I'm currently looking for paid writing gigs, so if you might want anything written shoot me a message (craighats at hotmail dot com).
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, everyone – excuse me, is that chewing gum? It had better be spearmint – that’s my favorite! Anyway, last week served as your introduction to obscure puzzle games, via the most common subgenre, the “ochige” – for this lesson we’re going to change things up a little. Today we’ll be studying “tossing” puzzlers, in which the idea is to throw pieces around the field rather than arrange them as they drop – the pace in these games tends to be faster than what you’ll find in most ochige, so be prepared for our class to follow suit. Without further ado, here are three fine specimens from the fascinating field of Tossology.
What Is It? – Face is a now-defunct developer completely unknown to most readers, as nearly all of their releases never saw daylight outside Japan – personally, alongside this 1997 puzzler (also known as Money Idol Exchanger) I tend to associate them with a favorite “hidden gem” shmup called Nostradamus. In any event, some well-traveled gamers might recognize that Exchanger is actually an unauthorized “crossover” of two other puzzlers from two separate companies – I’m eager to see if any of you can figure out which ones by the end of the lesson.
How Does It Work? – As a “tossing” puzzler, you never directly control the pieces in Exchanger. Instead, you guide your character (who acts as a cursor) horizontally along the bottom of the screen, while piled-up rows of stuff (in this case, different types of coins) hang from the ceiling above you at the start of a match. Move directly beneath one of the columns and you’ll be able to take, and temporarily hold, whichever coin is at the very bottom of that column - you can only hang onto one “type” of coin at a time, but are free to carry as many of a single type as you want. From there you can shift over to a suitable spot and fling all the stuff you’ve taken straight back upwards – by repeating the process, you can rearrange the layout of the playfield. Not too big a deal so far, right? Well, now things get a little trickier – there are six denominations of coin (1, 5, 10, 50, 100, and 500), and you won’t be making them “disappear” so much as you’ll be “combining” them. Group five or more “1” pieces together and they’ll all condense into a “5” – put a pair of “5”s next to each other and they’ll form a “10”. And right on up the ladder it goes – not until you merge two “500” coins will they outright vanish for good.
If this structure sounds a little overwhelming, at first it certainly is – it’ll take a few plays to get used to the fact that different types of coins need to be matched together in different amounts. Once you’ve gotten over this initial barrier, though, things will start to flow smoothly…and you’ll start spotting some downright juicy chaining possibilities. For example, if you combine five “1”s into a “5” which just so happens to pop up right next to a pre-existing “5”, the two of them will automatically “level up” into a “10” and give you a bonus. Moreover, if this new “10” is adjacent to four other “10”s, now you’ve got yourself a fresh “50”, and if another “50” is…well, you get the picture. Even better, you don’t necessarily need to set everything up way in advance to make it work – if you’re quick enough to put together your next combination anywhere on the board before the previous one completely disappears, you can “speed chain” for even better results. Throw in some occasional “ER” (“Erase”, it eliminates one coin type instantly) and “RU” (“Rank Up”, one denomination is instantly “leveled up” by one) bonus pieces for flavor and there’s plenty here to keep you busy.
Why Should I Play It? – The style of play that Money Puzzle Exchanger encourages strikes a near-perfect balance between swiftness and strategy – while the ability to work quickly is a crucial asset (you even have the ability to pull down extra rows if it’s not scrolling fast enough for you on its own), the more complex nature of combining coins (versus simply matching colors) slows things down to the point that victory and defeat are less likely to hinge on whoever hits The Big Chain first. The game’s initial learning curve is a steep one, but don’t be afraid to take your time, get your bearings, and gradually work your way up - you’ll be glad you did. Of course, there’s no prerequisite whatsoever for enjoying the brilliantly bonkers design aesthetic at work – whatever plot exists (WAY in the background) concerns a peculiar group of magical girls (and one dude, for comic relief), complete with flashy transformations, goofy names, cheesy poses, ridiculous outfits, and the amazing power to…uh, add up loose change, apparently. I don’t know who smoked what to come up with the idea of a bunch of Sailor Moon rejects wielding calculators and abacuses with sentai-style panache, but here it is, and I for one can’t help but be entertained in spite of myself. As befits a mid-to-late-era Neo-Geo offering everything looks sharp and clean, with lots of silly shenanigans going on in the background, and the cheery-yet-melodramatic music and vocal work help to set the stage nicely as well – granted, not everyone will be able to stomach the concept even as a full-on self-parody, but most gamers who don’t break out in hives when some cornball anime show comes on TV ought to have themselves a good time.
Where Can I Find It? The arcade version of Exchanger can be emulated (and has some hilarious Engrish if you switch the language over); there was no Neo-Geo home release, but thankfully another console option or two is at your disposal if you want to add this one to your collection. Your first order of business should be to seek out the PS1 port, which looks and plays pretty much identically to the original, plus packs in a new voice-heavy “Story” mode and one or two other extra amenities; it received two print runs, but can still be a bit tricky to track down. Believe it or not, the original black-and-white Game Boy got a port too, late in its lifespan – if you’re feeling adventurous you might want to look out for this cart, as its level of supply and demand is at least as exclusive as that of its big sister. It obviously doesn’t look as good (though it does sport some Super Game Boy enhancements), but plays pretty close. Both home versions are Japan-only, so be prepared to import.
Anything Else? So, does anyone out there know which two previous games Exchanger borrows from? One of them is the excellent Magical Drop series, sometimes cited as the gold standard for “grab n’ toss” puzzlers – Wikipedia-fueled rumor has it that developer Data East sued (and bankrupted) Face over similarities between Drop and Exchanger, but I’ve encountered no hard info to corroborate that (if anybody can point me towards some I’m all ears). The other is Etona’s Moujiya, which pioneered the “coin-combining” mechanic seen here within a more traditional ochige structure; if you like Exchanger’s general concept but prefer a slower pace (and cute cat people over magical girls) then this one might be up your alley. Of course, a more recent entry into this general “Tossology” sub-category, with its own “combining” gimmick of sorts, would be Critter Crunch, though hopefully you’ve already heard of that one.
What Is It? - This 1998 release comes to you courtesy of the one and only Taito, which recently became yet another pseudopod of Square-Enix. While most gamers immediately (and not unreasonably) think of Space Invaders when the company’s name comes up, across its long and storied history Taito has dipped at least one toe into almost every genre you can think of, puzzlers included (most familiarly the Puzzle Bobble/Bust-a-Move games). Spoiler Alert: You’ll be seeing their name again before this series is over.
How Does It Work? – In similar fashion to Money Puzzle Exchanger you directly control a “pointer” at the bottom of the screen, but this time you don’t grab and relocate the stuff above you; instead you’re constantly given new pieces, which are fired upwards and added to what’s already there. Your basic units are colored tiles, but unlike most “tile-based” games they’re arranged on a tilt, with their corners pointing in the four cardinal directions (some might simply label them “diamond”-shaped). This distinction influences the way pieces travel when you shoot them – if one hits a diagonal “wall” of pre-set tiles, it will slide along its edge until something gets in the way, and moreover, wherever it settles, all adjacent pieces will be changed to its own color. You can also fire a tile straight into another one’s exposed bottom corner (such points are clearly marked by sparks) – if they’re different colors both pieces will just sit there, but if you shoot, say, a red tile into another red tile’s corner, both of them, and any adjoining red tiles, will disappear from the field. It sounds a bit more complicated than it actually is; a few minutes of play (and/or the embedded video) should give you a pretty clear idea as to how the basics work.
Once you’ve got that much down, things really start to get interesting. You see, there is no “solo” mode here; you’re always competing with somebody, be it a human or the CPU, and your every move must be geared towards making your life easier and his more difficult. On the home front, when you clear something away the remaining pieces don’t “fall up” to fill in gaps, so you’ll need to be extra-diligent about picking off any tile that’s getting too close to your base line. Sweeping out these bits and pieces offers the added advantage of dropping extra stuff onto your opponent’s side, but in Landmaker that’s only half your arsenal – remember me saying that when a launched tile comes to rest, it’ll alter the color of anything around it? Well, if you can finagle enough same-colored tiles into a large, even-sided “diamond” formation of 2x2 or larger, a “building” will pop up there and you’ll get some bonus points. Moreover, if you shoot a building’s exposed corner to destroy it, your enemy’s entire playfield will be pushed downwards; the bigger the building you clear, the closer to the brink he gets. Of course, there’s nothing stopping you from demolishing a bunch of conjoined buildings and individual tiles in one shot either, saddling him with both extra junk and less space to put it in. The final variables to consider are stationary “item” blocks, which will pop up after you eliminate a building; shooting their corners can push your playfield back upward, change all of your tiles to a single color, or aid you in other ways. Particularly canny players can even use them as “edges” to propel pieces into out-of-reach nooks and crannies before activating them.
Why Should I Play It? – First off, yeah, I know – the above section contains a lot to digest. At first read, Landmaker might come across as some mythical “elite” puzzler that only tournament-level grand masters have any right to touch, but don’t you dare let yourself be intimidated. Speaking for myself, as anything but an “expert” gamer, of all the puzzle titles chosen for this series, Landmaker is perhaps my personal favorite. For serious! If you can stick with it long enough for the rules to become second nature, the thrill and flow of battle is unparalleled – balancing tantalizing opportunities to build up a big assault with more conservative maneuvers to keep your area safe has never been more involving. The ability to slide tiles into distant corners (instead of just straight upwards) offers players a necessary measure of flexibility, as the constantly-shifting color layout forces them to switch plans on the fly multiple times during the course of a match. To put together a large building, for instance, you’ll ideally want to eliminate all but a single color of tile from your side, but this is easier said than done when your adversary is dropping stuff on you; if you become too occupied with going for the top prize, you may allow him to trap you with a sequence of pieces you can’t use very effectively. Feel free to put this game to the test – take the time to learn Landmaker and I dare you to not end up hooked on it.
If the promise of stellar gameplay isn’t enough to get your attention, perhaps one of puzzle-dom’s most awe-inspiring presentations will do the trick. Eschewing the usual rabble of Hello Kitty leftovers, in Landmaker you take control of one of eight elemental demi-gods whose only goal is to dominate a formless continent, even if that means kicking the divine derriere of everyone else in the pantheon. While very little story is ever put front and center, the in-game action infuses the cast and world with more personality than awkwardly-implemented dialogue and cutscenes ever could; as you and your opponent build up and tear down across your playfields, “mini” versions of your chosen characters fly, skip, and teleport around, right on top of the action. If you’ve chosen a friendly avatar she might occasionally wave at you, while a showier one will strike over-the-top poses, a loony sort belts out a good old-fashioned cackle, and the stoic type watches things transpire in silence. The little buggers aren’t just eye candy, either – pull off a good-sized clear and you’re treated to a flashing up-close portrait of your deity going on the attack; across the way, the cute li’l representation of your challenger eats a fireball, gets drenched in sludge, or is struck by a good old-fashioned bolt o’ lightning. The lovingly detailed sprite work for everything from your pointer’s tiny spinning gears to the shimmering channels of energy flowing through the bedrock is complemented by striking watercolor-style illustrations for the out-of-battle sequences, which can border on the abstract in some cases.
You likely won’t have too much time to notice all of this as you’re playing, but definitely make sure to keep your ears open. Composed by Zuntata, Taito’s long-tenured in-house band, Landmaker’s music sustains an unmistakably-electronic tone throughout, albeit expertly accented to sound as mystical and/or epic as any fully-orchestrated fantasy flourish. Each character’s theme is easily differentiated from the rest, but no matter who you’re up against there’s always an aural sense of tension and urgency to keep you focused; you’d never thinks that a puzzle game could pull off a “clash of gods” motif with any sense of aplomb, but here’s living proof that it can be done (I dare you to not tense up a bit when you take on the game’s two bosses, in particular). Even the usually-innocuous sound effects prove memorable – the unmistakable combination of ethereal clattering and high-pitched slide when an assault is launched will instantly make you say either “oh yeah” (if it’s yours) or “oh crap” (if it’s the other side’s). Heck, the cheesy announcer voices, which call out everything from the type of building you just made (“The Bronze Structure!”) to the budding edifice you just screwed up (“NO!”) to the onslaught headed your way (“Danger!”) do their own part help to keep the energy level high, and make this puzzler a better “spectator sport” than most. Of course, as I’ve hopefully demonstrated by now, nothing beats actually playing it yourself.
Where Can I Find It? – I first became acquainted with this game by emulating the arcade version, and you can feel free to give it a trial run as well; fortunately, you don’t need to stop there, since the game received a port to the PS1 across all three regions. The European and American releases (the latter of which was clumsily re-titled Builder’s Block) are pretty cheap and easy to find, though for some reason the Japanese one seems rather scarce. Anyway, the “Arcade” mode of the port looks and plays pretty faithfully to the original, save for some inter-match load times and a lack of high score saving; funny thing is, Taito and its publishers have done their darndest to hide the fact that it even exists. In each region’s console version the highlighted “main attraction” is the new Puzzle mode, which uses many of the same basic rules as the arcade Landmaker but covers it all in bare-bones 3-D graphics, New Age music, and a “mission” structure that encourages players to slow down and drag stages out as long as they can to score optimally. It’s not a total waste, especially when viewed as a complimentary “side dish” to Arcade mode, but I can only wonder whether so many buyers would have ignored it on the shelves if the true star of the package had been highlighted instead (it probably wouldn’t have mattered much, honestly, but I can still dream).
Anything Else? – As my tone throughout this article probably suggests, there’s nothing out there that plays quite like Landmaker – about the closest alternative I know of is the oddball Puzzle de Bowling, and even that’s a decidedly “kinda-sorta not really” equivalency at work. Same goes for Worms Blast, which is more akin to Puzzle Bobble but features a color-change mechanic (and the ability to shoot at your opponent’s playfield directly). If Landmaker’s “building” aspect especially appeals to you, then Otostaz might be up your alley – a stripped-down fan-made version can be downloaded for free at this location if you want to try it. I’ll also name-drop Slam Bolt Scrappers – while it’s not out yet, it apparently borrows the “build a large square of one color” gimmick, so definitely keep an eye on it. First things first, of course, try Landmaker itself – in the end, to me at least, everything else is just gravy.
What Is It? – Ah, Data East, the screwy little developer that brought us the likes of Burger Time, Karnov, and Bad Dudes vs. Dragon Ninja (not to mention some of megaStryke’s favorite games ever) – you just don’t see that same brand of affable lunacy in the industry these days (and won’t likely see it again, as Data East went bankrupt in 2003; their IP is currently owned by a mobile game company). I’ve already made brief mention of their celebrated Magical Drop puzzle series, but perhaps their best and most distinctive genre entry is this extra-obscure gem (sometimes listed as Ghost Loop) from 1996. Take note, when I refer to a game as “extra-obscure” I definitely mean it – by the end of this lesson you’ll know why.
How Does It Work? – Just in case you’re still not convinced that Data East were completely nuts, consider this: about the best description I can come up with for the Ghostlop experience is “Puzzle Bobble meets Breakout meets Ikaruga meets Ghostbusters”. If you’re brave enough to read on after that, here are the details: at the bottom of your section of screen you control a guy holding a ball, which can be thrown straight upwards or bounced off the walls at various angles (aiming is no problem, as you’ve got a constant guide line to help you out). Pressing the joystick firmly to the left or right moves the character around, while tapping it lightly tweaks your aim; after you throw the ball, you must then scurry into position to catch it when it rebounds back down, or else you’re penalized. How, exactly? Well, floating above your head are ghostly spheres of two colors, red and blue: if they touch the ground the game’s over, and while they bear down on you a bit more with every toss you make, missing a catch further hastens your impending doom (and makes the ghosts laugh at you).
Getting rid of these pesky poltergeists, as you might expect, is the cool part: you see, you actually have two “throw” buttons, one of which makes you toss a red ball, while the other releases a blue ball. The former, obviously, cuts right through red ghosts, while the latter makes blues disappear – if a ball hits the opposite color it will simply bounce off. You can only throw one ball at a time, but once it’s is in the air you still need to pay close attention: you see, pressing the “red ball” or “blue ball” button at any time will instantly switch the ball’s color, even in mid-flight. Thus, even after you, say, release a red ball to cut through a group of red ghosts, if your timing is true you can change the ball to blue once it’s through, and clear out some of the other color as well, all in one throw. Efficiency is key – like Landmaker you’re always competing with an opponent, and you’ll want to stay on the offensive as much as possible. How to do that? Unlike most spooks, these little buggers are at the mercy of gravity, so if you eliminate enough higher-up ghosts upon which others are “hanging”, the lower ones will plummet right off the board and garbage pieces will be Fed-Exed to your adversary; also keep an eye out for certain “special” ghosts, which can clear out a large area if hit. The game’s quick pace and emphasis on focused assaults make Ghostlop nearly equal parts action and puzzle, though thankfully this state of affairs just adds to the fun.
Why Should I Play It? – Joining up with your friendly local spirit patrol not only nets you some great benefits (like a branching stage structure), but you get to look cool doing your job, too. Ghostlop’s art style is proudly and endearingly cartoony, but eschews the usual anime-inspired look in favor of something a little more “classic”, for lack of a better term: genre enthusiasts eager for a break from humongo-eyes and rainbow hair should be happy to meet these characters. On the technical front, the combination of digitized backdrops with both pre-rendered and standard sprites makes for a surprisingly attractive package, whether in motion or standing still; despite being finished around the same time as Monster Slider and sharing a similar theme, this game looks leagues better than that one. The likeably loopy music and slightly-muffled sound effects complement the visuals perfectly, lending a lighthearted tone to the action without getting so silly or in-your-face as to be irritating. While the manic, speed-focused play style underneath it all won’t agree with everyone, it’s hard to imagine a game like Ghostlop playing much differently than it does without losing a lot of its charm. Swiftly picking out the most effective “attack spot” to aim for, and getting down the button-press timing you’ll need for an effective color switch, are really the only concepts any potential player needs to understand, and most of the rest comes down to how your reflexes measure up to the competition. Things never get quite so frantic as to completely overwhelm, so keep at it – bagging ghosts here is as entertaining as you’d hope it to be, and without any risk of unwelcome spirit possession (plain old addiction , however, is another story).
Where Can I Find It? – Now comes the part where I tell you why you’ve never heard of this wonderful little title – Ghostlop, as it stands, occupies one of the more tragic chapters of video game history. Despite being completely finished, it was never actually released, and only physically exists as a handful of prototype Neo-Geo carts spread across who knows where – supposedly there was another attempt to bring it to market in 2001, but nothing came of that either. Moreover, the fact that it didn’t finally make a long-overdue “official” appearance on Data East Arcade Classics is, to put it bluntly, a crime against humanity. At present there’s still pretty much no “legitimate” way for you to play this – desperate times, however, call for desperate measures, and thankfully shadier avenues exist for puzzle connoisseurs. One of the prototype carts was dumped some time ago, and the unreleased arcade version can be emulated in full – even if you’re opposed to this practice I encourage you to make an exception here, and see exactly what it is that you’re missing. Unless, of course, you intend to fork over the cash for a proto…if so, have I mentioned that my birthday’s coming up?
Anything Else? – Well, I guess you could always just play Puzzle Bobble, Breakout, and Ikaruga while listening to the Ghostbusters theme? Seriously, though, while no similar game I know of combines such a disparate set of features as Ghostlop does, there are plenty of other quality entries in the “brick breaker”, “shmup” and (of course) “toss puzzle” genres to satisfy you if you’re in the mood for something a bit less amalgamated. Way too many, in fact, for me to compile any sort of reasonable list to that end, so…
…that’s all for today’s lesson, class! See you next time…if our budget isn’t voted down again, that is! Time to see if the local summer camp’s gotten back to me on that temp position…