Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 59, Puzzle League (series)
I have a favorite, of course, but if you recognize one Puzzle League game you might as well recognize them all.
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.
Puzzle League games are all, at their essence, The Same Game. And that’s fine by me. The core Puzzle League experience, first introduced to Japan as Panel de Pon on the Super Famicon and the Yoshi-branded Tetris Attack North America’s Super Nintendo, is wonderful. The series’ developer, Intelligent Systems, got it right the first time, and everything that followed was simply tweaks made to cater somewhat to the console or handheld that the game was moving to as time passed.
It is kind of funny to lead this explanation with “all of these games are the same” and then throw three completely different, seemingly unrelated titles at you in that same paragraph. But that’s the Puzzle League way, baby.
You see, Panel de Pon is and was the name of the series in Japan. That’s how it started: that’s how it remains. Outside of Japan, though, well, there’s a story to tell there. For one, the gameplay itself is exactly the same in the North American and Japanese versions of Panel de Pon, but Nintendo of America felt that the series would more easily find its footing after crossing the Pacific if it was branded in some way, rather than featuring the fairy artwork and style of the original release. So, North American Panel de Pon swapped the faeries for Yoshi- and Yoshi’s Island-branding, threw in a Bowser for good measure, and then also changed the name from Panel de Pon to Tetris Attack.
Puzzle League is not Tetris. Nothing like it, in fact, as you don’t even clear blocks in the same manner or degree, but, to be fair, they are both puzzle video games, so they’re basically the same. Nintendo, though, asked The Tetris Company for permission to use the Tetris name for the international release of Panel de Pon, and while executive Henk Rogers is on the record regretting that decision in the present, at the time, it was money the Tetris Company’s partners wanted to make:
Nintendo came to me soon after we formed The Tetris Company, and we were just wrestling with what we were going to do. And so, at the time, we had the copyright, the gameplay, and the name “Tetris”, and our Russian partners, who knew nothing about nothing, and I’m not talking about Alexey, I’m talking about Electronica Technica, they wanted to make money, no matter what. That’s it, “however you could make money, make money”. When Nintendo came to us, and said “we would like to take this Japanese game called Panel de Pon, and rename it TetrisAttack, I’m saying, “it’s not Tetris”. But my partner’s saying “but it is money!” So, uhhhh, so, we, I, reluctantly agreed. In retrospect, we should never have done that. I don’t think that’s a good idea. It dilutes the brand, it’s like naming another cartoon character Mickey Mouse just cause you need the money. It’s just a bad idea. So I wouldn’t do that again.
It was a good game! But the game should have had its own life, its own name.
Before we can continue, I am required by internet law to show you a photo of Taron Egerton as Henk Rogers for the upcoming movie, Tetris:
Henk Rogers was correct: Tetris Attack did deserve its own name, its own brand. And Nintendo would do that very thing for the next and all future non-Japanese releases in the series, making them Puzzle League games. They, of course, haven’t ascended to the sales heights or renown of Tetris, but name me half-a-dozen game franchises in total that have, never mind just puzzle ones. Hell, I didn’t rank either of the Nintendo-published Tetris games on this list, not because of a lack of quality — bare bones editions of Tetris still kick ass — but because Tetris has moved so far beyond the moment in time where Nintendo was able to publish their games as system exclusives that it made little sense to bother with them like they’re still Nintendo titles.
Anyway: Puzzle League. It seems like a fairly relaxing match-three, block-clearing experience, but the game is just giving you some time to figure out how everything works. The speed and intensity and what’s expected from you all ramp up with time, and suddenly, Puzzle League is a challenging, fast-paced, adversarial experience, one where you can trip up and see all your hard work fall apart in an instant. Like with Tetris, it will be your fault when it all unwinds, whether it was a failure to see far enough into the future, a failure to keep up with the ever-increasing pace of play, or simply shoddy play.
You can move one block at a time, and you can also increase the number of blocks on the screen by bumping the next line to come up early, which might be necessary in order to give you more useful moves to make. You shift these blocks around to not only make three-block matches that clear them, but also to set up combos that will clear when you do finally knock over the first domino, as it were. Your goals vary, as explained in the game mode differences above, but in all instances, blocks reaching the top of the screen is the end for you. As said, the pace of it all is slow at first — you will feel as if you will never move so slow as to let the blocks reach the top — but that’s to get you used to moving around and setting up combos to make these mass clears. You’ll eventually need to speed up your recognition and your actions, because the game is going to start moving faster, too, and then you’ll understand what the game actually is.
My favorite of the bunch — there are seven full releases and a couple of spin-offs/mini versions of the series out there — is Pokémon Puzzle Challenge, for the Game Boy Color. This entry has the best balance of gameplay styles. There is an endless Marathon style that has you just play and play until you lose, for high score tracking purposes, and a modified version called Garbage that is Marathon, but with stray blocks falling from above to make your life more difficult. There is basically the opposite of Marathon mode in Time Zone, which has you attempting to reach a high score in a limited time frame. LineClear sees you attempting to clear a certain number of lines before advancing to the next stage: Puzzle is the same, but for blocks instead of lines.
The mode that stands out the most for me, though, is Challenge, and this is especially true in the Pokémon Puzzle Challenge edition of Puzzle League. This is a player vs. computer mode that doesn’t show you the other player’s board, but instead just a life bar that you need to deplete, more than half-a-decade before Puzzle Quest was a thing. It’s not as simple as just getting your opponents’ life bar down through the use of block clears and combos, though: you also need to take Pokémon types into account, because this is a Pokémon-branded game. So, specific kind of blocks are going to net you more damage than others, and planning around that is vital to your success.
In fact, you can’t actually complete the story mode of Pokémon Puzzle Challenge unless you’ve mastered the gameplay. In this mode, you compete against various trainers, building up your own party of puzzle-solving Pokémon as you go, and eventually you take on the Elite Four and the regional Pokémon Champion. You can only face the latter, though, if you haven’t used a continue in order to proceed through the story mode. Getting to the point where you can just make it through without failure is no small task, not with the difficulty ramps that occur in Puzzle League games. So you’ll be at this mode for a while on all of its various difficulty levels, until you’re a true Puzzle League master.
A game that’s easy to play but difficult to master is the puzzle game dream, isn’t it? You want something that people will be instantly into upon playing, something they can see enough logic out of from the start that they can make progress and enjoy themselves, but not so simple as to make them feel like they aren’t being challenged or actually accomplishing anything. The balance in Puzzle League games is some of the best out there, for bringing you along slowly and making you feel like you’re mastering it all, until reality sets in and you realize you’ve still got work to do. The work feels achievable, though, like you can get there with more practice, and so… you do.
If you want Pokémon Puzzle Challenge, you can find a physical copy for use on your Game Boy Color, Game Boy Advance, or Game Boy Advance Player for your GameCube through secondhand marketplaces for less than $20. Or, if you have a Nintendo 3DS, a digital copy is $4 through the eShop. If you want to give Panel de Pon a go, have a Switch, and pay for Nintendo’s annual service, it’s there to be played on the SNES channel. If you’ve got an SNES Mini, you should do some light reading I’m sure exists but I can’t point you to in order to get Tetris Attack to work on that.
You can’t really go wrong with any of the options, half of which I didn’t bother to even mention here — there is also a Nintendo 64 Pokémon Puzzle League, the Dr. Mario & Puzzle League combo release for Game Boy Advance, Planet Puzzle League on the Nintendo DS, and Puzzle League Express through the DSiWare section of the 3DS eShop. The best of the bunch, for my money, is from 20 years ago, though, and features some pocket monsters. They are all Puzzle League, however, and that’s to their credit.
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