Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 49, Art Style: PiCTOBiTS
The Art Style series games were generally good. PiCTOBiTS was a fantastic, original puzzler, and eminently playable over a decade later.
I’m ranking the top 101 Nintendo developed/published games of all-time, and you can read about the thought process behind game eligibility and list construction here. You can keep up with the rankings so far through this link.
Wow, we’re here. We’re within the boundary of the top 50 Nintendo games of all time. Sure, 50 is just a round number, but the top 50 is more impressive than the top 100 (or, for our purposes, 101), no? It’s more exclusive! It’s a better round number, one that can’t help but contain a whole bunch of games from Nintendo’s long and storied history that you’ve definitely heard of, like, uh, this $5 original puzzle game that released on a split user base handheld system and was never heard from again.
That’s right, it’s time for one of my favorite games from any publisher that I’ve probably never had a conversation about with someone else who has played the game, and that’s Art Style: PiCTOBiTS. Which I will stop stylizing that way from here on out. Pictobits released back in 2009, on Nintendo’s DSiWare service. The DSi was an upgraded version of the Nintendo DS Lite, which itself was an upgrade on the basic Nintendo DS. Unlike with the DS to DS Lite transition, though, the DSi introduced features that were not on its predecessor, and therefore it split the user base a bit. You could buy digital games on the DSi, for one, which you could not do on the DS Lite or DS. So, the DS family of systems sold over 150 million units worldwide, the second-most of any system ever, but less than a third of those are DSi systems. Obviously, over 40 million DSi systems is still a whole lot of systems — the Wii U sold under 14 million, the GameCube 22 million — but Pictobits wasn’t exposed to an audience of 150 million people, is what I’m getting at.
And Nintendo might be good at a lot of things, but “promoting the $5 puzzle game on the digital service to their split user base” was never one of them. Hell, one of the main reasons I myself grabbed it right away is because I was already a huge fan of the Art Style games, and was also editing a video game news site at the time, so it was harder to miss a new entry. (I also reviewed the game when it released, and as loathe as I am to discuss scoring games given my dislike of the practice, I gave it a 9/10 at the time, for what that might be worth to you.)
The Art Style games, if you aren’t aware, were developed by the now defunct Skip Ltd., the company also responsible for Chibi-Robo, among other titles: some of the Art Style games first appeared on the Game Boy Advance as Japan-only releases, but a few of those games were rebuilt for the Wii and DSi, with a whole slew of new entries into the series, to boot. They were meant to be relatively simple, conceptually, which is not the same thing as “easy,” mind you. But a small focus on a specific mechanic enlarged into an entire game, basically, one that tended to be fun and challenging to fully master. There are some lovely little games here — I wrote about one of them, Orbient, as something of a “just missed” title for these rankings, even — but Pictobits is in a class of its own, to the point it’s the highest-ranking straight-puzzle game on this entire list that encompasses Nintendo’s puzzle-full history.
Pictobits is a stylus-based puzzle game with falling blocks. It’s not a match three game, in part because you actually need to match a minimum of four blocks of the same color together, but also because of how the game actually plays. On the system’s bottom screen, you have falling blocks, but not singular blocks. Instead, they are individual blocks meant to represent pixels, built into larger shapes. Your job is to pick up blocks of the same color from your supply at the bottom of the screen, and move them to the appropriate place so that the falling shapes will crash into them, in a way that will clear lines. You can store up to eight individual blocks up at a time to be distributed wherever you wish, you can put the minimum number of blocks in the way of falling shapes to clear them or go all out and get rid of as much of a single color as you want, but if there is a blockage at the top of the screen keeping new shapes from coming down, you will fail the level.
The shapes are easy enough to clear at first, requiring just one or two blocks to fully remove a falling object. Things get more complicated, though, and speedier, too: you start to see objects falling made of multiple colors of blocks, so you need to start mixing and matching and properly placing multiple colored blocks in the path of these objects, while keeping an eye on the other objects falling elsewhere. You have to keep in mind what colors you have in stock so you can clear incoming objects, while also being aware that too large of a pile at the bottom of your screen — or too disheveled a pile — can lead to you failing the level.
The colors have more meaning than just allowing you to remove certain falling objects or parts of them from the stage. You are using the cleared blocks to create a pixelated picture in your top screen. All of the pixelated images are from NES games, so the first stage has a Mario from the original Super Mario Bros.; a later level has a dirt bike and rider from Excitebike; Link from The Legend of Zelda makes an appearance, etc. While you play these levels, modified versions of songs from these games play in the background, too: simple, at first, just hinting at the game they and the image you are building with your play is from, but as you fill in more of the image, the songs start to sound more like the ones you remember.
Mostly, anyway, because Skip — who employed chiptune band YMCK to make the music for Pictobits — didn’t just put the regular version of these themes in the game. They’re remixes, heavily modified to include sound effects as instrumentation, to give more of an edge and weight to some older themes that were designed for a specific piece of hardware and its capabilities. The DSi had much more it could do with sound than the NES ever did, but Pictobits isn’t getting rid of any of what made the songs from these NES games so iconic and memorable. It’s instead building on top of those foundations, doing what the NES could have done with the same sound capabilities, if only it was more powerful but with the same compression restrictions. It sounds more like a developer pushing the NES to its absolute limits than anything.
Here’s an example: the Excitebike stage uses the engine of the bike itself as its primary instrument, along with various sound effects from the game, to make up the song until you’ve progressed far enough in the level to hear the actual theme of Excitebike worked in. It’s a wonderful little piece of writing (starts at 19:26, in case the embed doesn’t do that for you):
This kind of thing is impressive for its creativity, but there is also a tendency in this game to make some themes you know sound next level. Like the castle theme from Super Mario Bros., in the stage in which your goal is to create a pixelated Bowser. The stage starts with a pretty basic version of the castle music you know, but it escalates, and escalates, and suddenly, it’s essentially a chiptune-sounding metal version of the big bad’s theme. And it fucking rules (36:14):
Almost every song here is an obviously improved remix of the original, and you’ll find yourself thinking about the songs from games you might not know as well, even, like Japan-only Devil World, or Wrecking Crew, or Baseball. Skip pulled out some obvious NES classics like Mario and Zelda, sure, but the game is mostly stuff like Ice Climber and Excitebike and Balloon Fight: the tier (or two, or) below kind of games you mostly aren’t finding in rankings like this one. But they still made for worthwhile explorations for Skip’s goal in creating a puzzle game here, and the musical result justified every decision.
The music is at its most intense and most creative on the “Dark” versions of the game’s 15 stages. These are only unlocked after you complete the normal version of a stage, and also only if you have the coins to unlock them, and they serve as the game’s hard mode. You earn coins in the game by pulling off a specific kind of maneuver that’ll require practice at first, but become second nature. You can touch a falling shape to make it fall into the blocks you’ve setup to clear said object, and there is a brief pause as the “pixels” move from the bottom screen to the top screen where an image is being built. During that pause, you can press other objects to fall to be cleared: creating this kind of chain gives you a combo, which will not only increase the number of “pixels” you move to the top screen with a clear via multiplier, but also gives you coins.
You can also earn coins from blocks marked with an X, which can not be picked up by you to be moved elsewhere: for those, you need to find ways to clear them using falling objects, instead of the other way around, which is a real wrinkle, but a worthwhile one to figure out both to earn more coins and to keep you from failing as blocks pile up on top and around these immovable objects.
The coins can be used within a stage itself — remember I said that you need to keep watch of your “supply” of blocks at the bottom, to avoid failing? You can sacrifice one of your eight slots to hold a single block to clear a couple of lines from the bottom of the screen. You can buy back that much-needed space with five coins, which can get expensive in a tough stage you’re struggling with. Whatever coins you have leftover can be used to unlock dark stages, or to buy the game’s music to play in the music player built into the game. You’ll be replaying levels quite a bit to master them, and in the process, you’ll earn a whole bunch of coins. You can use those hard-earned coins to unlock the dark levels, which you are likely ready to take on by the time you’ve earned enough coins to try. It’s a good system, and the difference in difficulty and the strategy and/or reaction time needed between the game’s very earliest stages and its late ones is significant, so you ‘ll be glad you were slowly guided to those moments.
My one complaint about Pictobits isn’t even about the game itself, really: it’s that there is just one of them. How was there no sequel to Pictobits, featuring NES games that didn’t get play here? Where’s the YMCK version of Metroid songs, or Donkey Kong, or Mother, or Kirby, or Mario and Zelda sequels? All of those remain pixelated and with tremendous music to explore, especially Metroid and Mother. (Hey, if you can find space for two Devil World stages, Mother isn’t much of an ask.) Pictobits deserved to get a late-life version of itself like NES Remix did when it split its two games into early- and late-NES releases. No such sequel for Pictobits, though, means we also don’t have a 16-bit version of the game for SNES titles. Nintendo, I want to give you more of my money, why will you not let me do this?
Anyway. If you don’t have a DSi but do have a Nintendo 3DS, you can still get Pictobits: DSiWare games are, for now, available on the 3DS eShop, and I suggest you find $5 to get Pictobits, at least, off of that service before, for whatever reason, you no longer have the option. It’s a game I return to every couple of years and play through from start to finish, and have been doing so for about 11 years now. I could not wait to revisit it for the purpose of this project, and to write about it, and to listen to the game’s songs while I did so. It’s an extremely satisfying puzzler with one of the better game soundtracks going, one that manages to make the past sound like the present without sacrificing what made the past’s sounds so iconic and pleasing to begin with. Go buy it! Or replay it! And tell Nintendo to make a sequel, dammit.
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