Review: Super Puzzle Platformer Deluxe (****stars)

SuperPuzzlePlatformerDeluxe

The Book of Judges contains some truly strange stories. Or, in a way, lack of stories. It seeks to display the history of Israel after the generation that saw God’s works firsthand. In a surprise twist to absolutely no one (even after Joshua, where they purportedly made a promise they would follow God and so would their children – bad move), the Israelites could not coexist with the Canaanites and serve God exclusively. God, in response, sends Judges – proto-leaders, so to speak, who enact justice against the opponents of God – who deliver Israel after they cry out for deliverance from their sins. They never seem to get themselves together, considering how many judges come out of the woodwork.

My particular favorite comes from the shortest “story” if you could even call it that. The judge Shamgar (not the Shamgar from the Song of Deborah, far as I know), who I’m going to guess hasn’t been featured in many a Sunday sermon, receives, literally, one verse total in the whole Bible:

31 After him came Shamgar the son of Anath, who struck down six hundred Philistines with an oxgoad; and he also saved Israel.

I do love how nonchalant the narrative describes this situation as a completely normal thing. An oxgoad, for you information, is a pointed stick used to prod and lead livestock around the area of a shepherd or farmer’s choosing. Of course, such a weapon only exists to move animals, not kill them, so such an implement wouldn’t be very sharp. Whereas we read this passage rather matter-of-factly (oh yeah, that guy killed those other 600 guys with a stick), you can imagine trying to actively defend yourself against 600 men with little more than a slightly sharpened stick. It’s like something out of a Asian kung-fu film, although I’m guessing this combat situation is more Oldboy than Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (please go look this up if you didn’t get my Asian cinema references).

We don’t know much, if anything, about Shamgar, but given that his “weapon” of choice amounted to a piece of wood, we can assume he wasn’t a trained warrior. God simply called him to a nearly impossible task of saving Israel from foreign nations, and he performed that duty with God’s help. It’s a rather grim spectacle, but life isn’t always pretty. Sometimes you need to get down in the dirt to get anything done. And sometimes you need to adapt to changing circumstances. As my father usually says, if you get even half the stuff you planned done in a day, that’s a rarity at best.

Super Puzzle Platformer Deluxe requires much the same mentality. You wouldn’t expect an Adult Swim game to so encapsulate two genres so distinctly as it does, yet it’s one of the most engaging puzzle experiences I’ve had in a while. Andrew Morrish developed two previous versions of the game before revealing this “Deluxe” version, and it feels as if Super Puzzle Platformer Deluxe went through many iterations to flesh out the concept. As per the name, the Puzzle portion comes from the constantly falling blocks. Three different colors fall down at a steady rate – blue, green, and red – which, when matched with similar colors, will break and garner you points. However, because of the Platformer portion of the name, the process isn’t so simple. Rather than moving a cursor or the pieces as they fall, you’re the active participant in breaking the blocks…with a laser cannon.

Yes, if that sounds great, it is great. Your little yellow buddy must run and jump around the stage blowing up block configurations, setting up chains, and generally trying not to die. Getting squished by block from above will kill your character unless you gather up the star chips that come out of exploding blocks. These add to your score (the only real barometer of success in the whole game) and your “Level” meter, which indicates both how powerful your shots are and how fast blocks drop. While your combos come out faster, so do various blocks and obstacles. I imagine it’s a viable strategy to avoid leveling up for a higher score (if a slower game), but I prefer speed; the score certainly racks up quicker at that pace.

Furthermore, you also need to worry about stage-specific obstacles such as turrets, cannons, spikes, homing missiles, ghosts, lava, and just about every other platformer video game trope. They come at predetermined times, surely, but whether or not you can get rid of them (whatever blocks they are near, when destroyed, also destroy them) comes down to your personal configuration. This means that a continual element of randomness and total unpredictably emerge right from the gate, and you must deal with the hand the game deals even when it looks impossible.

Even when managing three or four different things at once, you must keep a cool and level head. Big combos, though causing huge point gains, will shake the screen as if your brain suddenly exploded; this won’t give you a great deal of time to jump or react, meaning you’ll want a different colored block underneath your character to avoid falling into instant death of one sort or another. It’s a game of strategy on the fly, and you’ll need that to survive for a long time. Getting hit by blocks will level you down as well, meaning you must constantly evaluate which risk is worth the cost (obviously, the answer is: any risk that doesn’t involve me dying).

Collecting enough bits from combos in a short period, at the same time that you break block lines, will yield other items. You’ll want to pick up the giant crystals, the equivalent of one hundred points, as they also unlock new stages and challenges. Stars, which appear on the top of the screen after a particularly large combo, make you invincible to all damage for a short period of time; clearing most of the screen at that point isn’t a bad idea, all things considered, but you must constantly remind yourself of the random drops. I’ve had TNT drop on top of my head, and there’s literally no where to move. That is my fault, in a way, for not acting with that possibility in account.

The game comes down to score and survival; you play with both in mind, or deficiencies emerge. Once you get those down pat, though, Super Puzzle Platformer encourages a sort of flow where you’re not really actively thinking and your brain descends into a trance-like state. Total concentration comes into play, and you’ll find yourself continuing in the endless cavalcade of blocks well past your expected time of expiration. Moments when several screen-clearing combos occur in a row truly satisfy. Figuring out how to live as long as possible and eliminate all obstacles in your path still rings true, and it’s especially intense the longer you live. There’s no continues and no second-chances – just you, the game, and your continually-increasing score.

Andrew Morrish also programmed a series of 30 second challenges that serve as a bit of a mini-tutorial. Did I fail to mention that the game, literally, doesn’t bother to teach you how to play? It’s better to learn on your own in the same way that it’s better to read a book rather than a Wikipedia summary – the nuances become clear. These challenges actually teach you some of the subtle nuances of movement – for example, you can walk on spikes (not the ones on the bottom of the screen), but you can’t jump on them. The very first challenge requires this, and if you don’t think out of the box, you’ll never clear it. It’s just one of the many ways that Super Puzzle Platformer Deluxe encourages experimentation and trying something different within its restrictive environments.

So why four stars rather than five, you might ask? The game allows you to select different characters with different abilities. Some have double jumps, some float, some shoot rockets, and some shoot in two different directions. However, as far as I can see, double jumping seems more useful than any of the other “disguises” on display here, and I’m not sure why anyone would want to choose the others except as a proper challenge to their skills. It’s an interesting idea to give your platforming some variety, but I’ve not found any more use in the jetpack than the ninja’s increased mobility. Considering the game’s semi-random nature and the ubiquitous obstacles, having increased mobility helps out a great deal more than you’d expect, and the stars are nigh-unreachable without some serious forethought and/or luck without a double jump.

Furthermore, the “random” nature alluded to earlier frustrates to no end at times. It’s predictable, sure, and you’ll get a sense of the ebb and flow, but never enough to truly settle into the game. One moment, you’ll achieve an unbelievable score, and the next try you’ll utterly fail from a TNT box falling on your head (I mention this more than once because it happened more than once). As well, it’s a focused game without a tinge of variety except in terms of obstacles. This isn’t a flaw so much as a warning: you must play and learn to win. There’s no easy answers, so don’t look for them. I imagine multiplayer follows the same route, with a dizzying array of blocks coming down at all times.

So, in summary: Super Puzzle Platformer Deluxe is a great game with a few niggling issues regarding balance and randomness. Still, such flaws (if you want to fall them that) are par for the course with most puzzle games, and I am still recommending the game wholeheartedly. A unique combination of genres deserves a chance, really, and something beyond Steam’s “Casual” games category. If anything, it requires the same level of adaptation that Shamgar would’ve needed to engage in combat with his natural implement. Maybe you can understand what it feels like to kill six hundred people with a stick in a never ending gauntlet of foes. Or get a score of 20,000 or so while surviving for a tense thirty minute trial run.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.
  • Not a huge puzzle guy. But I am kicking myself a little for not nabbing this in the Steam sale.

    • Zachery Oliver

      I basically destroyed the game over a period of three days. I never go for achievements unless they’re integrated with in-game accomplishments/unlocks, and here they are. I just haven’t died 1,000 times yet.

      I like this game!