JP: Panel de Pon
Developed in Japan Intelligent Systems
Published by Nintendo
Released for the Super Famicom in 1995; adapted and released for the Super Nintendo in 1996
Puzzle games and mascots become good friends when they get their Western release. Tetris and Bejeweled and Columns were long exceptions to Dr. Mario, Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine, Kirby’s Avalanche, and others. Alas, Intelligent Systems’ Panel de Pon and its faerie fantasy setting got two brands: Not just the Tetris name, but Yoshi’s pals, as made famous through Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island. It wouldn’t occur to Nintendo for nearly eleven years following Tetris Attack (when 2007′s Planet Puzzle League marked the first time the franchise was released in the States as a stand-alone, mascot-free barn-burner) that Panel de Pon is a bad mother, no matter what you call it and how cute it looks.
The Tetris Company co-owner Henk Rogers later regretted the Tetris Attack licensing deal, and that’s because Tetris Attack has nothing to do with Tetris. The six-by-twelve playing field is home to five colors of panels (six on higher difficulty levels) and a player-controlled cursor that can swap adjacent panels from left to right. Gravity is a key mechanic, and can be used as necessary, sending panels falling into lower parts of the playing field. The basic Clear (and scoring) mechanic is to match three panels horizontally or vertically, which disappear from the playing field at a rate of speed based on the game difficulty setting. (It is important not to confuse “game difficulty” with the “game speed”, which controls the rate at which new panels rise into the playing field.) From here, there are two extended options for scoring additional points. “Combos” provide bonus points for matching more than three panels at once, and these Clears can include multiple colors of panels. Due to the low score that these Combos provide (scoring that would be tweaked in later versions), the preferred option for skilled players is the “Chain”, where cleared panels collapse, and through that destruction, create another set of cleared panels. (Combos and Chains also temporarily stop the playing field from rising, but this can be disabled with a cheat code.) Obviously, the higher your multiplier for the Chain, the more points acquired with each successive move in the Chain.
If you’ve played Puyo Puyo or Columns, the concept of the Chain should be immediately familiar, and then the similarities end there. Most puzzle games following Tetris (Dr. Mario, Hatris, Columns, Yoshi, Yoshi’s Cookie, Puyo Puyo, Wario’s Woods, Klax) used separate game states for construction and destruction. That is, you create the correct order of blocks, medicine, jewels, hats, or whatever, and as those pieces are being removed from the playing field, the player temporarily loses control of the action. The genius of Tetris Attack stems from an emerging trend of the early-to-mid nineties, the urge to make these puzzle games play faster and feature less downtime, pushing a trend towards the real strength of match clear puzzle games, which is their frenetic action. Like 1994’s Bust-a-Move and Magical Drop (a very similar puzzle game released the same year as Panel de Pon), there is no distinction between construction and destruction in Tetris Attack. They are synchronous phases of play, where players are preparing and performing the next move while the game removes completed panels. (The lone impediment to completely synchronous play, the inability to “raise the playing field” and introduce fresh panels while destruction is in progress, would be fixed with the release of 2000’s Pokémon Puzzle Challenge. The “Exploding Lift” mechanic would become a mainstay for all future games in the series.) So while the Chain is in progress, you can keep moving panels and creating more moves to increase your combo multiplier. There is no downtime and you are expected to take advantage of that.
Where Tetris Attack outshines Bust-a-Move and Magical Drop is the flexibility that its game model provides for so-called “Skill Chains”. While counted and scored no differently than regular Chains, Skill Chains are moves which require active and intuitive manipulation of panels as destruction is in progress. So, if you perform a Clear, and slide a green panel under two collapsing green panels, when all the pieces hit the ground, it will continue the Chain. Sound simple enough? That is an incredibly basic example, with the most absurd feats of skill occupying the same design logic of top-notch fighting and action games. You can swap a falling tile into the space of a stationary tile and create a Chain with the stationary pieces. You can briefly allow a single tile to occupy two spaces with a properly-timed panel swap, creating temporary stable ground for falling panels in the space above the swapped panel. (If those descriptions seem a bit confusing, the internet has supplied graphical illustrations.) In addition to Skill Chains, you can also earn bonus points (based on the Chain multiplier) for any panels cleared independently of the active Chain, allowing players to quickly pick up points as time is running out or the Chain is falling apart. You can even perform multiple concurrent chains and use one dying Chain to associate the combo multiplier with a new Chain.
In all likelihood, most players who have played Tetris Attack have never employed the most difficult Skill Chains, and if they have, stumbled upon them by accident. It is the exceptionally tight timing window for using these lessons effectively in the course of play (a handful of frames) that confines their use to a small percentage of players that have mastered the other facets of the game. And I’m sure that other skilled players would digress with my praise for Skill Chains, that these nuances are irrelevant in optimal play, where one never has to use a single Skill Chain. Well, things don’t always go according to plan, and not every play session is a race towards beating your highest score under very stringent conditions (such as Time Trial modes with limited margin for error). If you can take a combo multiplier of seven and stretch it towards eleven or twelve with a properly-timed Skill Chain, you don’t merely earn additional points, but the overwhelming sense of satisfaction that comes from making an awesome play. It’s hard to say that a puzzle game can make you feel like a badass (particularly one featuring Yoshi in the title screen), but few other puzzle games allow you to create an unforeseen brilliance through skills better associated with the work of a tool-assisted speedrun.
It is these mechanics that transform Tetris Attack into a beast of an action game, with two distinct skills always pushing against each other: The ability to analyze and see possible moves, and the physical ability for the player to perform them. The player can only move the cursor so fast, and being able to recognize when this becomes a roadblock is integral to skilled play. That is to say, “Do I aim for the easy move higher up the playing field? I may not have the time to get my cursor up there. Maybe I should opt for the tougher move closer to my cursor.” (From here, it should be easy to understand why the stylus controls in 2007’s Planet Puzzle League were a disappointment, since that control scheme eliminates any emphasis on mechanical skill.)
The formula works wonderfully in most major gametypes, including marathon modes for scoring, a goal-oriented “Stage Clear” mode, and a “Story Mode” that introduces newcomers to the game’s garbage-block-throwing versus component, a game mode that is a quality challenge on higher difficulty levels. However, if Tetris Attack has a foible, it seems that the game’s developers underestimated how good players would get at the game, and there seems to be a lack of playtesting towards those ends. The most notable problem is a nasty scoring bug involving any Chain multiplier above thirteen, which yields zero points for every subsequent Chain or Clear. (Players adjusted to this oversight by clearing as many panels as possible before the thirteenth multiplier expires, spiking their score.) And since the synchronous states of construction and destruction eliminate “patience” as a skill (there is no reason to ever not be moving as fast as possible), high-level multiplayer matches in the game’s Versus mode tend to have little diversity and devolve into stalemates, where players whittle down gigantic garbage blocks one line at a time…in order to create even larger garbage blocks. It is not uncommon for a single match between good players to last over ten minutes and have no end in sight.
Of course, this course of events where Tetris Attack “becomes too easy for its audience” assumes a course of events where players have spent years trying to master it. And if the biggest complaint you can levy towards a puzzle game is “I’ve played it for ten-plus years and it can’t handle what I’m capable of”, uh, yeah. Subsequent versions of the game built on those lessons and have you covered. Both the maximum high score of “99,999” (obtainable in as little as five minutes) would be replaced with a six-digit score and the combo multiplier bug would be eliminated in Pokémon Puzzle League. The previously mentioned “Exploding Lift” mechanic would provide additional ammunition for those who could clear an entire playing field of blocks in a single Chain. The 2005 version of Puzzle League packaged alongside Dr. Mario covered just about everything else. And this series got to add these mechanics, got to last over a decade, because Tetris Attack rocked enough face. Not bad for a “children’s game”, huh?