Review: MadStone (WiiWare)

Is WiiWare collapsing under an avalanche of 'falling block' games?

If there’s one thing you can learn by looking at the current WiiWare release list it’s that the Wii certainly has no shortage of quick and casual puzzle games. Some might say that there are too many, but can we ever have too much of a good thing? Madstone is, literally, another falling blocks puzzle game in the vein of Tetris. Yes, we’ve been down this road before. But Madstone provides just enough new ideas to make it worth checking out.

First, let’s take a look at the gameplay. In a twist, your field of play is not empty but rather is full of blocks. Some blocks are generic, and some are the distinctive looking ‘Madstones’. The object of the game is to escort your Madstones down into the pool at the bottom of the screen, which is accomplished by breaking the regular blocks. If you do so beneath a Madstone, it will fall one slot lower. A block must be hit twice; once to weaken it and again to break it. If a block is already weakened, then when a falling Madstone lands on it, this block will break from the impact and the Madstone will continue downward like an avalanche through each subsequent weakened block. The strategy of the game is to weaken an entire column of blocks and then send a Madstone cascading down into the pool while you move on to the next Madstone.

This sounds straightforward, and to be honest, it is. An experienced player will be able to set up multiple Madstones falling through every layer of blocks in a continuous chain to the bottom, thus scoring bonus points for each additional Madstone that makes it to the bottom during this chain. Additionally, you will be rewarded with a ‘Quake’ which allows you to gently shake the Wii Remote causing your blocks to rapidly be destroyed. At the same time, the Quake will destroy some of your enemy’s Madstones before he can score any points from them. A Quake can quickly push one player into the lead, but each player will likely rack up several during a match and thus the game will likely be decided by who sets up the biggest chain reactions.

The controls are simple and easy to grasp. You hold the Wii Remote sideways and use the d-pad to point at blocks. Although some will no doubt prefer to have had an infrared pointer option, that feature is not included. Nevertheless, the d-pad works just fine, and the risk of repetitive stress injury seems much reduced this way. The only time the controls ever seem difficult is in the midst of a cascading avalanche. The game tutorial says to continue breaking blocks to further increase your combo points earned during the avalanche, but we found it difficult to do this as often we would either unintentionally select a Madstone to break (thus earning a penalty) or else the game would simply not register the order at all if we were trying to break a block that was in motion.

Compared to the myriad puzzle titles currently available on the Virtual Console, Madstone has relatively few strategies that you can employ. In other games, you set up a series of combos and are rewarded for your strategy/luck when you are able to pull off those combos. In Madstone, however, your combos are always the same: weaken some blocks, and then set them off like dominos. The game is certainly addictive and fun, but it just doesn’t seem to match the level of strategy required from some other puzzle games.

However, the simpler game play is not necessarily a bad thing. The computer opponent offers five levels of difficulty, and will truly challenge you at higher levels. And there is a local two-player option, so that the game is only as easy to beat as your opponent. Even so, the lack of variety in strategies available may leave you setting this game down in favor of a more addictive puzzler.

Like most puzzlers, there is plenty of repeat value to be found in Madstone. This game will provide an adequate platform for humiliating your friends when they visit you, although there is sadly no online play. However, even playing the single player campaign should be good for multiple playthroughs. Each level not only looks different, but it also has different victory conditions. Interestingly enough, playing through the campaign all the way to the end will reward you with ‘cheat’ codes. You can input one of these codes at the start of a game whenever you wish to alter the game experience with gimmicks such as ‘low gravity’.

As for aesthetics, the game is actually very good looking for a WiiWare game. There is a large variety of locations and themes making each session feel fresh, even if you are just doing the same thing over and over. The music, also, is enjoyable and sets the right mood.

Frankly, the whole presentation feels a bit retro, like a Super Nintendo-era puzzler but with brighter, sharper, and more colorful graphics, and in our book that is certainly a good thing. There’s even a silly short story tacked on to the single player campaign. The effect is to make Madstone feel like it fits in with classic puzzlers and with the exception of its modern graphics and its motion controls, Madstone could easily have been one.

Conclusion

With so many ‘falling block’ puzzlers available now, there’s an abundance of options available for WiiWare customers, and this makes it hard to recommend one game over another; whether you will like this game over, say, Groovin Blocks is really a question of personal preference. If you are a hardcore puzzle player, you will no doubt want to get acquainted with Madstone because of its unique twist on the genre, whereas casual puzzle players will appreciate its eye-catching graphics and quick to pick up and learn game play and tutorials. Madstone is certainly a worthwhile (if somewhat simplistic) puzzle game and we’ve got our fingers crossed that it won’t get crushed in the avalanche of puzzle games out there.

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