The Christmas my mother bought me a Game Boy was the most exciting Christmas of my life.
I ran away to the living room, and unboxed the portable in a state of fury.
I plugged away at Tetris for hours.
It was new and phenomenal.
The original GB was fat, used four AA batteries, and had a small display that wasn’t true black and white.
This led to a significant re-design in 1996.
Nintendo expanded the display, slimmed down the hardware, and lowered the power requirements to two AAA batteries: The Game Boy Pocket.
When I got a GBP, I gave my original hardware to my cousins in Lebanon.
Gaming hardware in the Middle East is hard to come by. Either it isn’t available, available in extremely limited quantities, or priced so high that it is out of the reach of median income families.
That’s why the Middle East is full of knock-off systems and pirated software: It is an under-served market with no ‘local’ chains, the only reasonable access available through alternative channels.
One summer my mother bought two games to give to my cousins as gifts. I had to choose which game to give to who.
To a cousin on my mother’s side, I gave Mega Man. To my cousins on my father’s side (the ones I had given the Game Boy to) I gave them Tetris Attack.
At first, it felt like a raw deal. I spent a lot more time with my paternal cousins during the summer, so along with them, I was stuck with Tetris Attack.
While I had spent hours playing Tetris that Christmas years before in Southern California, at this point I had acquired a stronger sense of games.
Much like all the children around me, I was looking for the fastest, coolest, most action-driven games around.
Tetris Attack, in the face of Mega Man, seemed like the worse game.
We were sad about it.
We cried for awhile.
But TA snuck up on us. It was a slow burn.
At first, we played it for 10-15 minutes at a time, sometimes going weeks without touching it.
Then the sessions started getting longer and the intervals shorter.
Then discussions around the game started happening and it became a summer staple until the Game Boy broke.
When that happened, I brought Tetris Attack back home with me.
As portable hardware has developed so has the puzzle game.
Much like how Call of Duty borrowed RPG elements beginning with CoD 4, puzzles have become mashed into other genres.
In 2007, Infinite Interactive released Puzzle Quest for the Nintendo DS.
Puzzle Quest was a quest-based RPG in which battles were fought in a match-3, Bejeweled-style system. It was wildly successful and was subsequently ported to every system possible.
In 2008, Braid was released and was recognized for its ingenious combination of platforming and time-manipulation as a tool for puzzle solving.
2009 saw the release of Knights in the Nightmare on the DS. A mystery bag of puzzle, RPG, and STG mechanics.
Since the mid-late 2000’s, puzzle games have continued to evolve and much like how puzzle elements have appeared in other genres, puzzle games are beginning to expand by incorporating outside elements as well.
Necrosoft Games released Gunhouse in early 2014 on Playstation Mobile.
It is a game defined by mechanical complexity.
In Gunhouse, the player is tasked with defending a home of orphan children against different enemy types.
The house itself is the puzzle. The player is tasked with matching and combining different icons to create more powerful ‘blocks’.
The strategy element in the Gunhouse puzzle is threefold:
-While combining blocks, the player has to decide whether to try and create powerful blocks in the back of the house to be used as bombs or in the front of the house where they are used to create guns.
-At the top of the screen, there are bonus icons which indicate what weapon types receive bonus damage.
-The puzzle phase is timed.
Part of the genius in the puzzle design lies in that the player’s main control option is to choose how far to swipe a single row.
Each row is three blocks wide. The player has to decide how far to the right or left a row should be moved in order to drop blocks into specific places in order to combine.
Once the timer runs out on the puzzle phase, the gate on the house begins to come down.
This offers the player a last-chance opportunity to finish their combinations and set up their weapons for the attack phase.
In the attack phase, enemies swarm the house. The player has control over when the guns begin to fire and when to use bombs.
The objective is to stop the enemies from getting too close to the house and kidnapping the children.
Like the puzzle phase, the attack phase is timed.
Once the attack phase is finished, the game loops back to the next puzzle phase.
Visually, Gunhouse is an echo of the bright colors and animation of older arcade puzzle games.
Gunhouse is a beautiful game.
The art is clean and bold.
Because of its visual stylings and mechanical intricacy, it’s comparable to Knights in the Nightmare.
While KitN is a fun game, it is extremely complex.
Each system in that game influences other systems in ways that may not necessarily be obvious to the player.
It also lacks fluidity in the way its systems engage with each other.
The beauty in the mechanical design of Gunhouse is that all the systems engage with each other in obvious ways.
The player understands the consequences of not creating blocks in the front of the house or not utilizing the bonus weapon type.
The interaction between the two main phases of the game (puzzle/attack) influence the player’s strategy in either phase.
For instance, during an attack phase an enemy swarm might be loaded with flying-types. This then influences the player’s strategy in the puzzle phase by focusing on building more powerful guns near the top of the house (the house has three gun points: top, middle, bottom).
The game is constantly moving and shifting.
The strategic depth of Gunhouse is a product of reading feedback. This makes it a truly dynamic experience.
Puzzle games generally grow stale quickly due to their inability to challenge or engage the player after awhile.
Arcade puzzle games suffer from this less, but can also feel extremely unfair due to vertical difficulty spikes.
Gunhouse strikes the perfect balance of both strategic depth and aesthetic flair.
Gunhouse is an important game.
It is important because it brings together so many dynamic elements and plays them off of each other without any waste.
It borrows different systems from arcade STGs all the way to console RPGs, and it works wonderfully.
Gunhouse is an arcade puzzle game that knows what it is and what its doing.
There is no trying in Gunhouse.
It is effortless.