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Oh What A Wonderful Time To Be Puzzled

The last year of gaming has brought us many wonderful puzzle games. Instead of measuring things by the calendar year, for the purposes of this article my "puzzle year" starts with the release of Portal and stretches to about now.

The puzzle genre is one of my favorite video game genres. They're like the shooters of quality gameplay games. What I mean by that is puzzle games tend to be structured and focused on gameplay more than anything else. By establishing a few mechanics up front, puzzle games generally excel in presenting a series of varied levels designed completely around the use of the core mechanics. Without being distracted by cutscenes, large text blocks, repetitive encounters, etc. puzzle games focus on my favorite part of video games; gameplay and the depth of mechanics.

Though puzzle games may share similar mechanics and gameplay elements from other genres, the unique identifier that makes a puzzle game a puzzle game is all in the execution/level design. In general, puzzle games take a set of mechanics and create levels to limit the player so that only a limited solution path is available that often requires a layered/nuanced use of the core mechanics. In other words, puzzle games aren't about all the different ways you can accomplish a task. They're about ensuring that you understand the game well enough to get through each level in the one specific way.

Playing a well designed puzzle game is like participating in a comprehensive math class. Even when the teacher spends the entirety of the first class period on addition and subtraction and you're thinking the material is too easy to pay attention to, soon the class will move on to more complicated problems. First addition and subtraction. Then multiplication, division, geometry, trigonometry, algebra, and calculus. Each subsequent lesson builds upon the teachings of the previous classes.

By that criteria, any game could contain puzzle levels/elements. Remember the bonus areas from Super Mario Brothers? These single room areas are puzzle stages that challenge the player to collect all the coins. By excluding enemies from the bonus areas, these rooms are focused on the puzzle giving the player the opportunity to take up the challenge or leave. Many action games can be converted to puzzle games simply by adding limitations and/or changing the goals. Take Chu Chu Rocket for example. The action part of the game is played with up to 4 players all placing arrow tiles on the board to direct the traffic of cats and mice. Players can only have 3 arrow tiles down at a time and must negotiate the board according to that limitation and against the actions of all other players. The goal of this game is to get more mice into your rocket than the other players. In the puzzle stages of Chu Chu Rocket, players are limited to using a small number of specific arrow tiles. After all the tiles are set, the board is put into play. Once in play, all the mice on the board must get into the rocket(s) while avoiding holes and cats. In this puzzle mode, players have to plan ahead, work with limited tiles, and understand the nuances of how the mice, cats, and level interact.

It's games like Chu Chu Rocket that highlight the hazy distinction between puzzle games and other actions games. Wikipedia defines a puzzles game like this: "Puzzle games require the player to solve logic puzzles or navigate complex locations such as mazes." All games at least follow their own "game logic." Likewise determining if a scenario is "complex" is subjective. For these reasons, I categorize puzzle games by feel more than anything else.

The point of a puzzle stage is to figure out the solution of each stage with knowledge, one of the five facets of skill. To help, players are usually given many tries at solving the puzzle as well as tools to ease the trial and error learning process. Some of these tools include a stage reset, rewind time, pause time, jump back one move/step, and hint. To keep things interesting, many puzzle games add layer of tension into their design by making the puzzle challenges action based. In other words, by adding a real time element to the challenge the player is limited by time in addition to the limited solution of the puzzle. The real time element to puzzle games allows players to develop and use a more diverse skill set including dexterity, timing, reflex, and even adaption (the other 4 facets of skill).

If a puzzle level doesn't have an end, or if it's randomly generated, then the level is a puzzle challenge. Tetris is a good example. In this game, players arrange falling shapes one by one so that they form solid lines and are eliminated from play. By eliminating lines, players keep the stack of shapes low. If the stack grows too large, the game ends. In Tetris, like in all puzzle challenges, the nuanced use of the core mechanics is still the point of the game. The only difference between a puzzle challenge and a puzzle stage is the open ended, non-strict design of the level.

The biggest downside to puzzle stages is their replay value. Once you figure out the solution to a puzzle stage, due to the limited solution set, there aren't many reasons to play the level again. Sure you can go for a faster time or complete the level in fewer moves, but even these extra challenges can be hampered by the nature of the puzzle stage. It's like seeing how quickly you can answer a riddle after you know the answer. There really isn't any point in doing so.

Fortunately, puzzle challenges contain much more replay value. Because the challenge is randomly generated, the player must adapt to unpredictable situations. By testing the players knowledge in addition to their adaptability, timing, dexterity, and reflexes, players of puzzle challenges exercise more facets of skill, and therefore have more room to grow.  Furthermore, many puzzle games feature multiplayer modes. Friends make any game more fun. Likewise, battling opponents makes any challenge more interesting.

Some games support cooperative multiplayer. World of Goo for the Nintendo Wii allows multiple players to get in on the action. Each Wiimote gets a cursor allowing players to pick up separate objects and place them in the environment. Aside from the fact that the camera is only controlled by the first player, all the cooperative gameplay is organic reaching the highest level of co-op design.

Another feature that can add a lot of replay value to a puzzle game is a level editor. Chu Chu Rocket, Bangi-O Spirits, and Boom Blox all feature level editors that allow users to create and share unique puzzles. On that note, I'm including LittleBigPlanet in this category as well. With LBP's robust editor, puzzles elements, stages, and challenges can be created. There's a Tetris level that is a must play with friends and a neat stage called "Puzzle Train."

So let's look at the glorious list of puzzle games released in the last year or so. In no particular order...

  1. Braid (controlling time/space, and platforming). 
  2. Portal (shoot portals, grab/hold, jump)
  3. World of Goo (pick up, drop Goo)
  4. Bangai-O Spirits (SHOOT, EX, MOVE, BOOST)
  5. Pokemon Puzzle League (Virtual Console) (switch block)
  6. Tetris Party
  7. Professor Layton (solve various brain teasers)
  8. Echochrome (manipulate artistic perspective)
  9. Dr. Mario Online Rx (rotate, move, fast fall)
  10. Puzzle Quest 
  11. Boom Blox (THROW)
  12. Zack & Wiki: Quest for Barbaros' Treasure
  13. Cubello
  14. Rotohex (rotate triangles)

*bold entries I haven't played*

Each of these games are very different from each other. It seems that the convention of designing falling block/Tetris based puzzle games has been broken. Most of the puzzle games on this list have pioneered their own way to puzzle gamers. Still, it's interesting to note that most of these puzzle games use gravity as a core dynamic. The times have never been better for a puzzle gamer. We're not only getting original titles, but we're started to get other more luxurious elements like stories and recorded music thanks to games like Portal, Braid, and Professor Layton. 

Here's to another great year.

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