“The difference between the amoeba and Einstein is that, although both make use of the method of trial and error elimination, the amoeba dislikes erring while Einstein is intrigued by it.”
Now I know what it feels like to be the game reviewer that absolutely sucks at the game!
Is this the Cuphead tutorial moment of my career? I don’t think so, and here’s why: learning how to play Puyo Puyo was an uphill battle–I had to keep telling myself “Don’t play like Tetris! Don’t play like Tetris! Don’t Tetris!”–but I enjoyed the experience enough to put in enough time to see my skill with it steadily improve. The M2 spearheaded SEGA AGES collection, bringing classic Sega titles to the Nintendo Switch, is once again a godsend.
As with SEGA AGES Space Harrier, this was my first time playing this game. I hadn’t previously played any version of Puyo Puyo or any game in the franchise. Years of experience with Tetris variants, Dr. Mario renditions, and riffs off falling-block puzzle games, heck even Hatris, didn’t adequately prepare me for SEGA AGES Puyo Puyo. I found myself trying to play it like any of those other very similar games. My experience handicapped me. I found that I needed to try to unlearn habits for this game and play by its own rules in order to succeed.
I learned not only about the history of Puyo Puyo, but I learned a lot about myself, too.
Puyo Puyo (aka Puyo Pop) began its slimy existence developed by Compile for the MSX2 and Famicom Disk System, and that original game was later streamlined as an arcade version, albeit with fewer features. The arcade version is a single-player or two-player game. Single-player mode functions like a boss rush: you have to face down increasingly tough cartoonish caricatures who challenge you to see who can plop blobs down a hole better. Right away, you’ll notice that Puyo Puyo is more competition-oriented than Tetris, which is score-oriented. There are always two wells being filled at once in this game.
You don’t see this much character in something like Tetris, either, which is one of the reasons why I didn’t always gravitate toward that classic, as good as it is, as a kid. The developers were aware of this and decided puzzle games of this sort could be centered around a host of characters, provided they picked the right ones. The cast of colorful misfits in Puyo Puyo are lifted from Madō Monogatari 1-2-3, a 1990 JRPG also by Compile. This makes Puyo Puyo a kind of puzzle spin-off. Its cutesy charm belies a cruel difficulty, though. It can feel all the more patronizing losing to a grimacing fish with arms!
Oh and in case you’re wondering, this is a Puyo.
These endearing protoplasms come in multiple colors and they fall from the top of the screen in pairs. Your task is to rotate each pair as they fall to organize them by color. Four or more Puyo touching each other will disappear or “pop”. You can also create combos by making use of the game’s gravity: popping a row of greens with one yellow above it and three yellow below it will cause the one yellow to drop after the greens pop, causing the yellows to pop immediately afterward.
Clearing Puyo tosses junk Puyo or enemy Puyo over onto your opponent’s screen, tripping them up. The faster you clear Puyo or the more combos you can pull off, the more rubbish you can throw at your foe. It’s half a race and half strategizing where you need to place each Puyo. Sometimes placing them in the most obvious way is not the smartest way. It’s best to set yourself up for those combos, provided a whole armada of junk Puyo don’t interfere. And they always seem to drop in the most inconvenient place!
As in Tetris, the player loses who fills up their entire screen first, leaving no room for any more chromatic globules.
Holy cow it’s a candy-colored carousel! Seriously, the brightly-toned Puyo Puyo gives me a sweet tooth just looking at it. I don’t know what Puyo taste like, but I’d love to find out. It’s not the gaudy color scheme that really marks my critique of the visuals, its the flatness of the characters themselves. A lot hinges on the characters in Puyo Puyo, and you do get to enjoy some funny banter between them before rounds, but the sprites are very flat. This was released in ’91 in the arcades and there were already Super Nintendo games at home that created more visual depth.
The best part of the visuals by far, though, is the inherent squishiness of each Puyo! There are, of course, the usual scanlines, smoothing effects, and custom frames you can play around with in this retro re-release.
One of the ways I measure the quality of a video game soundtrack (in the right context) is by its whistleability! Yes, I’m coining that word. On the 2nd day of enjoying Puyo Puyo, I caught myself whistling the battle track on Normal mode. It’s not as tinny or chirpy as the Practice mode battles (which I played a lot of). It’s really good and I’m surprised it isn’t more iconic for its pace, catchiness, and sense of humor; there’s a part in the song when it sounds like you’re running out of time. Great for keeping you on your toes.
Besides for the single-player and two-player modes, the SEGA AGES version comes with an online mode for battling strangers across the internet. Considering how bad I was at this game already, I didn’t try this mode out too much. It is there, however, for the truly competitive. Speaking of which, I think the focus on competitive play is something that really makes the gameplay of Puyo Puyo engaging. That and the emphasis on combos more than simple line clears. I only wish that there was a way to counter enemy Puyo, evidently something that would be introduced later in the Puyo Puyo series.
Having to actively unthink my habits for playing block-falling puzzle games proved to be an extra obstacle to learning the game and getting better at it. True, the controls themselves are a piece of cake–two buttons to rotate, down to fast drop, and one button to start a new game–but the mechanics of the game took me some time to get used to. I needed to think outside of the box to even begin to set up combos, and even then, I was sluggish at it. Still, Puyo Puyo is the kind of game where you can see yourself steadily improving, should you keep practicing. Practice makes better!
I lost a lot on Practice mode, Normal difficulty… I did! I had to put the game on Easy and then work back up to Normal difficulty. As it stands, I could just barely beat the Elf kid on Normal mode, Normal difficulty. The thing is, Puyo Puyo ramps up its speed very quickly. You’ll see be forced to try to strategize at high speeds. If you’re unaccustomed to the kind of strategy required, you’re out.
Highly addicting for its difficult gameplay, I kept coming back for more, even though I got my butt handed to me. When I got stuck on a battle with a specific character, I kept playing until I took them down… only to face a tougher one immediately afterward.
Puyo Puyo was inspired by specific qualities in Tetris and Dr. Mario games. Really, it’s a fusion of both of those, plus, reportedly, a dash of Street Fighter II. Yes, that’s right. Apparently, the developers were inspired by the competitive fighting nature of that icon and wanted to bring it to the genre of puzzle games. While Puyo Puyo is an interesting combination of ideas, it’s easy to see that those ideas preexisted it.
My Personal Grade: 8/10
I played Puyo Puyo for the first time and loved it. I’ve already put more time into it than in SEGA AGES Space Harrier, when I expected it was going to turn out the other way round. Competitively play has been great on two-players with my wife, who picked up the logistics of Puyo Puyo much more quickly than I did! Genius wife.
We’d like to thank M2 and Sega for supplying us with a copy of their game for this review.
Aggregated Score: 7.0
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Categories: Game Review