You can't tell by the cutesy cartoon characters, colorful blobs with big eyes and little squeaking Japanese girls, but the basis behind Sega's Puyo Pop came from Russia. In the former Soviet Union, native Russian Alex Pajitnov started a revolution in game design, creating Tetris in 1985 while working as a mathematician. It was about making pieces of four blocks fit together. Players control the rotation of pieces that fall from the top of the screen one at a time. The object was simple enough: create horizontal lines across the screen; the line disappears, and then you score. A game can only end when the pieces have accumulated so high that no more space can accommodate it. So simple, yet so captivating.
Now here is Puyo Pop, previously known as Dr. Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine for the Sega Genesis and Kirby's Avalanche for the Super Nintendo. Previously released on the NeoGeo Pocket Color, the game follows more than Tetris' basic premise of rotating and eliminating falling objects. Puyo keeps its rules simple, yet is so deceptively difficult to master. Do not let its cartoony history fool you. Through its multi-player competition, the game can sometimes exceed the heights of excitement that Tetris has provided for years. The cute but absurd storyline may lead to thinking this game is devoid of sophistication, but applying the "kiddie game" label here can't be justified, as it is with most cases outside of a Sesame Street or Teletubbies game.
Colored blobs called Puyo fall from the screen. They come in pairs that the player can rotate on the way down. Linking four Puyos of the same color (horizontally, vertically or both) removes them from the screen, allowing any Puyo remaining to drop and fill the vacated space. This may lead to several possible "chain combos" if additional colors match. All in all it sounds like a variation on the Tetris theme.
From there comes the twist, in the form of heated competition. In the single-player mode, you are Arle, a sharp little girl who is friends with some creature named Carbuncle. You challenge the artificial intelligence, which comes in the form of wacky characters that include a used teabag-using skeleton, a fish that makes you hungry for fish just by his presence, an easy-going hot-tempered elephant and a devil who wants to shack up with you. You each have your own screen with falling Puyo. When Puyo disappears on your screen, it transfers over to your opponent's in the form of "Block Puyo." Block Puyo can easily ruin the setup of combos for the other person, and with subsequent chains, you can easily stack more than half a screen full of them, forcing the opponent to whittle down the pile. However, these "attacks" on an opponent can be countered when the opposing player attacks at the same time. The difference between the two attacks will be added onto the player with the lower attack factor. The game ends when the third row from the left in a player's pit is stacked to the fullest.
This may seem confusing at first. Believe me, I wasn't sure what the game was about my first try. I merely whittled away at my pile and got rid of individual stacks of Puyo like how I would play Tetris. Imagine my surprise when my simple two-step consecutive chain was counter-attacked by a five-step consecutive chain. Poor Arle screamed in terror when my pit filled almost immediately. That was only the first challenger too! That brings me to a minor complaint about the game: the lack of a training mode. Since this game is wholesome enough for children, some kids may have a hard time grasping the concepts of the game by simply reading the instruction booklet. Although the rules are simple, none of it becomes evident until it can be seen. However, the game is easy to get into, and the difficulty slope is easygoing. Just apply patience to learning the intricacies of the game, as well as for the "kiddie game" storyline, and you'll be a Puyo Popper in no time.
Though graphics aren't usually an important factor when it comes to puzzle games, Puyo's rules requires clear distinction between colors. The Puyo are easy to distinguish, but the playfields are a little on the dark side (most of them being brown or gray). And just in case you can't determine you're losing with all the gray Block Puyo on your screen, the characters yelp or cheer depending on your situation. A sound test with portraits of all the characters can be unlocked by collecting cards from characters, adding a little initiative to play the single player mode. Fortunately, everybody can Puyo. The game includes both a two and four-player mode, which allows you to see the other players' screens. The gameplay remains the same, except that it's less awkward to yell at your human friend than a computer-controlled "red-scaled dancing fish man" with human limbs.
One thing that holds Puyo Pop from becoming more than just a great puzzle game is its lack of urgency. For those who have played Tetris, and there are many, you can often recall blunders you made when you neglected to see a perfectly good fitting space when you opted for what may have seemed like the more obvious positioning. Then the next block falls, rendering you inert unless you do some quick rotating and positioning to remove lines one at a time. In Tetris, you are the enemy and your only weapon is your keenness. Playing Tetris often draws comparisons to Zen Buddhism, and it's easy to see why. To score high is to be aware of your surroundings, knowing every nook and cranny in the pit while also being conscious of the changes to environment that happen every few seconds. Although it's hard to imagine practitioners of Zen swerving violently to get that long Tetris block into the side, the game is a state of mind.
Playing Puyo requires you to be aware of your opponent's pit as well as your own, making you think on your feet. However, an entire screen of Puyo can be wiped out in one fell swoop with a lucky or well-placed chain combo. Likewise, an opponent can fill your screen up with Block Puyo, giving you a sense of hopelessness. An example of both cases was when I was on the verge of beating a sharp computer AI who had its entire screen filled save for the final slot in the third row from the left, where the Puyo fall from. In Puyo, there is a technique called "quick turn," which allows you to rotate the falling puyo in a single narrow column. The computer frantically quick turned repeatedly like a spinning wheel until luck had it land on the exact color it needed. Its entire Puyo pile was nearly wiped from existence, transferred over to me and I was left facing the continue screen. After all, what can you do with your Puyo after something like that happens? You can quick turn, but you're often never that lucky, especially if your opponent dominates you with such a big combo.
It was a real struggle for me to write anything negative in this game, so much so that comparisons to Tetris were necessary. After all that, here's a positive comparison to that classic of puzzle games: it's not as ingenious, but it's just as addictive and playable for as long as Tetris can be. Puyo Pop achieves what a good puzzle game asks for, simple execution yet addictive and deep fun, adding a distinctly weird Japanese flavor to a premise that originated in Russia. If Tetris is a truly timeless videogame, Puyo Pop is almost so. Then why didn't this game score higher? To be frank, it's because I don't play Tetris anymore. But maybe you still do. Then again, you probably still play kiddie games, too.