Art Style: PiCTOBiTS (DSiWare)
Developer: Skip Ltd
Released: May 18, 2009
MSRP: 500 DSi Points
Like most of the games in the Art Style line, PiCTOBiTS makes a point to be simple but deep, strange but not alienating, and extremely addictive. The thing that sets it apart from the other games in the series is how freely it mines from Nintendo's past. Gone is the usual avant-garde art direction from the other Art Style games. Instead, PiCTOBiTS features music and art taken directly from a plethora of classic NES games like Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Baseball, and Excitebike, as well as more obscure games like Devil World, Wrecking Crew, and Balloon Fight.
It sort of plays like a sprite building simulator. As someone who has a little experience with pixel art, I know that to make good sprite on a deadline, you need to be quick to know exactly where to place a pixel, and you have to do it fast. That's essentially what PiCTOBiTS asks you to do. You have to load your stylus with one of the many colored pixels (called bits) from the bottom of the screen, and combine them with the falling combination of pixels (called megabits) as they appear from the top screen (or in these screenshots, the left screen), in order to make them explode and rocket up to the top screen. There, they form a sprite from one of the aforementioned NES games. When the sprite is finished, it "comes to life" with a little three-step animation, and you win. If your bits reach the top of the screen for more than a few seconds, you lose.
It sounds straightforward, but it actually requires tons of strategy, quick reflexes, and near-constant eye-switching between the palette (seen on the left side of the screen), the top of the screen, and the spare bits below. Megabits are only destroyed when they make contact with other bits of the same color, and are combined to make a shape consisting of no more than four sides. If a megabit hits a bit of the wrong color, it immediately turns into a pile of regular bits that can't be destroyed until they are, in turn, used to form a four-sided object with a megabit of the same color.
It sounds more complicated than it is, and believe it or not, it even gets more convoluted-sounding. There is also the POW block and coin systems to keep track of. Your palette can hold eight bits to start with, which does a lot to help the player move tons of bits at time (for making combos and getting bits away from the top of the screen). However, a slot can be sacrificed by hitting the POW button at the bottom of the palette. Doing so will destroy the bottom layer of bits on the screen, as well as cause any floating bits to fall to the bottom of the screen. You want to use the POW block sparingly, since once you get down to having just two or three slots in your palette, it becomes pretty much impossible to take on megabits of any substantial size or complexity.
You can get slots in your palette back by hitting the "5 Coin" button at the top of your palette. You'll need (you guessed it) five coins in order to use this feature, and coins don't come easy. The only way to get them is by destroying a megabit completely before it hits the bottom, or destroying a "permibit," a special kind of bit that cannot be moved once it's finished its descent. You can multiply the amount of coins you receive by pulling off chain combos. This is done by blowing one up megabit, then quickly destroying a few more while the game is in "combo freeze time." Anyone who has played Planet Puzzle League or one of the other many Panel de Pon derivatives will know exactly what I'm talking about. To put it more simply, the game allows you to fix your mistakes, but always at a price. Deciding if it's worth your while to use some coins or the POW block while trying to analyze and eliminate the megabits on-screen adds yet another dimension of strategy to a game that's already deeper and more original than 90% of the puzzle games out there.
Wait, there's more! Each level is split into two types of play: regular and "speed shanks." During regular play, the megabits fall at a predetermined pace (different for every level). After destroying enough megabits, a quick "3, 2, 1" counter hits the screen, warning you that "speed shanks" megabits are about to fall. These megabits fall at a faster pace that normal, but come ready-made in straight lines. That means they don't take as much thought to destroy; just smack 'em on the bottom with a bit of the same color and they explode. Splitting things into these two sections does a lot to keep the game from being monotonous, and it gives the player a valuable opportunity to score some coins.
It may not sound like a big deal, but scoring coins is what the game is really all about. With enough coins, even the hardest levels in the game are possible to beat. Perhaps more importantly, coins also work as an in-game currency, used to buy more levels and songs from the game's excellent soundtrack. All the songs are remixes of songs from the same NES games featured in PiCTOBiTS' sprite art, and they are extremely well done. The Baseball and Excitebike tracks are especially impressive, as neither of those games had formal sountracks. All that YMCK (the artist responsible for PiCTOBiTS' music) had to work with was the sound effects from those two games, yet they still managed to create some incredibly catchy and memorable music. As for the tunes from more memorable games like Super Mario Bros. and Legend of Zelda, well, it's hard to go wrong with Mario's underground theme or Zelda's dungeon music.
Collecting coins to unlock music and new levels goes a long way to adding to the game's replayability, but most people will end up playing the game over and over again just because it's so damn hard. Some of the later levels in the game are some of the toughest in puzzle game history. I was murdered by the Bowser level at least twenty times before I beat it, and that's not even close to the hardest that the game has to offer.
The only thing that PiCTOBiTS lacks is multiplayer. Actually, the whole game is a little lean on additional modes. Other than the "music" mode, which works as the jukebox to play your acquired songs and a tutorial mode for learning the ropes of the game, there isn't anything beyond the single-player mode. Still, for a five-dollar game, it's hard to do better than PiCTOBiTS. The seventeen-song soundtrack is itself worth more than that.
The only thing about the game that may turn off puzzle game fans is the difficulty. It gets really hard relatively quickly, which may cause less diligent gamers to give up on the game early on. That said, the game is never unfair, so with enough practice and skill building, any level is conquerable. Personally, I haven't been able to beat all of the game's levels yet, but I know that I'll do it someday, even if it takes years of cross country drives and 12 hour flights to do so.
Score: 9.0 -- Superb (9s are a hallmark of excellence. There may be flaws, but they are negligible and won't cause massive damage to what is a supreme title.)
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