Puzzle & Dragons is popular wherever it’s available, but perhaps in its native Japan most of all. GungHo’s cash cow not only has regular tie-ins with big franchises like Monster Hunter, Taiko no Tatsujin and Hunter X Hunter, but has also generated an extensive range of merchandise to go with it — there’s even an arcade game in the pipeline, too.
But just how well can a mobile game do when the developers decide to pit themselves directly against "real" games and charge ¥4000 (£23/$38 USD – that's the Japanese eShop price) for something that its target audience can already download and play for free on their phones?
As it turns out, very well indeed. To date Puzzle & Dragons Z has sold over a million copies in Japan alone and garnered a much-coveted Platinum award from Famitsu, scoring a total of 36/40 in their cross review.
Naturally a straight port wouldn't have gone down very well with paying gamers, and as a game originally intended to be played in short frequent bursts on the go it certainly couldn't hold someone’s attention for any length of time if left as-is — which is why GungHo sensibly decided to create an entire world and story to frame the familiar drop-matching gameplay.
At first glance this new setting doesn't feel new at all – in fact it feels a little too close to Pokémon for comfort. After choosing the gender and name of the main character you’re called down from your bedroom by your mother to meet your friends, and then you all head off to the town’s friendly neighbourhood research lab, get handed your Dragon Tamer Card and receive three elementally-aligned baby dragons to get you started.
The Paradox Organisation — think Team Rocket — show up and hatch their evil plot, breaking the world up into jigsaw-shaped chunks and naturally the only people who can help return everything to how it was before are you, your friends, and your recently-acquired fluffy sidekick of mysterious origin. Thankfully this is all set up quickly and is out of the way before there’s much chance to dwell on it, and once the game gets going there’s far more Puzzling and Dragoning on offer than there is "Pokémon-lite".
GungHo hasn't altered the main gameplay too much from the smartphone version – the basics work as they did before — but the game is far prettier on 3DS and has been completely rebalanced to offer a smooth and fair ride as a single-player RPG experience.
Puzzle & Dragons Z has been a huge success in Japan and — perhaps unexpectedly — deserves all the praise and sales it gets. Gamers often treat smartphone and free-to-play games with mistrust, and in many instances this feeling of unease is justified. However, this 3DS version of Puzzle & Dragons is far more than just a social game on a cart and GungHo should be praised for carefully balancing the need to do something different without destroying all the things that made it popular in the first place.
Puzzle & Dragons Z is expected to launch in the west at some point this year.