Developer: Mitchell Corporation
Release Date: 02/03/06
Puzz Loop. Magnetica. Ballistic. You might even know it as Zuma, the shameless copycat game that's available on a whole host of platforms from mobile devices, home computers and also as a download on Xbox Live. Whichever way you know it best, this DS remake of Mitchell Corporation's original enduring puzzler is now unquestionably the version of choice and the only edition anyone really needs to remember.
The main difference in Shunkan Puzzloop (renamed Actionloop for Europe, Magnetica in the US) to previous iterations becomes instantly obvious: the ability to control the game exclusively with the touch screen frees the player from fiddly directional aiming and sluggish button presses. Conversions of the 1998 coin-op to the PlayStation and Game Boy Color couldn't really compare with the original arcade stick control method, but here Puzzloop's reprise on the Nintendo DS is wholly justified. Using the stylus, it's possible to instinctively throw marbles anywhere across screen, and at any speed, with the flick of a wrist, and crucially there's never a moment when the accuracy of the touch screen lets you down. It's effortless and precise and turns a concept that could be monotonous into something that's instead great fun to play.
There are three game modes to tackle as well as a wireless multiplayer option, but in each the same tactics and rules apply; slow-moving lines of marbles make inroads to the ominous hole at the centre of each stage, at which point the game will end. The only way to stop this is to direct your own set of orbs at the pack and by matching three marbles or more of the same colour, they disappear. In Challenge mode, the emphasis is on high scores and sustained play and this will introduce players to most of the basics of the game. Different marble colours eventually fill the loop and it becomes increasingly tricky to create chains, not to mention when special items join and send the pack careering towards the central hole-of-death. The inspired addition of a pause button icon on the touch screen during gameplay not only removes the awkward need to press the DS's start button, but is also essential during the more stressful moments of the game where a bit of thought and readjustment is necessary.
'Quest' is essentially the focus of Puzzloop, however, and easily the most alarmingly addictive mode in the game. With a finite number of orbs, the player must simply clear every last set of marbles to advance to the next stage. Each stage increases in difficulty by increasing colour variations, speed, adding extra tracks (up to four at a time) and also throwing in all manner of arduous complications your way. These include wind and water which flow across the stage (affecting the path of your directed marbles), smoke obscuring the view (but can be swiped away either with the stylus or by blowing into the mic), path switches and electric barriers. Throw in some bonus stages and boss battles that make use of the upper screen, and Quest mode adds enough variety and challenge to the simple concept to keep anyone interested for hours on end. Worthy of mention too, is Checkmate - a pleasant enough diversion from the other modes, but one which can be frustratingly baffling at the same time. With no time limit or any sense of pressure, the player's only task is to clear all static marbles on the table with a limited set of their own, and much head-scratching will follow on almost all of the stages on offer.
Puzzloop is particularly admirable in that it makes full and logical use of the DS' capabilities, from the mic, a wireless Tetris-style one-on-one multiplayer mode (as well as a single-cart download option) and even the support of the DS Rumble Pak for those who have it. Fans of other Mitchell games will also be pleased to note that by having a copy of Tsuukin Hitofude (Polarium Advance in the UK) in the GBA slot will unlock two extra stages in Challenge mode and vice-versa allows the transfer of eight special themed stages from Puzzloop to Hitofude. Impressive and thoughtful stuff.
There are some cruel and unexpected changes of difficulty in the Quest and Checkmate modes, that's for sure, and without plenty of determination and intake of breath after yet another failed attempt, its likely to off-put all but the truly determined and obsessive. But Puzzloop doesn't let go of you that simply, and its difficulty only serves to taunt and encourage perfection, especially when striving for those bronze, silver and gold awards in the Quest mode.
Indeed, stages that initially appear impossible are soon cracked open and defeated and the subsequent feeling of satisfaction is immense. Eventually it becomes clear that one effective method for success is not just to clear the marbles as quickly as possible, but to also create as many pairs of two along the way, consequently improving chances of creating all-important chain reactions. On the more testing stages, it's also worth remembering the game randomises between two sets of marbles, and it's entirely possible to memorise particular patterns in the line, helping to know when to match marbles - as opposed to frantically flinging them all over the place, hoping for the best.
The extra character design and brighter approach to the graphics in the older versions has been lost here to a more metallic, industrial look, which to some will come as a minor disappointment. Audio wise, although the background music for each mode is fairly light and unobtrusive, it's as similarly ordinary as the visuals. But the gameplay happily does all of the talking and Shunkan Puzzloop can sit comfortably with the likes of Tetris DS and Meteos as one of the best puzzle games available for the system. If there's any justice, Mitchell Corporation's efforts might finally get the credit they deserve after all.