The puzzle genre is often neglected by the American market. Why? Well, we’re a little too occupied blowing Master Chief’s brains out with assault rifles at the moment. There’s so much testosterone with shooters and sports that games like this are often passed off as downloadable gimmicks or nothing more than what it appears. “Are they serious?” is the mindset I often pick up or, “that game’s not hardcore.” But, for those of you who have remained faithful, are curious, or are just looking for something that’ll make you think, this list is for you. And with it, it’s my hope that you discover something new and/or revisit these memorable classics the world still holds dear. Enjoy!
5. Tetris (1984-present)
This is a given. Even if you’re not a hardcore gamer, chances are, you’re familiar with this classic block-falling puzzler. Basically, you create lines with the differently shaped “tetronimos” or blocks that fall from the top. The longer you last, the harder it gets. Addicting and fast-paced, this arcade classic is where it all began, and it’s also the reason similar puzzle games are confused for this one.
The game was first released in 1984 by a Russian developer and has been re-released numerous times throughout the years. The game’s popularity stems from a few sources. For one, it’s nostalgic. It’s well-known and is here to stay. The game is like a jigsaw puzzle, and players have to figure out how to piece it together. Second, new innovations keep the franchise alive. In the Facebook version, Tetris Battle, users can face other players around the world for aggressive two player action with the introduction of garbage blocks, items, and bombs. If it weren’t for these new features, Dr. Mario may have taken its place instead. It makes that much of a difference. The games are now made by the Tetris Company (American based) and they frequently license their game to third parties; some of which, are on this list!
4. Panel de Pon / Tetris Attack / Puzzle League (1994-2007)
Don’t be fooled by that Americanized title in the middle. This one is very different from Tetris. Did you ever want to have the power to manipulate the gem matches you got in Bejeweled or Candy Crush to get the right combos? Then look no further than Panel de Pon. Originally released in Japan in 1995, it came over to U.S. in 1996 to the Super Nintendo under the name Tetris Attack. It saw fair sales and initially received mixed reception. Whether or not people knew what they were buying, the mentality was: “it has ‘Tetris’ in the name, so it has to be good.” For the American port, Mario characters were swapped for their Japanese counterparts (namely those from Yoshi’s Island).
Basically, you make matches the same way as the other two, but with a few twists. The game allows you to utilize your combos by swapping blocks at the right time and making combos and chain reactions, which sends garbage blocks to your opponent, who then works it off and will most likely send some back to you. Players must be able to tap the control pad to get to certain points of the grid quickly, because once your play area is full (or topped out), you only have a limited time to react before you lose. The player that lasts the longest wins. Depending on the player’s skill level, matches can last anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes! Check out a cool replay here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ttyLVckcuFw .
While it was acceptable for SNES standards in its first incarnation, it really doesn’t hold a candle to Pokémon Puzzle League. At the height of the Pokémon craze in the late 90s, another port came out for the N64 in 2000. This one features much more fluid controls and a computer that can move ungodly fast! Beginners and experts are in for a challenge. And what’s funny about Pokémon Puzzle League is that the types don’t matter! Yes, in this game, Pikachu can zap Mewtwo to pieces using a still frame and awesome metalized voice samples. I highly recommend you download or pick up this one if you want to experience the evolved version of the often copied “match 3” game. Unfortunately, it’s the only home console version you can pick up right now if you live in the U.S. Nintendo Puzzle Collection, which includes Dr. Mario, Panel de Pon, and Yoshi’s Cookie, was only released in Japan. That version of Panel features a four-player mode, which makes it more difficult (with up to four kinds of garbage), but is oh so much more enjoyable because of the challenge it presents. The only other versions that have been recently released are handheld, and let me tell you; control is everything when it comes to this one. Sure, you can play people online, but the DS D-pad isn’t exactly as effective as a real controller…nor is the stylus. Let’s hope another console version comes soon to the WiiU!
3. Magical Drop (1995-2012)
You want fast-paced chaining? Magical Drop delivers. In a similar vein to Puzzle League, your wrists and fingers will be at the game’s mercy just trying to keep up with your opponent. For this one, you launch the colored balls up to their corresponding colors to match three or more. Do it consecutively, and you’ll send your opponent lines. The player that outlasts the opponent in topping out or fulfills their quota (a set number of pieces to clear away) wins. This game has Japan written all over it. The story, the anime tarot card characters, their voices, and gameplay are all things that’ll keep bringing you back for more.
Magical Drop started out in Japanese arcades in 1995, flourished for a bit, but stopped with its last console release on the Playstation in 1999. More than ten years later, this little-known classic was revived on seventh generation consoles as downloadable content with its fifth game, Magical Drop V. Although it’s not available on the PS3 or Xbox 360 anymore, you can still download the most modern version on Steam for $4.99. Beware, though. Newer isn’t always better. Things that sound too good to be true probably are, and this is no exception. As flashy as the update looks, it’s got nothing on the speed of its predecessors. Making combos feels delayed and is frustratingly slow. It’s no wonder the online community died within a year. I recommend you wait for another title. The past games definitely still hold up, though.
2. Puzzle Bobble / Bust-A-Move (1994-2011)
What can you say about Bust-A-Move? It’s one of the most well-known puzzlers worldwide, regardless of whether people realize it. It’s constantly ripped off by wannabe gaming companies (too many to count and list here, to be honest) who can easily emulate its gameplay and sell it to unenlightened people.
Why is it so easy? Well, it’s another one that falls into the match three rule. It’s also similar to Magical Drop in the way that you launch the bubbles up to clear them, but you have to actually aim your shots now. You can even bounce your shots off the walls to reach points on the playfield that are otherwise inaccessible by straight-edge means. In the single player mode, you try to clear them all to go on to the next stage. The challenge comes with the falling ceiling. It lowers every few shots or so, pressuring you into using your moves wisely.
So…that’s all great and all, but the real hook comes from the two player mode. By dropping excess bubbles from well-aimed shots, you send garbage bubbles to your opponent. The pattern is different based on the character you have selected, so you have a lot of replay value coming to figure out what works best for you.
But wait! It gets better. Or at least it did for a while. In some games from the late 90s and early 2000s like Super Bust-A-Move and its sequel on the PS2, there’s a chain reaction mode. This is why this game stays relevant in the puzzle world. Here’s how it works: you make a match and the excess bubbles fall…but then they fly right back up and make additional matches if possible! Through luck or careful planning, you can get multiple chains you didn’t even know you had! All for the satisfaction of seeing your opponent cower and try to work off all of those lines.
This is an example of a game that dropped the wrong aspect. We haven’t been able to chain like that since 2002, yet Taito keeps releasing the games. Most of the time, they’re only single player or they only incorporate the non-chain reaction mode in later titles. We need this feature back! The online action would be incredible! Additionally, we need the games back. Taito chooses which games to release worldwide and which ones are for Japanese-only markets. Sadly that’s a result of their most recent title from 2011, Puzzle Bobble Online. Might I ask, why? At this rate, the games are on their way to being country exclusive again, like the next title on my list.
1. Puyo Puyo / Puyo Pop (1991-Present)
You probably are unfamiliar with this one, though it’s going to feel like a sin once you see some gameplay. Honestly, this could very well be the mother of all puzzle games. Colored blobs (or Puyo) fall Tetris-style and connect with like colors. Make a group of four or more at a time and they will explode and disappear from the playfield. Another simple-sounding concept, but again, it’s the massive chain reactions one can create that set it apart from its competition. This is because whatever was on top of the cleared Puyo falls onto other Puyo and reacts again. Doing this sends garbage Puyo over to your opponent, who, depending on which version you’re playing, can block it with their chain and quite possibly send it back! The strength of the chain increases exponentially with each consecutive pop, so players have a lot to think about when it comes to playing (e.g. how to defend, when to launch, how to build chains, etc.). If you can get your hands on this gem, do so and play with friends for hours of fun. This one really makes you think. Don’t be misled by its cutesy appearance! This game is harder than it looks! It has colorful characters and graphics, memorable characters, awesome voicing (Japanese only, not the English dub), and very high replay value due to the very revolutionary updates it’s been given over the years.
Once such update is Fever mode, which was introduced in Puyo Puyo Fever (2004). If you offset (or block) the garbage from your opponent enough times, you go into a hyper mode that gives you premade chains. Each time you make the correct matches, you’ll “level up” and the premade chains will become longer. This can mode can be considered a saving grace because in some ways, it levels the playing field for those who may not be able to fend off a monstrous 10 chain from their opponent the first time. It’s modes like this that make this game and franchise my favorite among the rest. It sets itself apart by continually adding new modes (ice blocks, bombs, tilt mode, and Daihenshin, just to name a few), entertaining stories, and unbelievably captivating gameplay. Want proof? Matches can last as long as Puzzle League and be even more intense! Watch one here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y6plgEbyCqk
Additionally, what’s cool about Fever is that you can download it on PC and play your friends! And the icing on the cake is, you can insert your own music, sprites, and backgrounds to personalize your own recorded matches! Yeah, that’s right. It has a save feature.
As far as what’s available, unfortunately, there’s not much here in America. It was only released a few times and, unless you were alive during the console wars of the 90s, you probably never heard of this. Sega licensed the game under Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine (1993) using Sonic characters from the T.V. show and Nintendo did the same thing with Kirby’s Avalanche (1995); this time using characters from the Kirby universe. The downside is that those games don’t have the block rules (Tsu in Japan) present, so games generally don’t last as long. The last game available locally was Puyo Pop Fever, which is a real shame, since Puyo Puyo 7 (2009) brought new modes and the subsequent game did something I thought would never happen.
Whenever I play this game at home, people tell me, “what is that, Tetris?” To which, I almost always violently object, “NO! IT’S NOT TETRIS! IT’S PUYO POP!” Well, at long last, I can’t do that anymore because Sega has just released….Puyo Puyo Tetris. Yes, you read that right. Two puzzle games have finally crossed over. Players can choose between Puyo Puyo and Tetris and play each other through a variety of modes. I could hardly believe it when I first heard about it. This franchise once again takes another revolutionary step in the right direction. But, of course, it all boils down to: is it perfect and balanced? Well, not really, but it is amazing seeing the two together at long last. Growing up with both games I can tell you that this a real accomplishment. It’s only available in Japan, but here’s the good news for PS3 owners: there’s no region coding on it, so you’ll be able to play it on your American console! You’ll get the best of both worlds and be able to play live. But watch out! You’re dealing with a Japanese fan base who knows all too well about the puzzle genre and Puyo is no exception. Counter with your Tetris expertise for a while and you’ll be fine. Will we ever see another Puyo game here in the states? It doesn’t look good, but I hope Japan eventually see the potential market overseas. This game would have made a great comeback.
Senkyu / Battle Balls (1995)
Receiving an arcade release internationally and an exclusive Japan-only Playstion release, this Puyo clone follows the same mechanics as its other anime counterpart except the puzzle pieces are balls. They can roll down slopes, which present challenges for making chains. It’s still addicting and fun, but the blocking of garbage sometimes feels delayed. Machines and disk alike for this one are scarce. Play it if you have the chance, because it’s likely you won’t see this one again. The developer made all of the sequels one player with suggestive and girly themes. It’s a real shame, but go figure.
Dr. Mario (1990-present)
I wouldn’t forget this one, although it just occasionally slips my mind. Why? Puyo is far less restrictive than this one. The same rules apply. Connect four of the same colored pills horizontally or vertically and they disappear. The goal is to clear the viruses (which react with their respective pill colors) before your opponent. The only memorable title in this franchise, in my opinion, is Dr. Mario 64. The main difference was the integration of four player games. That was an awesome feature that didn’t stick around to the present. Only since Dr. Mario Rx and the newly released Dr. Luigi for the Wii have we been able to face other players head to head, and even then, the feeling’s just not the same. The N64 version had more characters and voice samples. None of this stock Mii or Luigi-only garbage. Might I add that they also introduced a point and drop system? Why would they do this in a puzzle game? Did they see something wrong scrolling the pieces side to side? Did we really need another Wiimote cash-in? Well, these games are honorable mentions for a reason.
Super Puzzle Fighter II: Turbo (1996, 2007)
It’s hilarious to see the cast of Street Fighter in a puzzle game, but it’s all too fitting for Capcom to do something like this at the same time. The only reason this is an honorable mention is because it was never expanded upon until its HD update on seventh generation consoles…in 2007. It’s very unlikely they’ll ever make another one, but the game is still worth a look into.
Instead of matching an amount, you place like-colored gems together. You wait for reactor orbs of the respective color and any gem clump it touches will disappear and send garbage to your opponent. Chain reactions are possible in this game, but are difficult to pull off seeing as how the reactors need to be strategically placed. If you can pull it off, you’ll get some humorous animation from the characters in the middle. They’re really only there for novelty, so try to stay focused on your play area. The CPU can be pretty cheap at times, due to the disadvantage of choosing a higher difficulty, but it doesn’t take away from the overall entertainment factor. To reiterate, as with the case with many old games, you’ll be lucky if you find anybody still on the network to play, so invite some friends over because it makes for some fun multiplayer. Download it while you can!
So that’s my list of the top 5 best puzzle games ever made, and I hope I broadened your scope of the genre a bit. Do you know one that tops another? Anything I missed? Agree/Disagree? Sound off in the comment below.