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Puzzled League: Will Panel De Pon Ever See It's Full Potential?
-By Adam Pearson-
-Presented by DMG Ice.com-
-Did you know? The Lip's Stick item in Smash Bros. Melee is a reference to Panel De Pon.-
Panel De Pon (left) and Tetris Attack (right).
In the next console generation, Nintendo continued to try to sugarcoat this game for non-Japanese audiences with Pokemon Puzzle League. Anything with the Pokemon license tagged on it was flying off shelves around this period, thus this game had better sales for Nintendo than Tetris Attack, but not for the right reasons. Hardcore fans still preferred Tetris Attack, even despite it's lack of a battery save for scores and progress. The possibility for a four player versus mode was certainly there in this version, and would have been a great addition to the gameplay, but was sadly absent in favor of gimmicks like the "3d mode" that was simply a larger playing field wrapped around a cylinder.
Four player panel-flipping would eventually come, but not for those outside of Japan (the imports crowd excluded.) Fanatics like me were delighted when Nintendo Puzzle Collection for Gamecube was announced for release in the states. It had three games: Dr. Mario, Yoshi's Cookie, and Panel De Pon. Best of all, Panel De Pon featured a new four-player mode! I remember seeing some screenshots for the game in one of Nintendo's buyer's guides. They featured (gasp) the girly fairies from Panel De Pon instead of Yoshi or Pikachu. Was Nintendo seriously thinking of releasing the game with fairies intact? Apparently not. Nintendo Puzzle Collection kept getting delayed on release lists until it simply disappeared. There is some hope that the game is completed, and Nintendo is just waiting for the ideal time (perhaps near the death of the Gamecube) to release it. Chances of that are slim though, especially when Nintendo's revolution could easily host all of those games in it's download service.
There were handheld versions of both Tetris Attack and Pokemon Puzzle League (renamed Pokemon Puzzle Challenge for the GB Color,) but these versions fell short to their console counterparts. For one, Tetris Attack for the original Game Boy was displayed in four shades of grey, which meant you only had the block shapes to guide you instead of the much more eye-catching block colors. Also, like the SNES version, it didn't have a battery to save scores and progress. Pokemon Puzzle Challenge was a totally different beast from Pokemon Puzzle League: it had the same text menu interface as Tetris Attack, and even the Vs. mode was simply a character swap, following the same "rescue your buddies" plot. This version remained my favorite of all for quite some time, since I love playing on the go or in bed. However, hardcore players still shyed away from the handheld versions for one reason. The playing field was smaller than the console versions: 9 rows instead of 12. This meant scores between versions weren't comparable, and the playing field just felt more cramped after playing the "real thing".
Full play areas on both games.
It is 6:00 AM central time as I write this sentence, on November 29th, 2005. In probably about six to seven hours or so, stores everywhere will recieve their shipments of Dr. Mario/Puzzle League for the Game Boy Advance. Finally, a proper handheld version of the game, nay, the ideal version of the game, will be in my hands. With any luck, a lot of your hands, too!
Dr. Mario and Panel De Pon! The Japanese Title Screen.
So who's the star of Puzzle League? Does Yoshi give it another go? Nope. Pokemon was dropped from the title, so Pikachu and friends must be a no-show. Puzzle League now has no real star. Characters have been stripped from the game, and only the game itself is left. As Nintendo Power's short 7.0/10 review of the game states, "Puzzle League [now] has no personality whatsoever." If you ask me, this isn't too big of a problem. The fanfare when you clear a combo is still intact, the blocks still make that bubbly sound when they're cleared, and there's even some music from the first Tetris Attack/Panel De Pon. All you'll miss is the boring "story" between Vs. CPU mode matches that you skipped anyways, and you won't hear "VENEMOTH!" every time you clear a combo. If you ask me, this game didn't need "personality" in the first place. Maybe if Panel De Pon had no personality to begin with, more people would have picked it up. People would see the game for what it is instead of the license slapped onto it. I'm just sad that the game is stuck with the name "Puzzle League". Without the Pokemon theme, this name doesn't even make any sense. Dragon Warrior is now Dragon Quest in the states, we're recieving the Final Fantasy games in proper numerical order, so why can't we just call the game Panel De Pon? It's an odd name for english speakers, but so is Katamari Damacy, and people scooped that one up.
Without a character lineup, the VS. CPU mode is no longer a level based affair. It's similar to what you'll see in Dr. Mario's VS. CPU mode. You set a difficulty level for your CPU opponent, the handicaps and all that. No more skipping through story to get to the good stuff. Veterans will be happy to know that no matter what skill level you are, the higher levels of CPU skill should always give you a worthy challenge. Speaking of challenge, there's no easy/normal/hard now. The game levels in order are slowest, slower, slow, fast, faster, fastest. Fast is about equivalent to "Easy" in the original game, while the slow modes are identical to SlowX1, SlowX2, etc. in Pokemon Puzzle League and beyond.
Complaints about "personality" in this game are kind of funny when you consider that you can now select from 17 different backgrounds and pick your favorite song to play to. The backgrounds are mostly patterns, yes, but you can make them whatever color you want (32 different color options, not including the default option,) what opacity for the playfield you want, and what direction and speed your background scrolls in (if any.) As for the songs, you can play with any song in the game you wish. You can even play to the clear/fail songs from the puzzle mode, and the beautiful credits music. Try setting your song to the danger music... now the danger music will play when you are in the clear, and then the default music will kick in when you are in danger! That should really mess with your senses a bit! Anyways, when the game can look and sound any way you want it to, whenever you want it to, who needs character backdrops? It would have been nice to have more options for backgrounds and music to choose from, but I'm not complaining.
This version is definetely the best to get for beginners to the series. There are 87 gameplay training sessions, as well as 35 gameplay demos, which are basically movies of some skilled players accomplishing amazing feats. You'll see stuff such as a 44 block combo (44 blocks being cleared simultaneously!) and a 21 chain (without scrolling the board!) At any time during these, you can press a button and step in for the automation, trying the trick for yourself. Some of the later hot chains in the training mode will be hard even for advanced players, and your jaw will drop as if the dog just spoke when you see some of those expert demos.
Simply put, this is the best version of the game yet, handheld or otherwise. There's a battery to save your scores, the options are endless, no confusing interface or annoying sound effects, you can take it with you... heck, you can even send a demo to friends over link cable. It's now 7:45 AM and I'm that much closer to owning this game! I can't wait to see it on my beautiful blue DS!
Panel De Pon: An Action Puzzle Game.
The japanese version of the GBA game had a really cool sidebar image, I guess you'd call it an avatar of sorts. You're able to select from a few of them. Anyways, one of them simply said "Panel De Pon" and in smaller text said "Action Puzzle Game". That's the perfect way to describe what's going on with this game: an emphasis on action within the puzzle genre. Games like Tetris and Dr. Mario are more about strategy and careful piece-laying than sheer reflexes. Sure, matching three similar blocks together is no chore, but if you have any intention of beating the higher level CPU players, you'll be manically shifting those blocks to set up 7 and 8 chains. This is where the game demands your reflexes: gravity is about to take effect, and when the blocks fall, you'd better have two or more of the same block waiting. Meanwhile, huge garbage blocks are falling onto your screen; your opponent must've just cleared a huge chain. You'll have to stop what you're doing and get rid of that garbage... and on some of the bigger garbage blocks, you'll have to take it on line by line.
A shot of Vs. Mode in Puzzle League for GBA.
Tetris may have made you break a sweat, but Puzzle League can leave you breathless on some of the tougher rounds. Puyo Puyo (Puyo Pop in the States and Europe) is also a competitive minded game, and is probably my second favorite puzzle game. It features a one player mode, but it just doesn't have the same weight as the versus modes, where Puyo Puyo thrives. Puzzle League is easily as enjoyable in both endless 1P mode and Vs. mode. In Puyo Puyo, you aren't affecting the playing field while a chain is in motion: chains are set up strictly by your own foresight, and you watch them unfold. Thus, the gameplay isn't nearly as frantic as Puzzle League, where you quickly rush to set up more blocks to get that chain one number higher.
The cutesy fairies and Pokemon are no longer around to fool you: this is no child's game. It can get very tough. Any hardcore video gamer can appreciate the challenge, action, and fun that this game offers. Just like Contra or Halo or any other big kid's game, your reflexes have to be sharp to properly play Puzzle League. I challenge you to take this game on, and see where you stand on the plateau of true gamers!
However, I'd agree with you if you said we still don't have the perfect version of Puzzle League. This package would have been much better on the DS. The top screen could have shown your opponent's screen in full. A cool new effect could have shown the garbage blocks forming on your opponent's screen, and falling from the top screen to the bottom screen. But better than any of that, the game could take advantage of the DS's Wi-Fi service. It would be joyous to find opponents for Puzzle League and Dr. Mario online. The emulation community has been playing Tetris Attack online for a while now, thanks to some clever programs like ZBattle. Wouldn't it make sense to finally give puzzle fans a way to play online legitimately? In that sense, the game is too little, too late. Nintendo finally goes online and one of it's best games won't be along for the ride. It's doubtable that we'll see Puzzle League on the DS after we just got it on the GBA. I'm crossing my fingers in hopes that the Revolution will provide some way for Puzzle League fans to play each other online. It's certainly possible.
Why hasn't Nintendo climbed to the highest peak and proclaimed the bliss to be found in Puzzle League? Why was Dr. Mario/Puzzle League stuffed into a tiny blurb in Nintendo Power's Holiday Buyer's Guide, when it would be the perfect stocking stuffer for gamers of any age? Why didn't this game come out on the DS so I could be playing it online, finding someone skilled enough to whoop me? I can mope forever, or I can suck it up and savor the fact that I'll be spending some quality time tucked quietly in bed, shimmering in the glow of the best version of Puzzle League, Tetris Attack, Panel De Pon, whatever you want to call it, that exists to this date.
I'll have a full review of the game up on DMG Ice pretty soon. Sorry for neglecting Dr. Mario in this article. I'll give it just as much time as Puzzle League in my review. Until that time, to everyone who's just as anxious to pick up this game as I am, I tip my hat to you. However, to those that I helped convince to buy this game, I give you a standing ovation! WOOOOOOO! You rock!
-Editorial by Adam Pearson-
-Property of dmgice.com-