Developer: Mitchell Corporation
Release Date: 13/10/05
Tsuukin Hitofude (or Polarium Advance as it's known here in the UK) might seem a strange choice of sequel. The very fact that a Polarium follow-up appeared on the Game Boy Advance and not the Nintendo DS may come as a surprise to those who played the original, seeing as Chokkan Hitofude (meaning "intuitive stroke") was a puzzle game specifically designed to take advantage of the touch-screen and stylus control of the DS.
For whatever reason, most gamers didn't take to Mitchell's puzzler (the predicted "Tetris of the 21st century") as well as Nintendo had perhaps hoped. As the initial enthusiasm surrounding the launch title died down, it can be now picked relatively cheaply in the bargain-bins of your local game emporium. It did sell in reasonable numbers across the world however, and was even bundled with the system itself in some countries (a la Tetris with Game Boy).
For starters, it's worth noting that Tsuukin Hitofude has been designed almost specifically with the Game Boy micro in mind. The controls also allow the player to play with just one hand by highlighting tiles on the D-pad with their thumb, and turning them over with their finger on the L trigger. For most gamers, playing in this way will be little more than a novelty, but in Japan the control method was included for more practical reasons. In actual fact, the game was marketed in the east as a travel accessory - a game to be played whilst commuting to work on trains or buses, perhaps as another hand holds a book or operates a mobile phone. The title "Tsuukin Hitofude" roughly translates as "intuitive stroke whilst commuting" and the game packaging is presented using green and silver hues: the recognised colour scheme for the Japanese transport system.
In this iteration a few things have had to change. Gone (obviously) is the touch-screen control, but more significantly the Challenge mode has been dropped completely in favour of the standard Puzzle mode. This will come as pleasing news for those who found the former too awkward and frantic as Tsuukin offers more relaxing and contemplative gameplay than its predecessor. There's no time limit here: just you versus puzzle after puzzle. In addition to the Edit mode and standard game options, Time Attack is included which tests the player to complete either five (hard) or ten (easy) random tile sets in the quickest time possible. The lengthy code system used to create custom title sets also returns, and for those without other chums to trade stage designs with, there are some particularly novel examples to be found on the official website.
For extra variety, there are new tiles which genuinely add depth; the 'kotei' (fixed) tile drops all tiles above it when erased, the 'hurdle' prevents any line being drawn across it and a 'multi' title mimics any tile horizontal to it. After each stage is cleared, two extra "medals" can be attained for the true perfectionist: a blue for completing the stage within a certain number of moves and gold for completing the stage within a certain number of moves and along a given path. Striving to attain these medals proves to be one of the most addictive aspects of the game, as new colour schemes are unlocked once enough are acquired.
When playing the main game, the cartridge uses a calendar system, which basically tries to restrict you to one puzzle per day, with a total of 365 stages to complete - one for each day of the year. The "play whilst commuting to work" aspect is highlighted here once again, but in reality, it sounds more limiting that it actually is. It's entirely possible, for example, to play and complete as many puzzles in one day as you like, but only seven sets will be available to play at any one time. This restriction on the amount of levels available actually helps concentration and (particularly later on) encourages logical and determined thought in order to progress. More forethought is required to gradually overcome each puzzle and the relief of beating a new stage always leaves a satisfying and addictive feeling.
The uniqueness of its approach might only be marred by its difficulty: as days go on through the year, the puzzles get harder and harder, and it becomes increasingly demanding to unlock new stages. A random selection of puzzles might have prevented these bottlenecks in difficulty, but in contrast, the overall challenge would have been somewhat diluted. The game also no longer inverts the titles after a failed attempt, which could be seen as a mild loss in some instances. Followers of the original may remember that the inverting of the tiles would sometimes cause a mental trigger within the player's mind and a puzzle would suddenly appear achievable.
It's ironic then, that Tsuukin Hitofude seems more at home on the GBA than its DS counterpart. The decision to remove Challenge mode means the change of control system is negligible and actually benefits a game which is relaxed and less frustrating to play. Like Dr. Kawashima's Brain Training on Nintendo DS, it's an example of a meditated style of gameplay, where careful thought and practice reap rewards. And similar to the brilliant Chu Chu Rocket!, Tsuukin Hitofude also works as both a slow and fast-paced puzzle game, giving the player a choice of modes dependant on their mood. Importers fluent in kana should be able to read almost everything the game throws their way, and the helpful Training mode will settle in everyone else.
After a few hours' play, the game infects your consciousness, as solutions to previously impossible levels suddenly present themselves on the toilet, or ideas for stage designs pop into your head walking down the street. Tsuukin Hitofude charms despite its simplicity, and successfully positions itself as one of the best amongst the many excellent puzzle games already offered on the GBA.