Sunday, December 11, 2011

Review: Pushmo

Pushmo (or Pullblox, as it's known in Europe) is a deceptively simple puzzle game. The "Puzzle" genre has never been as mainstream as when Tetris first hit shelves, and likely never will be. But when done well (as in Tetris Attack, Meteos, Chu Chu Rocket, and Professor Layton, to name a few), the genre has proven time and time again to be one of my personal favorites.

If you'll excuse the pun, the question I'd like to answer for you today is this: How does Pushmo stack up?

Let me put it this way. As I write this, Pushmo has been out for three days. If my 3DS activity log is to be believed, I've already played the game for 25 hours. Of the time that has passed since this title became available, I've spent a full third of that playing this title. Consider that I also spent a third of it sleeping.

I'll just come out and say it. Gaming websites are billing Pushmo as the eShop's "killer app," and while that is hardly scarce praise, I think this humble game deserves even more. This is not just a killer app for the eShop, but for the 3DS in general.

Dat's a duck! Dat's a duck, man!
Pushmo's star Mallo is tasked with rescuing children that have found themselves trapped within block puzzles called... Pushmo. (I can only assume these puzzles, too, are called "Pullblox" in the European version.) To do this, the player must pull out sections of the puzzle in three dimensions and jump across them to reach the top of the puzzle.

As I said before, it's deceptively simple. These puzzles are quite easy at first, and in fact, the game's tutorial levels get a bit long in the tooth. But soon you reach puzzles that can't be traversed so easily. Soon, five puzzles a minute becomes five minutes a puzzle. Then, ten minutes. Of course, if you're really stuck on a puzzle, you can skip it and come back later, but there's no "super guide" here. Once you've finished the tutorials, you're on your own.

Pushmo is a shining example of what the eShop should focus its efforts on if it hopes to compete with iOS. It's just the kind of game that anybody can pick up and play for fifteen minutes on the bus or at the airport and still feel satisfied. Of course, the game is also deviously addictive; on completing a puzzle, the only options are "Replay" and "Next Puzzle." If you want to quit, you have to actually start the next puzzle and choose "Quit" from the pause menu. Because of this diabolical design decision, I frequently found myself saying, "Okay, just one more."

"All right, one more."

"...One more."

"One more.... ZZZZZ"
Of course, nothing is really keeping you playing. It's not as though you can't simply press the "Home" button or close the 3DS. It's just that these puzzles are so clever and satisfying that it becomes very difficult to put down.

Surely, the 250 included puzzles will keep you busy for a good, long time. But this all dances around the real draw of the little downloadable title that could, and I mean "draw" literally: Pushmo comes packaged with a level editor where players can design their own puzzles.

Anybody like me, who's ever spent hours designing stages in Super Smash Bros. Brawl and Megaman: Powered Up, or meticulously copying Animal Crossing patterns or Mario Kart emblems, will sink many hours into "Pushmo Studio" as well.

But Pushmo's level editor trumps them all. It turns a borrowed concept into a stroke of genius.

The genius of Pushmo Studio is that, even as the creator of the level, you have no idea how to play it. You have no idea which blocks can be moved which way, or how far up your own Pushmo it is actually possible to travel. Once you've drawn the image or copied the sprite, your puzzle is only half-designed. The other half of the process involves playing your own stage, learning how to solve something that you designed.

Sure, play-testing custom stages is also an important facet of Brawl or Megaman; that's why all three level editors include a button that drops you into the stage and lets you test it out before you finalize it. But as the designer of the stage, you pretty much know how all the tricks and traps work, and the act of testing the stage is mostly to ensure that everything works as you've intended. Even in WarioWare: DIY, where the player is creating minigames, you set the win conditions and "program" the game yourself, so you know exactly how to win. But that's not so in Pushmo, where the most basic way the stage is navigated is completely unknown to you until you've actually played it.

Of course, why make Pikachu when you could make Ditto?
And even if you should find that it's only possible to climb halfway up that Pikachu sprite you worked so hard to reproduce, playing the main game unlocks tools that can make the level fully playable without having to butcher the spritework. Switches that pop out all the blocks of a certain color and manholes that warp you to another part of the puzzle can both be implemented in order to make that Pikachu a cohesive experience. But how do you know where to put the manholes, or what other parts of the puzzle you'll be able to reach if all of the yellow blocks popped out? By playing your own stage!

That's what is so remarkable about Pushmo. Designing stages isn't a fun distraction from the main game, it's the most engaging thing in the whole package. But the icing on the cake, the neatly tied ribbon on the whole package is just how easy it is to share these custom stages.

To share patterns in Animal Crossing or microgames in WarioWare, both parties had to add those horrible friend codes, and in Animal Crossing's case, they actually had to arrange to be online at the same time. But in Pushmo, designers can turn their puzzles into QR codes that can be imported into another player's game as easily as pointing their 3DS at the computer screen. The process is lightning-fast and can allow for quick mass-downloading of custom stages from message-boards and the like. As a nice bonus, a stage can only generate a QR code after it has been completed, so players can safely scan any puzzle and know that there is at least one solution. Just imagine if WarioWare: DIY had been on the 3DS and if custom microgames could have been shared with these magical QR codes. I find myself actually looking forward to Animal Crossing 3DS now, in the hopes that I'll be able to download patterns this way.

Fans of Tetris often joke that they see falling tetrominos even when they aren't playing. I know back when I was particularly absorbed in Meteos for the DS, I would look around my house and notice vertical arrangements.and imagine them blasting off into space. After playing Pushmo for a few days, when I look at text on a computer screen or books on my shelves, they seem to be coming out at me in 3D staircases. This game is easily worth every penny of its $7 price tag. I would have paid $40 for it, though as a full retail release I would be less forgiving of the lack of Streetpass/Spotpass functionality.

If you own a 3DS, this game is a must-buy. I'm confident that this colorful, saccharine game will charm its way into the hearts of all but the most cynical frat boys. The use of 3D might not be as daring as Super Mario 3D Land, and it might not have the exciting multiplayer of Street Fighter or Mario Kart 7, but that doesn't stop Pushmo from being the most fun I've had on the 3DS yet.

Ricky thought this game was...

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