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Tag Archives: Puzzle Games

 

 

Deform.

 

 

When I first picked up Advance Wars in 2001, I had no idea what I was doing.

I enjoyed strategic war games, but I never played them with any tactical focus.

Always brute forcing through missions.

In Command & Conquer: Red Alert, I would spend hours amassing huge tank swarms, sending them into the enemy base at once.

In Age of Empires II, I would scour the map for every last remaining enemy before the mission ended.

I always thought of myself as a strategic person, but I needed a narrative draw to act strategically.

In RPGs, I did well at managing my parties and character abilities.

But whenever the narrative layer was removed, I had no drive, no patience, for strategy.

When I first picked up Advance Wars, I had no idea what I was doing.

The game frustrated me because unlike Red Alert and AoE, I didn’t have total control.

Each mission was tight. The parameters were clear.

There was no free rein to sit back and amass units.

There was no brute forcing the enemy.

Because of the tight margins, Advance Wars taught the player how to be tactical, but only if the player had the right kind of eyes.

Advance Wars required the right kind of mind.

I struggled with the game because I had neither. I resented its limitation.

I hated the game for keeping me focused.

I stopped playing.

 

Contort.

 

Advance Wars lingered in the back of my mind the following years.

Whenever I came across a war game that gave me the space to breathe and slow the game down, I felt like a fraud.

I’d recall my time feeling stressed and pushed to act in AW’s world.

That urgency felt more authentic in a strategy war game.

No one else seemed to get it right.

Advance Wars became the lens through which I would assess myself in other war games:

“Would this strategy have worked in an Advance Wars level?”

The answer was always no.

My tactics, my strategy, lacked all focus and urgency.

I was using war games to fulfill my inherent desire for spectacle and completion.

I was using strategic war games as engines of ego.

I needed to return to a place of focus.

I went back to Advance Wars, 13 years later.

What shocked me was how the game had lingered in my mind.

The controls were so elegant and logical that they were impossible to forget.

The rest of the game struck me as lean and clear.

Now that I had the right kind of eyes, now that I approached the game with a softer mind:

I understood what the missions were.

I understood what the game was.

 

Arms.

 

Advance Wars is a strategy puzzle game hiding within a turn-based war game.

AW is more about solving than attacking. Much like Ikaruga, it is about adapting.

The ‘puzzle’ elements of Ikaruga (switching the ship’s colors to absorb bullets) slow the game down and it becomes a sequence of novel set-pieces.

By not giving the player free rein to hold back or charge forward, digging out the ideal strategy for the mission is much more engaging in Advance Wars.

Unlike other war games, the UI in AW is simple and concise.

The player can do everything  inside of two small menu screens.

It avoids the clutter and bloat of larger games.

It rewards a player’s attention. The proper strategies are not immediately obvious, but also are not buried under layers of difficulty.

They are there if the player chooses to focus.

In spite of all that it does stunningly well, Advance Wars does have its design problems.

Rather than acutely increasing the difficulty each mission, the game increases the options available to the player.

The player might gain a new Commanding Officer (CO’s determine the special passive stats and active abilities that a player has access to) or the ability to build and manage units, or adding new units.

Intelligent Systems did an excellent job in gradually ramping up the player’s options.

But by focusing so much on access to options, the difficulty is uneven.

There is no gradual development of difficulty, only plateaus.

The ratio seems to be 3:1 or 4:1. For every three or four missions, there is one which spikes.

Advance Wars is a game about patience, but it doesn’t take the time to teach the player how to be patient. It operates as if it expects the player to stick through it.

These vertical difficulty spikes were one of my problems with Dark Souls II.

One of the stranger things about Advance Wars is the art style.

It is a war game that does not take itself too seriously. The colors are bright, the unit icons are bubbly, and the dialogue can be childish.

This creates a fair bit of dissonance considering that soldiers are supposed to be dying.

This clash of style and substance has left me with quite a bit of  cognitive dissonance.

On the one hand, I’m happy to play a war game with a different aesthetic: One that isn’t entirely drab and brown.

On the other hand, this is trivializing the worst parts of us.

The way the COs carry on talking as if no one is dying adds to the sense that of avoidance. It’s happening everywhere, but no one talks about it.

Intelligent Systems has worked very closely with Nintendo since the very early NES days.

Seeing as how Nintendo likes to keep their games from tackling cultural issues like homosexuality in their latest Tomodachi Life release, I could see them not having a problem white-washing the brutality of war.

Although, IS is also the developer behind the Fire Emblem series and does not seem to have an issue tackling questions of sovereignty, nationalism, death, and sacrifice in that series.

In spite of these issues, Advance Wars is a substantial game, especially for an aging portable system.

It is a thorough study of excellent design.

With clean controls, a unique aesthetic, and tight levels: It is a strategy game that out-maneuvers nearly every other war game in the genre.

13 years after its release and the game still shines…

long after many have forgotten it.

 

 

 

 

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Dissolve.

 

 

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.

The two games were Mega Man IV and Tetris Attack.

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.

 

Pucks.

 

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.

Hence, Gunhouse.

 

Kevlar.

 

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.

The visual design is reminiscent of games like Mr. Driller and Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo.

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.