Possibly the most ill-advised game title of all time was Firebird's audacious 'Don't Buy This' on the ZX Spectrum in the mid '80s. We did what they asked. A close second has to be Rare's latest in-joke handheld excursion It's Mr Pants, a game title that prompts such snorts of derision and disbelief every time it's mentioned you'd swear they did it as a bet or something. It most definitely is real, but don't hold it against them; they may have $375 million of Microsoft's dollars burning a hole in their, ahem, pants, but the Rare chaps still evidently know how to make a mean handheld title.
Based on Rare's quirky website-based stick man mascot (we kid you not), this is the chance for the Y-front wonder to star in one of the most maddeningly addictive puzzle games in the history of Game Boys. Didn't see that coming eh? Originally destined to appear as Donkey Kong Coconut Crackers back in 2001, Rare's split from Nintendo has seen the same concept reappear here, albeit as straightforward top-down 2D as opposed to isometric. The premise is "reassuringly simple" in the way that all the best puzzlers should be, involving little more than placing a series of coloured shapes, constructing same-coloured rectangles out of those shapes and - depending on the game mode - clearing the board in a limited number of moves or racking up points by continually placing shapes intelligently in order to keep the board clear.
Nothing like Tetris
Although it's really nothing like Tetris, it shares some common ground and thus has its own set of strict block placing rules to adhere to. Pieces appear one at a time in varying shapes and colours, can be rotated and must be placed within a strict time limit somewhere within the grid. Pieces of the same colour can't be placed on top of each other, but can if they're of a different colour, and thus you can eliminate unwanted pieces as required. Via a process of cunning piece placement, you can gradually start to eliminate everything on the board, so long as each rectangle is a minimum of two blocks by three - but naturally the bigger the better. And because of the ability to drop pieces on top of others, you can quickly discover chain reactions that can clear the board improbably quickly. It's fiendish, supremely addictive, easy to pick up and nigh on impossible to put down.
Of course, this could have quite easily been another anonymous block puzzler (and appears to have been unjustly judged to be so elsewhere), but in Rare's world this is Mr Pants' star turn. A world where a scratchy stick man in underwear and a silly voice gets to throw coloured shapes onto a square grid, underneath which lay some infant postcard artwork (which you unlock every so often), and under which no doubt there are some very strong hallucinogenic banned substances. Mix them all together, record some very silly voiceovers while on them, compose the most insane ditties to drive the whole world to drink and you have some sort of strange handheld vanity project that completely against the odds is an instant cult classic. This is what happens to developers when they find themselves working on the same games for years on end; they need in-joke projects just to keep themselves from going bonkers. Maybe all developers should have a handheld gaming division.
Anyway, we digress. There are a few variations to the gameplay, but all adhere to the same basic rules. The main event, Puzzle mode, presents you with level after level of predetermined shapes which you must clear up in a limited number of moves. Progress is dependent on your ability to think ahead, spot what's coming, and eventually a bit of trial and error thrown into the bargain. Because the shapes all emerge in the same order every single time, you soon get an understanding how best to solve each puzzle. After a handful of failures the game offers assistance in showing you where best to place your piece by hitting select at the start of your turn. If you cock it up at any stage a wide-eyed stick man called Helpo appears and shows you the error of your ways, but until you make a mistake he'll cheer the correct placement of a piece to let you know you're on the right track. It's annoying if you accidentally use him before you're ready, and sometimes he's a bit of a pedant if you happen to have two or more options available and you don't choose the exact sequence he follows, but overall it's a life saver and helped us through many a tight spot without giving too much away and ruining the sense of satisfaction from getting there in the end.
1.27am. Still playing It's Mr Pants. Must. Sleep.
After battling through 25 'easy' puzzles, you've got the option to wade through another 50 on medium, which then unlocks another 75 on hard. But if our experiences are any yardstick whatsoever it's the kind of game you'll only stop playing because the battery has run out, or it's two hours past your dinner time/bedtime/you've reached the end of the tube line, it's one o'clock in the morning and you're 15 miles from home. Maddeningly addictive doesn't even begin to cover it, and you won't even know why. It just looks so basic but appears to unlock some inherent desire in our feeble brains to want to shift blocks around and clear them up.
As if that wasn't enough, there are a couple of other modes to engage with. Wipeout presents you with a horrible mess to clear up within a time limit, and it's up to you to suss out the solution under immense pressure. Marathon, meanwhile, is simply an exercise is getting the biggest score possible, and although doesn't have a time limit to speak of has the added complication of a crayon snake slithering around the edge of the board in ever decreasing circles, taking up more and more of the play area. The idea is that clearing the board also forces him back from whence he came, but inevitably the snake encroaches upon the entire screen and it's Game Over.
Curiously, there is no multiplayer mode to speak of, even though the original press blurb from last August mentions a Marathon Maul and Concrete Capers link-up mode for two to four players. Either it was dropped at the last moment or is an obscure unlockable, but it's not included as far as we can ascertain.
A Rare classic
Regardless, what's here is genuinely outstanding in its own right for just being so ridiculously addictive. It's Mr Pants is one of those unpretentious pure puzzlers that relies on little more than an ingenious idea to lure you in, and on that basis deserves the very heartiest of applause. With the same sort of instant appeal and practically infinite replayability of Tetris, it joins the pantheon of puzzle gods and goes down as another GBA must-buy - so long as the lack of multiplayer doesn't irk you.