Here's a question for you: What do the Game Boy Advance, GameCube, PlayStation 1/2, Xbox, Xbox 360, Dreamcast, Game Gear, Genesis, Super NES, NeoGeo Pocket Color, N64, Saturn -- and no doubt a slew of other consoles and arcade platforms -- have in common with the Nokia N-Gage? Puyo Pop, of course. The popular (no pun intended, I swear) Japanese puzzle series has spanned almost as many platforms as genre grandpa Tetris, so it's no surprise that the N-Gage has its own version as well.
Better known in the west for its localized versions (Dr. Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine and Kirby's Avalanche), the Puyo Puyo/Pop franchise is rooted in the ideal that the simplest puzzle games are the best. If you've never played it, here's how it works: pairs of beans in five different colors fall into a Tetris-style well. The objective is to connect four or more same-colored beans to make them pop. For higher points, players can set up chain reactions by carefully planning bean placement ahead of time. Junk blocks ("refugees") that can only be cleared by popping an adjacent group of colored beans complicate matters, but that's pretty much the basics of how Puyo Pop plays.
The N-Gage version features three different single-player modes. "Scenario" adds the usual ridiculous storyline to the puzzle popping gameplay and has you compete against 12 different AI opponents, "Exercise" is basically an endless mode that lets you choose from three difficulty settings (Level 1, 5, or 9) and just play for fun, and "Puzzle" has you try and accomplish specific objectives (such as clearing all blocks of one color or clearing the entire screen).
While the amount of modes or options is in line with previous versions of the game, the actual gameplay isn't. The N-Gage seems to have no problem handling 3D games like Tomb Raider or Tony Hawk, but when it comes to duplicating decade old 2D gameplay, it chokes? Come on! The hardware should be able to handle games like Puyo Pop with ease, but for some reason Puyo Pop feels sluggish and unresponsive, especially when played on the higher levels. Maybe it's just that the game was poorly done. Good puzzle games start out slow, but turn into frantic mayhem in the hands of an expert player -- sadly, slow bubble popping animations and unresponsive movement keep Puyo Pop for N-Gage from accomplishing that lofty goal. But an even bigger problem is the developer's choice to ignore the idiosyncrasies of the N-Gage display and to try and duplicate the standard bean colors of red, green, yellow, blue and purple. While the first three are no problem, it's difficult to tell blue and purple apart on the system's screen. It's possible, mind you, as the puyos all have slightly different shapes, but squinting at the screen trying to tell the colors apart wasn't a challenge the originators of the series intended. It's puzzling, too, as the score display at the top of the screen proves that it's not that hard to create a solid object in a lighter shade of blue.
On the multiplayer front, Puyo Pop for N-Gage enables two players (each with his or her own copy of the game) to go head to head via wireless Bluetooth technology. There aren't any mode variations or handicap settings, just the standard two-player versus mode (do combos and you'll send junk blocks to the other player), but the link-up works flawlessly.
The N-Gage version looks similar to Puyo Pop on GBA. The graphics remain simple and the screen setup works perfectly with the tall format of the N-Gage screen. Simple cut-scenes with anime-style characters tell the story, but it's all basic stuff with little to no animation.
The quality of the audio is actually not bad, but the tunes are so short that they loop within a matter of seconds. That means the melodies will get old very quickly. Luckily, there is an off-setting for the sound, which can be accessed from the options menu. Like with many of the previous Puyo ports, sound effects are confined to blips and bleeps and sound as dated as always.
In the end Puyo Pop is an unambitious port of a good puzzle game. It's a testimony to the game's tried-and-true formula that despite the speed and color flaws, it still remains playable and enjoyable to a certain extent. The two-player Bluetooth mode is great fun, but there is simply nothing here that hasn't been seen before. As a matter of fact, the N-Gage version is weaker than all the previous handheld Puyo Pop's I've played. While GBA owners got four-player battles (using only one cart) and 15 AI opponents, N-Gage players can play two-player or compete against 12 opponents. I hope the N-Gage has more to offer Puzzle fans than this.