Game: Puyo Puyo! 15th Anniversary
System: PlayStation 2 & PlayStation Portable
Puyo Puyo! 15th Anniversary is simply the epitome of the ‘falling-block’ puzzle genre. It takes everything good about each of the previous 5 core games in the series and adds almost twice as many new features, resulting in possibly the best-in-class package imaginable on the PlayStation 2 and PSP. While an online-enabled freeware PC version and an 8-player DS version were released last year, they will not be the focus of this review since their feature-sets are to varying degrees different to those released for the Sony platforms.
First off; what the hell is Puyo Puyo! ? It is a profoundly Japanese puzzle franchise developed by Compile (later assimilated into Sega). What distinguishes it amongst the others is that it was deemed, back in the day, too Japanese for a straight localisation process. Many bizarre characters were featured speaking needlessly drawn-out pre-match banter, some with unsettlingly sexual overtones. Different properties were attached to the Puyo Puyo engine to make it more sellable – to everyone that played Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine on the Sega Mega Drive, or Kibry’s Avalanche on the Super Nintendo, you were actually playing a reskinned and slightly remixed version of the original Puyo Puyo! In essence, the premise of the game is to join up 4 ‘puyo’ (beans, whisps or various other things as they have become known overseas) of the same colour in any arrangement so long as they all touch each other. Unlike other games at the time, it was primarily a competitive affair – two players race to clear puyo on side by side playing spaces. If a number of clears are setup to execute one after another, ‘ojama’ (trash) puyos are sent onto the opponent’s side to punish them and block their progress. Larger amounts of ojama are proportionate rewards to larger combos. The system gave the game a considerably greater latitude than Columns or Tetris, which were designed to promote far-sight and endurance over quick thinking.
The franchise was taken over by Sega’s Sonic Team and an overhauled system was released as Puyo Puyo Fever!, the last Sega title for the ill-fated Dreamcast. This new title, along with a more cutesy visual style and cast of characters, changed some of the play dynamics. Trash drops became a lot less punishing, and the number of different coloured puyo was reduced from 5 to 4 by default, both reducing the original games’ brutal difficulty considerably. Also trash drops could now be averted by doing a combo before they fall, the ascribed penalty either being cancelled, or deflected back onto the other player. Most prominent was the addition of ‘Fever’ mode, a reward for countering enemy combos in this way. During the 10-50 seconds of Fever, pre-arranged lumps of puyo are dropped onto the screen after each combo; the puzzle now working out how to trigger them all off quickly. With a little practice, Fever mode becomes a way to quickly and easily pile a lot of ojama onto the enemy, although an additional reward is allocated to getting an ‘All-Clear’ (removing all puyo from the playspace in one go), which is exceedingly difficult, and an attempt at which costs the player the otherwise free combos Fever provides. As a final icing on the cake, Fever mode gives the opponent an insane amount of combos to counter, bringing them ever closer to hitting Fever themselves! Thus, Fever matches are some of the most frantic and exciting puzzle experiences around – Super Puzzle Fighter II and Lumines bouts never get this tense.
This tight and incredibly fun system sets the stage for Puyo Puyo! 15th Anniversary, which is basically a concatenation of the original series, and Puyo Puyo Fever! 1 & 2, but with a whole lot added. To get an idea of the perspective, there are now 12 different modes. Modes 1 and 2 are carbon copies of the game systems in Puyo Puyo! and Puyo Puyo! 2 respectively, with mode 3 representing Puyo Puyo Fever! However, the other 9 are completely new systems with original game mechanics. To those like me who notice the vast intricacies between the first game and the Fever series, having so many brand-new systems is like having as many brand-new games thrown at you at once. Consider one that is like playing the game in a tank of water. Puyo still fall from the top of the screen, but float to the top of the water each time. So dropping some onto others actually pushes that whole column of blocks deeper into the water. It takes a long time for any puzzle-oriented mindset to wrap around this change. Or how about a mode that does not punish with trash puyo, but rather frozen puyo that melt over the course of 5 seconds and are already set-up to be triggered into large combos? The imperative here becomes surviving your enemy’s onslaught for those 5 seconds while your screen is almost full to be able to unleash a barrage of your own as soon as the iced puyos thaw out. One of the most frantic new modes packs half the screen with random puyo, but places a special star block right at the bottom. The game becomes a race to clear out all the puyo in the way of the star before your opponent can. I would imagine that by now you would already know whether or not this interests you – I am still coming to terms with the finer points of each game myself, and wouldn’t know where to start on the mode that switches the field upside down periodically, the mode that hides parts of the screen from view, the one that involves constant Fever, or ‘Okii’ mode that drops massively inflated puyo. Suffice to say that they could have got away with a lot less of the new modes for the 15th anniversary release, and that the sheer amount of new mechanics to play with was a very pleasing surprise. However, you may need to summise the rules for each by yourself, as the pre-match rules sheets are in some heavy Japanese and will not easily be decipherable by those with only marginal vocabularies.
To anyone put off by the questionably aesthetics and overt senselessness of the Fever series, which is the only incarnation of the franchise released in English (Puyo Pop Fever for the DS, PSP and PlayStation 2), you will be relieved to know that favourite characters and themes return from the old games. Graphics for combos and the puyos themselves can be taken from the 16-bit games, the Fever games, or the new set of assets drawn specifically for Puyo Puyo! 15th Anniversary. The crazily designed fish and elephant characters return as sub-bosses – the game uses a tournament ladder style approach to single player. I am curious as to why Sonic Team didn’t make any attempt to change any of the more inappropriate content (why is the last boss still called Satan?) but overall there are pleasing additions all round. The music gets a reprisal as well – memorable tunes from the older games return and will be familiar especially to those who picked up Mean Bean Machine or Avalanche even if the returning characters are not. There are many more backgrounds included as well, but the most impressive feature is how all of this is integrated into the game. Characters and modes are unlocked during the single-player campaign (by the way, characters are more than just different placeholders – they actually affect the sequence of puyo that fall and other factors, like how much Fever guage is gained from counters) – you don’t start with everything at the beginning. For the 2- and 4-player modes, every aspect of the match can be customised, from how many different colours of puyo are used to which background and music piece accompany the competition. This is a welcome feature that is long overdue – head to head games in virtually every previous entry in the franchise have been stifled by playing on ONE background with ONE theme repeating over and over.
Only a few select technical problems and omissions spoil this otherwise well-crafted title. The most glaring is the apparent lack of the replay feature that let you immortalise impressive achievements in Puyo Puyo Fever! and each title since. It seems like such an inconsequential thing to leave out, and yet it is missing here. Also, while the 4-player competitions are great (they allow for teams, handicaps – the works), everyone was tempted by the DS version’s unprecedented 8-player gameplay via WiFi. Surely the PSP version could accommodate that many via its own WiFi capability and the PS2 through multiple screens / iLinked consoles, but again we are left wanting. Finally, despite the absurd level of polish given to every feature that is included, and the ingenious concept work behind all the new modes, Puyo Puyo! 15th Anniversary is without any online or infrastructure mode whatsoever on the PSP and PlayStation 2. It doesn’t have a great replay value either – 3 or so runs of the story mode will likely unlock all the hidden content for you, but then again that isn’t different to any other puzzle game out there. In context, none of these have a huge weight, but are disappointing nonetheless.
Choosing Puyo Puyo! 15th Anniversary is unavoidably a taste thing – coming from a niche genre, most will already know whether there is anything they can take from a puzzle game like this or not. Still, this title has the benefit of combining all the elements of its various incarnations and discarding very little, while presenting an abundance of new mechanics for the first time. The premise is simple enough and the aesthetic is honestly a hit and miss thing, but this is really the best this genre has to offer. The gameplay is rewarding at low levels but incredibly deep and is enhanced by a wealth of features targeted at both the hardcore, and at making the game accessible to newcomers. For what it is, Puyo Puyo! 15th Anniversary really could not be any better. It gets my solid recommendation.
If you are at all inclined toward this kind of game, pick Puyo Puyo! up right away. You’d have to import it, but at least the PSP version is region free anyway.