards. Aw.
Phew. It's a lot more complicated to type it all out! In practise, playing Puzzle Fighter is pretty easy. You make your gems as big and as satisfyingly chunky as you dare, then shatter them to thwart your opponent. The strategy of the game is in playing to your opponent's counter gem pattern, and getting those crucial explosions in prior to being severely countered. But as you'll quickly learn, neither is all that easy to do, so it's often a case of seat-of-the-pants puzzling while your opponent is working at the same rate. As with Tetris, holding down on the D-pad is a shortcut for sending the gems rattling down quickly, and like Tetris again, fallen gems give you a split second to shift them left or right, useful if you send them marginally astray when hurrying. And who doesn't?
In terms of the GBA port, it's all as charming as we remember it on the PSX and PC, with cute, simple, arcadey menus, a watch-and-learn training mode (or video, effectively), the basic Arcade Mode (split into three difficulty levels; breezy straight-through three stage easy, 'normal to rock hard' eight stage medium and 'you will never get off the first round' hard), an item and game mode-unlocking GBA specific Puzzle Mode, and a couple of multi-player modes.
What? Yes, a couple. There's the usual link cable mode for two players, sadly requiring two cartridges (note to GBA developers, publishers, etc: stop doing this now, you greedy bastards), but there's also an enigmatic Versus Mode, which lets you play two-player on one GBA. Obviously this is a bit of a non-starter on GlowGuard or Afterburner-less GBAs, but SP owners will no doubt be delighted to have something to coo about. Well, something else.
They'll be less excited about the controls though, as the two of you huddle together, one hand per side of the GBA. Player one controls his gems with left/right on the D-pad and the left shoulder button (tap it to turn the gems anti-clockwise, hold to send the gems quickly to ground) while player two uses B/A, corresponding to left/right, and the right shoulder button. Surprisingly, it works! You can just about get on with a game or two this way, but we'd say it should probably be reserved for couples and best friends - or those of you on Ken's buses. Otherwise, it just makes us wonder why a one-cart link cable mode wasn't included. Eh, Capcom?
As you can tell though, the port is largely very good. The menus are all very obvious, the display is crisp and clear and the graphics are functional - except for the cutesy, "super deformed" (ugh) SF2 and Dark Stalkers folk making up the character roster, who thrust and gyrate their beat 'em up wares in time to your gem-crushage. They look splendid.
It's been a while since we've recommended a puzzler on the GBA, but with Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo we're tempted to do just that. Like most puzzle games, it's all in the gameplay, and Puzzle Fighter's model is more imaginative and works a lot better than most of the others we've seen lately. Like ZooCube, for example. And unlike Tetris, there's scope to get much better at it by learning the counter gem routes and finding your ideal character match, and there's a single-player game that takes more than a first-time brain to overcome. Much more. Throw in an adventurous two-on-one-GBA multi-player mode, the obligatory (and fantastic) link cable mode and cute, quirky visuals and Puzzle Fighter becomes an essential purchase for puzzle fans. It's still not Tetris, but that's no reason to ignore it.
9 / 10