The Problem With Puzzle Games
One of the most arguably addictive game genres is the puzzle game. I don't mean mystery games or brain teasers like Professor Layton or Myst, but puzzlers. Falling blocks, matching colors, the works. Few people will argue that Tetris doesn't still provide endless hours of fun doing essentially the same thing over and over. Something about puzzlers just satisfies our brain; stacking pieces, eliminating panels, racking up combos—it doesn't get much better than that. But I've noticed an emerging problem in the puzzle genre: uninspired clones.
There is an inordinate amount of Bejeweled knock-offs hitting the gaming market lately, across all platforms. The biggest offenders are 3DS eShop games and smart phone apps. Don't get me wrong, a good Bejeweled clone can be a lot of fun—but that's because Bejeweled is a fun game. The original developers of the concept (whether Bejeweled did it first or not) did all the work; and many subsequent designers simply re-styled and re-branded the same product.
I'm not a game designer myself, but I think it's fair for me to say there's just not much complexity to that ancient gameplay mechanic: switch two panels to match three colors and repeat. Games like Candy Crush, Puzzle Quest, and Jewel Match have done fantastic jobs of decorating the same mechanic with original concepts (like a sweets factory and a fantasy rpg); but they aren't really adding anything new. Sure, you might see some cool new power-ups and plenty of flashy gimmicks, but why did they accompany them with such drab gameplay?
I love Candy Crush, and my aim isn't to bash it—but when I play it, I can't help but notice that all I'm doing is picking out a spot on the board where one piece of candy is a single slot away from where it needs to be... and then correcting it. And once the piece is in its rightful place, the colors match, things explode, the game carries on matching colors without you for awhile, then once everything settles down again you get to make your next random gem swap. It's not engaging, and it requires very little skill.
My complaint here isn't about Bejeweled clones themselves, but rather the lack of unique, creative puzzle game mechanics showing up in the market. There are plenty of other abusively cloned games out there; namely Bust-a-Move and Breakout. I can't remember the last time I played a brand new puzzler with gameplay unlike anything I'd experienced before. It's been years. Designers seem stuck on the idea of a match-three grid, with downward gravity and exploding items. It's time a team of creators muster up some bravery and put out something totally fresh.
I've put together a list of past examples of highly original puzzlers that came out in the past decade. Strangely, all of these are Nintendo DS games. I'd like to see more games like these coming out in the future. While the learning curves might be steep, the complexity pays out in the end.
Meteos: A fantastic space-themed launch title for the DS that had the player visiting thirty alien planets, each of which had its own unique art style, gravity strength, music, and rules. The goal was to slide elements up and down to form a horizontal base of rockets to launch giant stacks of meteos up and off the screen. Fast-paced, clever, and wholly mesmerizing.
Art Style: Aquia and Pictobits. These puzzlers turned the genre on its head with gameplay mechanics that seem almost arbitrarily experimental. Aquia ditched the square puzzle grid for a skinny column of varied blue panels. You match the panels by shoving other blocks into the pillar from the left and right sides (alternately), and then ending a level by piecing together a jigsaw shape—all while making sure your diver doesn't drown. Pictobits featured the usual falling block concept, but the similarities to Tetris end there. I can't even explain this game without showing you. Basically, you pick up pixels from the base of the screen and plug them into the strangely shaped structures as they fall fast into the playfield, filling their gaps to make solid rectangles of a single color—and thus using their pixels to complete 8-bit images of classic Nintendo characters.
Gunpey: Not exclusively a DS game, but the DS version was vastly superior to the PSP version. This game required the player to connect diagonal lines across a vertical grid to complete complicated circuits from one end of the screen to the other. It replaced the color matching concept with angled wires, allowing for massively intricate combos if you're good enough to line up a whole network of linked panels. The DS version had a lot of gaudy flair as well, featuring space cowboys with unique power moves to mess with your opponent's grid.
Not all original and complex puzzle games are good, mind you. There was a game for the DS called Konductra that tried so hard to install unique mechanics, and ended up feeling like more of a chore than a game. Playing Konductra on the easiest difficulty was like spending your free time teaching yourself how to be an electrician. Complexity for complexity's sake is rarely a good thing.
But I beg the developers who know what they're doing to bring me something new, something bold, something surprising, something fun.
Are there any awesome puzzle games I missed? Let me know in the comments!