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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.
Okay everybody, settle down - to your seats, please. Welcome to your first day of ‘Magnet School – the simple fact that you’re here tells me that the seldom-seen and rarely-discussed parts of video gaming are of at least some interest to you all. As your instructor I promise to put forth my best effort in imparting further knowledge of this subject to everyone present – that should suffice for introductions, so let’s get started, there’s lots to cover.
In front of you is the school’s inaugural curriculum, which we’ll be covering exclusively throughout our first set of classes: as we kick off this journey, prepare to meet some of the least-known and most remarkable denizens of the Puzzle genre.
Puzzles have existed for as long human minds have been able to comprehend them, and some of their video game adaptations have become cultural icons – even non-gamers, after all, know what Tetris is, and many have probably played some form of Puyo-Puyo, Puzzle Bobble, or Panel de Pon, even if it was under a localized title and/or reskin. With the rise of the “casual” gaming subset, recent hits like Bejeweled have kept the genre poised near the forefront of our culture – one simply couldn’t ask for a better opportunity to highlight a handful of intriguing puzzlers which time has largely forgotten, or a more opportune moment for modern fans to broaden their horizons.
As we go along, it’s recommended that you keep this preliminary article’s information in mind – if you’re ever wondering why a particular title was chosen to be featured in this series, an answer is likely in there. Controllers out, class – ‘Magnet School is now in session!
Okay then, for your first taste of obscure puzzling I’m going to let you down easy, with a few of what the Japanese call “ochi games”, or “ochige” for short. The term comes from the verb “ochiru”, which means “to fall” – as you might have guessed, it concerns what we here might term “falling object” puzzlers, where your job is to organize stuff that gradually descends from the top of the screen. Alongside Tetris, Compile’s Puyo-Puyo is most frequently cited as the archetypal ochige – our first few objects of study stick fairly close to the standards it set, though they do branch out from there in several interesting ways. Savor the moment, as things are going to get a good deal weirder down the line – for now, let’s see what these first three mostly-unknown ochige have to teach us about the puzzle genre we thought we knew.
What Is It? – In 1995, a little ways before they became synonymous with “spot-welding polygonal Jell-O molds to the fronts of one’s female characters”, Tecmo (which is now partnered with Koei) produced this nifty under-the-radar release – an especially noteworthy occasion considering that the company’s never had much of a puzzle pedigree beyond Solomon’s Key. In case you’re wondering about the tilde (squiggly line) in the title, it can apparently be used to used to represent either a dash (“-“) or an elongated vowel – I’ve seen the game romanized as both “Dero-n” (which would suggest the former usage) and “Deroon” (which would suggest the latter), so I’m honestly not sure which one is correct.
How Does It Work? - Of all the puzzlers covered by ‘Magnet School, Dero is the most similar to Puyo-Puyo – squishy blocks (“deros”) of various colors (and facial expressions) fall from the top of the screen in rotatable pairs, and grouping four or more of the same color together (in any manner except diagonally) causes them to disappear. With a little foresight you can also set things up so that clearing one bunch away causes pieces from above to drop and form new quartets, thus setting off a “chain” and scoring extra points (not to mention dumping space-clogging “garbage” pieces onto your opponent) in the process. While Puyo pretty much stops there, however, Dero adds a rather bizarre new element to the proceedings – when you eliminate a group of four, any deros adjacent to them will stretch out gooey “arms” to the left and right as far as they can go. It’s pretty weird to see at first, but wait until you learn what they can do – not only can these “arms” instantly eliminate garbage, but if they touch enough pieces of the same color along the way, they can continue the chain. Then, when those deros vanish, others sitting next to them are prompted to “stretch” as well – if you can learn to position your pieces to take proper advantage of this, your scoring possibilities go through the roof.
The other key feature which sets Dero apart is the “roulette”, which takes effect when playing versus a human or computer opponent. At the top of your portion of the screen, one vertical row will be marked by an indicator – when an opponent dumps an attack on you, that row will be “safe” and automatically cleared of garbage. The thing is, every time you set off a chain, the indicator starts shifting around rapidly between rows, like a slot reel – press a button with the appropriate timing, however, and it will stop immediately, giving you the ability to place that “safe spot” exactly where it’ll be of the most help for the moment. It’ll be on the move a lot during the course of a match, so players must be on constant alert to keep it from ending up someplace they never intended – watch the top carefully, as each column will display a number during an attack, showing you which areas will be hit the hardest. Basically, while the “roulette” offers a welcome bit of wiggle room in the face of a rival’s assault, it also means that simply sitting back and watching the fireworks as one’s own attacks activates is not the wisest course of action. On both the offensive and defensive fronts Dero isn’t afraid to be generous in terms of flexibility, but in return it demands your full attention.
Why Should I Play It? - Though I enjoyed taking on my siblings in Kirby’s Avalanche back in the day, it always seemed like they could totally screw me over with one halfway-decent chain, completely blocking off all my hard preparatory work unless I followed a single specific strategy to offset this - later Puyos address the issue to some extent, but that series has yet to truly match the welcome sense of freedom that Dero imparts. The “roulette” allows you to ensure that there’s always at least one clear path to the bottom left open, though you still need to watch things closely for optimal results; the ability of “stretching” deros to clean things up helps you to get back on your feet more effectively as well, lessening the chances of a single attacks spelling your inevitable doom. These helpful aids, however, certainly don’t make the game easy – if you’re not working quickly enough you WILL get dumped on repeatedly, as your CPU adversaries are all too willing to exploit the game’s “stretch chains” to the best of their ability. To keep apace you’d better get used to rattling them off frequently yourself – sticking exclusively to “normal” chains is difficult to do, as the stretching pieces will frequently set themselves off early and mess things up if you haven’t planned appropriately.
While Dero’s presentation, digitized backgrounds and all (remember those?), isn’t anything too mind-blowing, there are some nice touches here and there to add some pizzazz – for one thing, the pieces themselves are nicely animated (a good thing, since you’ll be looking at them so much), and it’s neat to watch those rubbery arms slip and curl around each other when they meet. The game’s general “ambience”, for that matter, is pretty unique all around, especially for a puzzler – I’d describe it as the usual Japanese “what’s in the water over there?” insanity spiced up with a shot of Tex-Mex flavor. Each match opens with a couple of “chibi” Latin dancers putting on a quick footwork display, and several stage’s settings (and one of the whacked-out computer-controlled challengers in particular) emit a decided South-of-the-Border flavor. The upbeat, festive musical score follows suit, and while it tends to repeat a bit too often it’s still pretty catchy – any way you slice it, not too many titles out there take the same route as Dero when it comes to getting (and keeping) your attention.
Where Can I Find It? - The original arcade release of this game is rather difficult to get a bead on, especially since it’s not emulated too well yet – fortunately, it was ported to the Saturn and PS1, and isn’t especially rare or pricey on either system. While the Saturn version (like most worthwhile titles for the system) stayed in Japan, the US (but not Europe, as far as I can tell) received a localized, budget-priced PS1 edition under the title Tecmo Stackers. All the modes and other central features from the Japanese edition are intact, but several of the less “wholesome” CPU cast members (most notably the makeup-wearing, thong-donning, curly-mustachioed sailor and the blue-haired dominatrix) were removed, and the ability to save high scores was lost. Speaking of modes, all of the ports include a “Chain Reaction” (players are given an extra-large screen to see how huge a chain they can build) and “Race” mode (see how quickly you can use one of several pre-filled screens to create a full well of garbage) in addition to the standard “Arcade” and “Endless” play variations.
Anything Else? – If you like the idea of a Puyo-esque puzzler that’s willing to “expand outward” to keep things fresh, importing a copy of Athena’s Pukunpa might be a good move – like Dero it sticks close to established ochige traditions, but adds in special “host” pieces which have other pieces “dormant” inside of them. Clear adjacent groups away, and the blobs inside will “wake up” to take the place of their departed host, immediately ready to react with nearby mates to keep the chain going (Metro’s Pururun uses a similar mechanic in a different setting). Toaplan’s Teki Paki might also be of interest. Colored blocks fall in groups of three from random spots on top of the screen, and you need to match five to clear them, but you can do so via ANY combination of directions – rows, columns, clusters, diagonals, whatever. Moreover, the game doesn’t end until the entire well is filled to capacity – pieces that land above the top line before that happens will roll off to fill in openings or simply vanish, allowing for some very late comebacks. There are a handful of others like these, though Dero stands as my personal favorite of the bunch – keep an eye out and see what else catches your fancy in this area.
What Is It? - While the Battle Arena Toshinden 3D fighting games have been largely forgotten over the years, back near the dawn of the 32-bit era the sky was the limit (or so it seemed) for series publisher Takara (which merged with Tomy in 2005). While Tamsoft (perhaps most infamous around here for the Onechanbara series) served as developer for the “core” Toshinden entries, Takara cooked up a few of its own brand-expanding offshoots - ridiculous as it sounds in retrospect, they had the audacity to put out (for starters) a video card game, an anime, and even this puzzle title, which hit shelves in 1997, about a year after Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo. Suffice it to say that you shouldn’t expect an HD Remix of this one, but give it a chance and you might just like this pint-sized effort a good deal more than the series which spawned it.
How Does It Work? – Apart from being able to play as one of ten characters (plus another couple to unlock) from the first three Toshinden titles, at a glance this one looks like a slightly simplified Puyo clone – drop two colored balls at a time, three of a kind will disappear, put together “Rengi” (chains) to bring on bonuses for yourself and grief for your opponent. One key difference is the fact that both of you draw from a single sequence of pieces, so if you see one coming up that you want you’d better drop your current pair before the enemy does, or he’ll take it first – this is especially important for bonus pieces marked with a “B”, which will eliminate one color from your side and send an extra row or two of junk to the other when appropriately matched. A helpful chime will sound whenever a “B” appears, so keep your ears alert and use this indicator to your advantage.
Then, of course, there’s the “power meter” accompanying each player, which gradually fills up as pieces are cleared out (“Rengi” obviously make this happen faster) or enemy attacks are absorbed. Once it’s saturated past a certain point you (or your adversary) can hit a “Super Move” button to spend it on one of three special techniques – when the meter’s halfway full extra junk will be sent to the opposing field; around three-quarters up you’ll clear out a section of your own area; when all the way to the top (don’t wait too long to act, as it’ll slowly start to drain once it’s there) your side’s garbage will be swept away and dumped into the opponent’s well. All of these “super moves” completely drain the meter, so they must be used judiciously. Toshinden’s single most unique feature, however, is the fourth button, the “Taunt”, which actually recalls the Art of Fighting games, of all things – press it at almost any point during the match, and your character will pop over to the opponent’s side and talk a little smack, costing the latter a bit of power meter. Careful, though, as you’re unable to control any dropping pieces on your own side while the taunt is occurring, and some characters’ taunts take longer to execute than others.
Why Should I Play It? – For me, at least, there’s just something irresistible about a relatively “serious” genre like the tourney fighter letting its hair down for a bit to goof off – while this game isn’t quite as ridiculously cutesy as Puzzle Fighter, seeing the newly-stumpy Toshinden characters bouncing merrily around in the background (and getting thumped on the head when an attack is landed) goes a long way towards making up for the rather mediocre graphical quality overall (heck, there are even a handful of silly “intermission” skits that play in between stages every few rounds). As for the music (a few samples of which can be found on YouTube – here’s one), I’m not familiar enough with the original fighting entries to know if these tracks are borrowed from there, but they’re reasonably pleasant, if not quite varied enough – same goes for the near-constant vocal exclamations from the peanut gallery, though if you’re like me you’ll start unconsciously tuning them out after awhile.
On the gameplay front, the special attack meter adds a new layer of strategy to the action – is it safe to pile on the opposition if he’s almost full enough for a counter-attack? Should you keep the pressure on him, or save up for a rainy day? Occasionally things can get a little too reversal-happy for my tastes, but smart use of the Taunt button helps alleviate this – it’s no fail-safe, though, for while constant Taunting can keep your opponent from building up power, it also slows your ability to build meter and chains yourself, leaving you open to a well-timed assault. Unlike Puzzle Fighter, which can sometimes feel like a fan-servicey waiting game for that one (lousy stinkin’) piece you need, Toshinden truly succeeds at capturing the essence of a fighting game’s, forcing players to constantly keep a close eye on the opponent’s actions and adjust their plans accordingly on the fly. It’s a little bit rough around the edges in some respects, but its genre-blending mix of the familiar and the unusual (including a "Tournament" mode, where multiple players can battle through the brackets) is still more than worth a go.
Where Can I Find It? – Ironically enough, unlike several of the “main” Toshinden entries (which were originally hyped heavily as Sony exclusives before also appearing on the Saturn), Puzzle Arena Toshinden remained faithful to the PS1, and was only released in Japan, so if you want to get your hands on it you’ll need to import. I personally haven’t seen it for sale very often, but it’s not particularly sought-after either, so if you’re persistent enough to sniff a copy out it shouldn’t tax your wallet too much.
Anything Else? – Hardcore Toshinden fans (anyone?...anyone?) might already know this, but the fourth “official” Toshinden, subtitled Subaru, packed in several mini-games, including not one but two separate, simplified ochige, “Puzzle Toshinden” and “Puella’s Egg” (a video of the latter can be seen here). I believe that Toshinden was the first fighter to do this (someone please correct me if I’m wrong), though both Mortal Kombat and King of Fighters later followed suit. If you’re looking for another puzzler to utilize the “power meter” mechanic, however, you’ve actually got a wide range of choices (some of which will be covered later in this series), but one that I might mention off the cuff is Sakura Wars: Hanagumi Taisen Columns and its sequel. While the game borrows characters and themes from the SRPG/visual novel series, the actual puzzling is nearly identical to (duh) Columns, save the addition of the meter – it works a bit differently than Toshinden’s, as you must fill ‘er up completely before it’s usable, but from there you can instantly opt to attack, defend, or save the energy for a more powerful move later on. One final recommendation if you like a bit of “fighting spirit” in your puzzlers is Naname de Magic!, in which you must constantly clear out “attack” pieces in a certain fashion to win a life bar “tug-of-war” with your opponent.
What Is It? - This strange little 1997 puzzler comes courtesy of a developer known as Datt Japan: before you ask, no, you’ve never heard of them, and the only other video game I’ve seen them tied to is a casino gambling sim put out around the same time. I did manage to Google up these two sites, but I have no idea whether either of them is for this same company; if there’s any indication of a video game legacy to be found on either page, I’ve yet to spot it.
How Does It Work? – Once again, on the surface this looks like a pretty basic puzzler, with some rather ugly 32-bit 3D graphics to boot – the usual colored blocks, chains, and other stuff I’ve already summarized a few times are all here. Spend a few moments tinkering around, though, and you’ll notice that something is different – the bottom of your playing field is strangely tilted off to one side, and if you build too high a stack of blocks the top-most piece will slide off in a “downhill” direction until it comes to rest on a more stable spot. As you start experimenting with the button layout, the central concept at work becomes clear – while your two “main” buttons are used to rotate your tile sets as expected, the third one switches the way your field tilts. At almost any time during a match, you can activate this function and send all “loose” blocks on your side cascading down the newly-reoriented slope – moreover, they’re totally “active” as they move, so if they happen to form a set of three as they slide along, you’ve got yourself a cleared set, and quite likely a chain.
The garbage block count awarded for clears here is relatively low, so instead of defeating enemies by filling their screens you’ll most likely attain victory by extinguishing their life meters, displayed as a lit candle which gradually burns down as the opposing side successfully forms chains. Certain characters can also directly shorten it via their unique special move, which is set in motion by either a long chain sequence or by matching special flashing pieces - of course, plenty of other character-specific ways to mess the other side up exist, such as placing floating “blockers” into your opponent’s field or doubling the resilience of their garbage blocks. Playing in “story” mode limits the selectable roster, but “versus” gives you access to everybody (though the winner, unfortunately, doesn’t get to continue against the computer afterwards).
By the way, if you’re wondering why the embedded video footage looks a bit different than what was described above, that explanation is coming up.
Why Should I Play It? – While the game’s cartoony, Halloween-infused fantasy style doesn’t exactly save the rather unsightly pre-rendered visuals as a whole, it’s definitely not enough to sink the game’s unique gimmick – “traditional” chaining certainly has its place here (theoretically you could play decently without ever “sliding” your pieces), but you’ll be far better-served if you take the time to master the ability to shift your play area at will. At first you’ll be whacking the “tilt” button at random moments in desperate hopes of setting something off, but before long it becomes apparent that allowing your blocks to slide willy-nilly is not going to serve you well, as all of your carefully-crafted formations are equally at the mercy of a fickle field. Thinking ahead is perhaps even more crucial here than in most puzzlers, because when you position a piece you have to take into account where it’ll end up after the next slide – will it, say, form a trio you weren’t planning on, or otherwise block a chain you were trying to set up? The player’s ability to envision the future layout of the playfield will be tested to its limit – if that’s the sort of challenge you covet, this game should definitely be on your “to-do” list. On the downside, the aforementioned “life meter” mechanic can shift the game’s pace to the slow end of things as you gradually wear down your rivals, though there’s (kind of) a way around this, as described in the next section.
Where Can I Find It? – The original arcade release of Monster Slider is well-emulated and can be sampled as such, though there’s also a lone home edition…of sorts. While the Saturn version of Monster Slider is Japan-only, it’s usually a more-than-affordable buy once you’ve found it – be advised, however, that this isn’t a port so much as a “remix”. The presentation has been given a once-over, the character roster has been reshuffled, and a few extras (such as an “endless” mode and a sound test) have been added in, along with extra special pieces which instantly clear one color from your side – the biggest change of all, though, is that the “life meter” mechanic is gone entirely, so now to beat an opponent you must clog up his or her screen with junk. To accommodate this new structure garbage count for chains has been increased, and the result is a faster-paced, if more “traditional”, puzzle experience. Moreover, there’s no sign of an “arcade” mode featuring the original assets anywhere in here, so if you do pick up the Saturn Slider make sure you know what you’re getting.
Anything Else? – If you really like Monster Slider’s “field-tilting” mechanic, the first alternative title to come to mind is Gururin – in my opinion, though, this game takes the concept a little too far, and makes it very hard to keep track of where things will end up. Out on the fringes of the “puzzlers with tilting” category you’ve also got the likes of Kurupoto and Super Fruit Fall - there are others out there too, but as things stand Slider comes as my first recommendation by far.
Whoops, there’s the bell – class dismissed! Hopefully you enjoyed our first session together - homework for tonight is to try out any featured games which sound interesting to you (no excuses – I’m tough like that)! Until we meet again next week, then, play, er, study hard!