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In case the contents of this blog don't make it obvious enough, I have something of an affinity for slightly "offbeat" titles, so if there's something out there that few others cover, there's a fair chance I'm at least somewhat up on it.
If there's any sort of (reasonable) inquiry you'd like me to address, please don't hesitate to be in touch.
Below are a handful of recaps and other links (oldest listed first by section), in case you're interested - asterisks mark promoted articles.
“‘Magnet School” is a group of articles devoted to the intimate study and increased awareness of obscure and unusual games, presented in a compact, structured format. To read the full, formal introduction to this series please click here.
Welcome back. As you saw on your way in, our latest primer on “ochige” is classified as “advanced” – in otherwords, it’s time for us to start breaking out the really unusual stuff. These three lessons are custom-tailored to further challenge your preconceptions of what “puzzle gaming” can be, despite their having been cut from the same common cloth as Puyo-Puyo and Tetris: check your expectations at the door, then, and let’s delve even deeper into the ever-surprising ochige realm. No wimping out now, you knew that this was what you signed up for…oh, and may I remind you that all tuition fees are 100-percent non-refundable.
What Is It? – “Lemme guess, BM – another small Japanese developer that most Westerners have never heard of?” In the case of the visual novel-heavy Takuyo, yup, you’d be right; some sources indirectly link them to Takara, but they might just be accidentally conflating the two companies. Anyway, as it happens, the official pages for the originalPlus Plumb (released in 1999) and the sequel (from 2004) are still up, so feel free to check them out if you don’t mind wading through some Japanese text: by the way, you’ll sometimes see the titles’ second word spelled “Plum”, but I believe that “Plumb” is the more-or-less-official (if not necessarily accurate) Romanization.
How Does It Work? – Try to keep up with me here, as this is perhaps the most complex ochige we’ve tackled yet: let’s start with the first Plus Plumb. There are only three “types” of pieces total and they fall individually rather than in pairs, but each of these contains not one color but a “set” of two (red/blue, green/yellow, or purple/white): with the press of a button during their descent, the player can switch back and forth between them. Once you’ve set the color you want and placed it onto the ground, though, a matching group of 3 or more will disappear, as you’d expect: no big deal, right? Take another look. When you clear a batch away, any balls touching them on one side will instantly shift to their “opposite” color (i.e. adjacent blue pieces will turn red, yellows will turn green, etc.); if they’re bordering the set on more than one side, though, the effect will be “cancelled out” and they’ll remain as they are. It’s much easier to understand when you see it for yourself, so go to the official site linked above and look for the “rule” or “rensa” sections, as they have a few simple animations that might make things clearer.
(I couldn’t find an embeddable video, but there is a short one at this link for you to watch.)
Once you’ve grasped the above concepts, don’t relax yet: there’s also each piece’s “weight” to consider. Observe the screenshots carefully and you’ll notice that each player’s area is actually half of a pair of balancing scales – hence, your goal is not to fill the other player’s side to the top, but rather to overload and sink him all the way down to the bottom. You can chain, of course, but since doing so doesn’t create any garbage pieces, why bother? The display in the middle of the screen offers the answer: those numbers keep track of how much each color weighs for each side of the scale. At the beginning, everything has a weight of “1”, but setting off chains will quickly change that. Say that you just put a combo sequence together that began with a cleared group of red balls: as a result, the weight of your adversary’s red pieces will go up, and from now on every red on his field will push his side of the scales down more than before. A particularly lengthy chain can multiply a color’s mass several times over: if he has a lot of greens laying around and you bloat up that color, he’ll need to clean house quickly to survive, and moreover avoid using many green balls in the future (if he makes it that far). Don’t get too confident as you push your opponent south, though: remember, you’re balancing each other out, so as his side descends yours rises, leaving you less room to work. Over-filling your well and blocking the entry point for new pieces won’t kill you outright, but all of your colors will be slapped with a hefty weight penalty. Each of the game’s selectable character also has (you guessed it) a “super meter” to fill, which can be spent on special techniques, but I hope you’ll forgive me for not going into further detail here.
Just in case all that wasn’t enough for you, let’s move on to Plus Plumb 2, which kicks things up yet another notch. Though the basic idea is the same as far as the pieces and general game rules go (again, there’s a Flash tutorial viewable here), this sequel has received more than just a major visual, audio, and cast overhaul. For starters, you now need to “set up” the enemy color you want to increase in weight before going after it: for example, if you clear (but NOT chain) a group of reds away, the opponent’s “red” will appear in the center display, open and vulnerable. This time, the longer you leave it sitting out there, by matching only reds or simply not matching at all, the heavier it will automatically get, bit by bit; of course, to do REAL damage you’ll want to execute a color-appropriate chain, in the same manner as the first game, while its defenses are down. This new setup makes attacking trickier, but it does come with a concession or two; most notably, a lengthy-enough chain will now send some garbage pieces over to the other side along with the requisite weight increase. On the defensive end, your area must now fill completely to invoke the weight penalty, and you’re also granted a short 3-count to bring your side back up from the “death zone” before being declared the loser. Phew…is that everything? Either way, I need to lie down for a minute…
Why Should I Play It? – In case you need to hear me say it again, the Plus Plumbs are two of the more complex video game puzzlers you’ll encounter: no other ‘Magnet School feature, now or to come, rivals it on that front. This, however, does NOT imply that you should immediately shrug them off in favor of something simpler: the shifting colors and weights might seem like a lot to keep track of, but with a little persistence it all plays a lot more smoothly than you’d expect. That said, be advised that the overall flow of things remains very gradual – the need to strategically wear your opponent down by building up his total mass, not to mention the back-and-forth nature of the scales as pieces accumulate and disappear, slow matches to a very calculated, unrushed pace. Basically, don’t expect a game of Plus Plumb to be over in mere moments; here you’d best get used to standing your ground for the long haul.
This steadier tempo, of course, caters perfectly to puzzle fans who don’t like to be rushed. While relatively “traditional” chains can be set up without too much trouble, if you can completely wrap your noodle around the “color change” mechanic and keep track of how such sequences play out, you’re able to wreak absolute havoc on the battlefield, forcing your opponent to totally avoid using certain colors for fear of weighing down his side too much. Devious sorts can even “bait” enemies into dooming themselves, thanks to the “balancing scales” setup – if you’ve got a lot of pieces on your end and are hanging a good deal lower than an adversary, he might be tempted to build up one last chain to finish you off. Sucker! If you can set off a big reaction of your own before he does, your side of the scales will clear out its clutter and shoot up, while his will plummet – if he’s accumulated too much more stuff in the meantime, that newly-added weight could well be enough to tip him over the edge. All told, this series’ relaxed pacing, long list of rules, and slightly amateurish artwork (that looks like it was done by, well, a visual novel company) isn’t for everyone, but if you truly want to demonstrate your love for and mastery of the ochige subgenre, the Plus Plumb games are perhaps the definitive way to show your devotion. On a slightly depressing note, some degree of online play was included back when these were first released, though I doubt that much of it still works, and only Japanese players would likely able to take much advantage anyway.
Where Can I Find It? – The first Plumb appears exclusively on the Japanese Dreamcast: fortunately, it’s far from the toughest-to-find or most expensive import for the system, making it a mostly hassle-free addition to your collection. Plumb 2 never left Japan either, but came out first, strangely enough, for the original XBox, and was later ported to the PS2 and PSP – it hasn’t been available as long as its predecessor and thus its price hasn’t dropped as much, but it’s still far from an extravagant purchase. The PSP version (rather redundantly titled Plus Plum 2 Again) is obviously the easiest to import, though the amended name actually hints at yet another added feature or two – a rough translation of its site suggests that not only have characters’ special techniques been changed up, but an “audience support” mechanic has been tacked on, which gives you extra bonuses if you pull off “crowd-pleasing” maneuvers like narrowly evading defeat or putting together ornate chains. You know, just in case the other versions of the game are just too darned simple for you.
Anything Else? – To be perfectly honest, I’m pretty stumped when it comes to recommending games similar to Plus Plumb – few, if any, workable examples come to mind. About the closest “match” I know of is Soldam, and I’m very much grasping at straws there. Maybe one of you guys can think of something fitting that I haven’t heard of…if you do, let me know, as I’d love to look into whatever you come up with.
What Is It? – I’ve mentioned their marquee Puyo-Puyo series several times in passing, but no puzzler by groundbreaking developer Compile (also known for classic shooters like Zanac, Aleste, and Guardian Legend) has managed to rate its own lesson here – until now! Well, maybe technically not. You see, while Compile did develop this game, by the time it came out in 2003 the company had already gone bankrupt; much of its staff would eventually relocate to companies like Milestone and Idea Factory subsidiary Compile Heart. Founder “Moo” Niitani, however, first decided to try starting up his own new company, Aiky, which inherited and published Pochi…before abruptly going out of business itself. Anyway, you might be interested to know that “pochi” is a common Japanese nickname for a dog (basically their version of “poochy”) while “nya” is their interpretation of the sound a cat makes – stands to reason, since the plot revolves around animal characters. Also, while I’m not sure the double meaning was on purpose, “pochi” is also the Japanese onomatopoeia for a button being pressed: a clever pun, if intentional.
How Does It Work? – Okay, so after racking our brains trying to comprehend Plus Plumb, let’s tone things down a little – Pochi, while not the simplest puzzler you’ll ever play, is nowhere near as tough to learn. As you might expect of a game made by Puyo veterans, we’re back to the tried-and-true format of dropping two rotate-able colored pieces (“Nyans”) at a time; after doing this for a minute or two, though, you might notice that no matter how big a matching group of them you put together, nothing ever disappears. So what gives? Try this: as a pair of Nyans is falling, hit the “C” button or “up” on the joystick to turn them into “Spiky Nyans” (pressing it again will change them back). Their colors will stay the same, but their properties will change: touch a “Spiky” piece to any connected group of similarly-colored “normal” ones, regardless of size or shape, to make the whole thing vanish (two or more red/green/yellow/etc. Spikys can also cancel each other out). Yup, it’s the Super Puzzle Fighter concept at work, except you can have an “activator” piece any time you like – handy, no?
The preceding paragraph contains everything you need to know about Pochi’s basic mechanics, but the true essence of this game goes much deeper, via a path that few (if any) other puzzle games take. How many points you score and how effective your attacks are don’t depend merely on how many pieces you can eliminate at once, or how long a chain you can put together; chaining is actually pretty limited here, since unused Spiky Nyans will turn into garbage pieces after a few turns. To succeed, you must build up your stockpiles of Nyans in a specific way, according to a set formula. Basically, you’ll want to start out with a straight vertical row of same-colored pieces: their attack power is determined by counting downwards from the “head” piece at the top to the “tail” at the bottom. For example, if you build a column that’s five units tall, its total strength is 5 – easy, right?
But what if there’s an extra piece of the same color hanging off the side, thus forming another “tail” going in a different direction? Guess what – that “tail’s” value is added to the total attack power as well, so if you can build a nice tall spire of Nyans with lots of offshoots, it’ll lay the hurt on real thick once it’s set off. Moreover, lengthier “tails”, including those which split off into other columns, contribute further bonuses, and certain special layouts like a “T” or “cross” tack on a little more after that – needless to say, potential exists for some devastating assaults. Thankfully, like the Puyo games, an enemy’s impending attack won’t actually drop until your next piece lands, so if you can quickly launch a counter-offensive the blow will be softened, and maybe even cancelled out with interest. If you’re still a little confused, watch the embedded video above: it includes a tutorial segment which might make some parts clearer. You could also watch this guy at work for a general idea of how to effectively manage everything.
Why Should I Play It? – If you like the basic idea of Puzzle Fighter but hate being screwed over (and screwed over again…and again…and again) as a vital “crash gem” fails to show up when you need it, Pochi could almost be considered the sequel you never got. Even when you’re drenched in garbage and on the brink of death, you’re free to use small groups of Spiky Nyans to clear yourself a path through it, little by little, clawing your way back to relevance if you’re quick enough. This prized luxury, however, comes with a price – as mentioned earlier, a single well-executed enemy offensive can easily push you to the edge, and Pochi thus demands that you squeeze every last drop of advantage from the at-will “spiky shift” ability if you want to last long.
This being what it is, keeping a tight watch on the other half of the screen is even more important than usual, in order to ensure that you bring down that linchpin Spiky Nyan at just the right moment – allowing the opposition to recover and seek vengeance before you’re ready often means a trip to the Game Over screen. If you’d rather not battle anybody directly there’s a Solo mode which challenges you to unleash a certain amount of total attack power before a timer runs out: it’s not as fast-paced as a “versus” match, but still a lot more demanding than you might expect, so no matter which menu option you choose make sure to bring your “A” game. In contrast with the stiff demands it imposes upon players, though, Pochi’s graphics lay the cuteness on thick; the game’s music, however, will likely elicit more attention in the long run. It certainly has the light, bubbly texture you’d expect of a puzzle soundtrack, but it also wears a distinct electronica/techno influence on its sleeve, sprinkling syncopated beats and scratchy vocal samples all about. Wonder if anyone’s ever tried to sneak some of it into a club mix just to see if anyone notices?
Where Can I Find It? – Pochi and Nyaa’s original Neo-Geo arcade release is emulated well, so curious players can give it a taste – a conversion to the Naomi board with redone visuals (and the abbreviated title Pochinya) was also completed, but whether or not it actually made it to market is somewhat unclear from here. In any event, this Naomi version was used as the base for the game’s sole home port, also called Pochinya, to the Japanese PS2 – in my experience it’s rather tricky to find, but it is out there (and believe it or not its official page is still up!). Offhand, unfortunately, I don’t know what kind of extra features or changes (aside from the graphics) it might have, since I’ve yet to acquire a copy for myself.
Anything Else? – Despite combining elements from two titles as popular as Puyo and Puzzle Fighter, Pochi hasn’t spawned many imitators: about the closest match I know if is actually an older puzzler called Pnickies, which just so happens to have also been developed by Compile, and published by (you guessed it) Capcom. Here the player needs two “activator” pieces to complete a set, but they seem to show up pretty frequently, which ought to lower the frustration level a bit (until the drop speed becomes insane, that is). Don-Chan Puzzle: Hanabi de Don might also be worth a look, though it’s definitely more similar to Puzzle Fighter than anything else: its most unique feature is the “slot reel” mechanic used to determine the pieces you get.
What Is It? – The Neo-Geo fan community in particular ought to be familiar with Alpha Denshi Kabushiki Kaisha, better known as ADK – though most readers are likely to associate them with either the World Heroes fighting games or puzzle-shooter Twinkle Star Sprites (which was referenced in an earlier ‘Magnet School blog) I’m going to take the opportunity to give this obscure 1996 release (which sometimes goes by Droppers, Joint Link, Oshidashi Zentrix and various other names) a bit of much-needed attention. Especially considering that SNK (what’s left of it, anyway) now supposedly owns all of ADK’s former intellectual property, and as such it’s unlikely that Zintrick will ever be granted shelf space over the 784th re-release of the first Fatal Fury or something.
How Does It Work? – A few seconds with this game will have some puzzle fans arguing over whether it’s technically an “ochige” at all – while participants are, as usual, given separate areas on the left and right sides of the screen, the action going on inside them has been rotated 90 degrees. Instead of working “from above”, players move their characters up and down the far ends of the field, and actively toss their pieces, two at a time, straight towards the center where the opposing zones meet. Each colored pair can be rotated and adjusted to your liking before being launched, but watch the depleting meter above you: once it empties your currently-held blobs will be thrown, ready or not, and this time limit gets much stricter as you progress. Once players get used to the unusual screen orientation, though, they should feel right at home: although pieces “fall” to the side instead of downwards, setting up chains is pretty much the same as ever, and it’s just as nice to hear an opponent yowl in horror as you send some pain their way. The whole thing, to a degree, works sort of like a “remixed” Waku Waku Monster.
…but it’s NOT a remixed Waku Waku Monster.
As you’ll quickly discover, Zintrick’s unusual setup demands a lot more from you than the occasional awkward head-tilt. Notice that whenever you put together a chain, the resulting garbage blocks actually appear on your side before moving through to the other; depending on where they’re prompted to appear, they may “push” some of your own pieces straight through to the opponent’s field in the process. “Transferred” blobs will then start “sleeping”, and must be “woken up” with an adjacent clear before they can be matched – while the enemy could potentially exploit these for a counterattack, they still come in very handy when you want to cut him off. “Cut him off?” Watch as the battle progresses – each time you push pieces through to his side, your opponent’s own stacks of stuff are nudged closer to his end of the field. When an especially lengthy row extends into his movement lane he doesn’t die, but that part of his area is now completely blocked until he can trim the offending section back down. Just like that, you’ve flat-out denied him access to a chunk of his own screen, and if you can trap him to the point where he has no available spots left to put his pieces, you’ve won. Careful, though: sneaky players can turn an adversary’s attacks back against them, positioning their pieces in such a manner that an opponent’s “push” actually nudges things into place for an instant chain. Finally, Zintrick is yet another game to utilize a “super meter”, which allows a character to unleash a unique “special item” when it fills up.
Why Should I Play It? –Though not all of Zintrick’s features are completely unique, the central “push” system ties them all together with aplomb, and makes the experience feel new. While the “blob placement” mechanic here isn’t as hair-trigger fast as that of Waku Waku Monster, it’s still more than twitchy enough to keep the pace lively – on that note, players are offered the minor but welcome ability to switch the “rotate” and “shoot” buttons around, so any challenger can adjust the layout to his liking. “Pushing” also demands a fresh approach to offensive tactics: since your stagnant “normal” pieces can now be used as de facto ammunition right along with the garbage, you don’t necessarily need to activate a chain “from the bottom up” to mount an effective attack. Unlike most puzzlers, keeping a group of purposely-mismatched blobs around can actually work to your advantage: form a chain on top of them, and the resulting attack will push them through to the other side, where they not only take up enemy space but can’t be easily exploited for a reversal.
Continuing along this vein, the need to limit opponents’ movements adds another layer to your tactical options – you need to concern yourself not just with “pushing” pieces into the opposite area, but doing so in the right places. If you’ve already completely clogged up one portion of a rival’s path, launching additional attacks in that direction would be a largely-wasted effort; once you’ve got Player 2 on the run, you’ve got to tail him and start focusing your chains on new parts of the battlefield to eventually corner and finish him for good. If you take a long-enough break from the chase to check out your surroundings, Zintrick’s presentation is pretty much par for the course on its native hardware, but there are still some nice details on display. My favorite bit, aside from the construction-style road blockers that appear when a path is cut off (which clashes nicely with the overall “fantasy” look) is how different characters “summon” blobs out of different places (one uses a magic book, another draws from a portal, one just splits up a bigger blob, and so forth). Some of the cast’s expressions upon being attacked or losing a match are also a hoot, so be sure to enjoy those.
Where Can I Find It? – To the best of my knowledge Zintrick was only ever released for the Neo-Geo CD, and remains a somewhat elusive acquisition; an arcade MVS version apparently exists, but only as a prototype. On the bright side it’s been dumped, so this iteration can be emulated – unfortunately, it doesn’t appear to have any music or character voices, though the rest of the sound effects work (unless my setup’s just wonky).
Anything Else? – An excellent alternative to Zintrick is Taito’s Pop ‘n Pop – while it takes on a more traditional top-to-bottom orientation, its “rotate, then shoot” mechanic is the same. An extra twist is that your “playfield” is a cloud which shifts side-to-side and gradually approaches you, similar to the aliens in Space Invaders – to help pop all the colored balloons before you’re zapped, stray ones sometimes float by and can be “pinned” to the cloud for some extra help, while stuff you don’t want can simply be flung past it altogether. Another possible choice is the Japanese Saturn exclusive Pappara Paoon. Oh, and before I forget, here’s one last quick tip to conclude the lesson – to play as hidden ninja character “Ryu Eagle” in Zintrick, set the game to “Free Play”, highlight Subberg (the muscular guy on the left) hold Up and B, and press A to select him. Enjoy!
So, you’ve made it through your first “Advanced” course – how’s it feel? Hopefully your gaming horizons have been broadened at least a little bit by now…part of an educator’s job satisfaction comes from seeing his students grow in their aspirations along the way, after all. Is there a question there, in the back? Hm? “Will there be any more ochige lessons,” you ask? Well, to tell you the truth, there’s…oh, drat, a fire drill, now of all times. Let’s get this overwith, then: afterwards, make sure to start preparing for next week’s lecture. Be seeing you!