Puyo Puyo was created in 1991, but it wasn’t released outside its native Japan until it was repackaged a couple of years later as Dr Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine on the Mega Drive, and Kirby’s Ghost Trap on the SNES. Even then, it took a while to impress European and American audiences due to the slow-burning charm of its subtle complexities, and today it still struggles to achieve the acclaim it deserves, often considered by critics to be little more than a poor man’s Tetris clone.
That’s partly because those critics can’t see through the superficial resemblance to games like Tetris and various other vertical puzzlers such as Dr Mario or Columns. Like those games, Puyo Puyo is played out on a grid, which gradually fills up with coloured blocks that descend from the top of the screen, and it’s the player’s job to keep clearing the screen by assembling the coloured blocks into groups. In this case the coloured blocks, or puyos, are actually coloured blobs, which drop from the top of the screen in pairs, with a jaunty wobble and staring eyes that straddle the chasm between unsettling and charming.
The basic object of the game is to rotate and steer them so as to assemble groups of four or more blobs of the same colour, which then disappear, allowing any blobs above them to drop down. This provides the basis of one slight difference from Tetris, but the main twist is that the game takes the form of a twoplayer head-to-head competition (indeed, part of the game’s appeal in singleplayer is that different AI opponents play with different styles and strategies). The essence of the head-to-head structure is that it’s possible to send over colourless puyos to fill up your opponent’s screen (called, depending on who’s calling them, nuisance puyos, or garbage puyos, or ojyama). You do that by arranging your puyos into blocks of more than four, or by setting up combos by arranging them into blocks that disappear to allow the puyos above them to form another group.
Those are the cold, hard, facts. But, as ever, they fail to do justice to the infectious zeal with which Puyo Puyo will take over your mind. It’s the sort of game that leaves an imprint on your eyes – and on your consciousness – long after you’ve played it. Just when you think you’re beginning to escape its clutches, you’ll find its long tendrils snaking around your brain and demanding that you try just one more time to trigger another deeply satisfying cascading combination to wreck your opponent’s carefully constructed plans.
At first you’ll play it like any other vertical puzzle game, taking tentative steps, trying to make sense of the chaotic collection of coloured blobs marching inexorably downscreen. You’ll try to clear your screen with piecemeal patience until, gradually, your brain will slowly start to register the vertical scope of the playfield and its capacity to conceal successive combinations. And finally you’ll have your epiphany, that moment of realisation when your brain finally makes sense of the game’s dizzying scope and you start filling up your screen with potentially lethal shapes and arrangements that, with the right timing and the right pair of puyos, will rain down a screenful of ojyama on to your unwitting opponent.
The game offers the ultimate in high-risk reward: to play well you’ll need to throw off the shackles of conservatism, and toss caution to the wind, taking confidence in your brain’s ability to quickly make sense of the rapidly filling play area. You’ll need to let your puyos pile up, with carefully controlled precision, until your screen is nearly full. At this point, to anyone who thinks the game is just another Tetris clone, your screen will appear out of control and on the verge of collapse. But actually, you’ll be waiting for the right moment, and the right pair of puyos, to unlock the whole thing – to drag deadly order out of the chaos, to set in motion a cascade of combos, and to clear your screen while filling your opponent’s.
It’s a perfect formula that has, essentially, remained intact across countless sequels and spin-offs that have graced just about every major (and minor) hardware platform. Indeed, it’s difficult to alight upon a single definitive version of the game, but for sheer completeness Puyo Pop Fever (aka Puyo Puyo Fever in Japan) probably tops the lot. While its carefully polished visuals lack the pixelly charms of early versions of the game, it contains more modes than you’ll ever need, including the masterful addition of the fever mode (which introduces a beat ’em up-style special attack) and a clutch of even cuter characters.
A poor man’s Tetris clone? Hardly.