Posted by Sean Aaron
A magnetic arcade experience with plenty of attraction.
Whilst it seems that there is a surfeit of puzzle games on Nintendo's WiiWare service it has to be said that their overall quality goes a long way to making their numeracy forgivable. Magnetis is developer Yullaby's first offering on WiiWare and definitely deserves a place in the list of worthwhile puzzlers for the Wii.
Falling block games are certainly nothing new: Tetris and its imitators have been around for two decades now so the idea of yet another falling block game might leave many cold, but Magnetis introduces sufficiently different mechanics to interest even the most jaded Tetris fanatic. The rules are simple and straightforward. There are primarily three kinds of blocks: left magnet, right magnet and conductor. The latter is used to link the former two blocks to create chains, which increase in point value as they increase in length. Complicating matters are the method of block delivery, the appearance of incompatible magnet blocks of different colours and the fact that conductor blocks have a habit of fading out over time -- all of which adds a surprising amount of depth to the simple core mechanic.
Paired blocks descend down a vertical conveyor belt from the inside of a machine in the background and then drop onto a horizontal conveyor belt. The former you cannot control beyond pressing down on the to drop the blocks more quickly; the latter can be moved back-and-forth using left/right on the to position existing blocks below the new arrivals. The blocks are side-by-side; pressing or will switch their positions. If you like you can play with the remote on its side NES-style, which will probably be the more comfortable position for many. Naturally if that method is chosen and are the buttons in effect for switching block positions.
Whilst the block pair comes off the conveyor belt together they are not actually attached and if there is a gap beneath one it will drop into it. Conductor blocks will bond to magnet blocks if they're touching the ends of the magnet and change colour from grey to whatever colour the magnet block is. Once bonded conductor blocks won't move again which can potentially create empty areas underneath unfinished block chains. The conveyor on the bottom has a wraparound effect which is important to keep in mind lest you accidentally fill in all available spaces with connectors and have nowhere to put the closing magnet block down. Of course if your game goes on long enough in that circumstance the connector blocks will fade away and open up spaces below, which is invaluable if you start making mistakes later on.
After clearing a number of blocks you'll get a big "Level Up!" message and the speed of block delivery will increase and different coloured magnet blocks will start to appear. If you stick a matching magnet block of a different colour at the end of a chain all the blocks in the chain will become "bad blocks" which can only be cleared by destroying blocks adjacent to them. Bonus multipliers are granted when clearing chains of blocks in combos. One of the skills expert players will learn over time is how to set up combos through staggering the dropping of blocks across different vertical levels and setting up cascades around conductor blocks fading out of existence and/or bad blocks being destroyed.
In addition to the endless Normal Mode, the solo player has a couple of score attack modes on offer: one time-based and the other with a limited number of blocks with the goal in each being to achieve the highest score possible given a fixed game duration. Multiplayer offers some interesting variety in the form of battle and co-op modes for two players and free-for-all and team modes if you can get even more players together. All of these are the same as the solo game in presentation and gameplay. The co-operative and team modes see players working a single game board, but alternating turns placing the blocks. It requires communication to plans moves between players as well as paying close attention to whose turn it is. The only clue you'll have that you're up is the box for Player 1 (or 2) on the screen being highlighted. This can make for some confusion if you end up in a tight spot at higher levels and don't know whose turn it is! Battle Mode is your typical split screen affair with each player having their own game happening; whenever one player clears a chain of blocks bad blocks are dropped onto their opponents' conveyors contributing to some frantic gameplay.
Recording of scores is local with separate leader boards for the solo and multiplayer modes. A benefit of not using player profiles is that the winner of a Battle game gets to record their name for the Battle leader board. It's worth noting when putting in your name (up to 8 characters) that the final flashing character is not recorded, so be sure to press / to commit your initial before pressing to save the score (some on-screen guidance would have been appreciated).
Ultimately the consistency of the experience is the game's strength and its weakness. Unlike many puzzle games there are no different stages or new mechanics introduced further on in the game. Unless you're playing one of the score attack modes it's very much like Tetris in that you just keep on playing as long as you can. Whilst it might seem petty to pick on a lack of Wi-Fi leaderboards, in a crowded WiiWare market where other games in the same price range are using them to promote replay via bragging rights it does stand out as a notable omission. In a less-polished game this would mean Magnetis might not be good enough for many, but it looks nice and sounds even better.
The entire game has a strong arcade feel to it; not just in terms of the gameplay, but the presentation of the menus. There are no player profiles; no use of Miis. You could shift the menu choices from the lower left corner to the centre of the screen, take out the config and "how to play" selection, add an attract mode and drop this game into your local arcade (if they still existed) quite easily. The How to Play screens are excerpted directly from the Operations Guide (and sadly have the same major typo of swapping the label for the right magnet and conductor block, though it's pretty clear which is which by looking at them) and lay out the gameplay as above -- there are no tutorials, but the game starts out gently so even the how-to is unnecessary.
The blocks appear to be pumped out of a big machine in some kind of factory. Background colours are slightly muted, but the magnet blocks are quite vibrant yellows, blues and greens. Grey conductor blocks light up when connected to a chain with pulsing colours giving the impression of electrons flowing through them. When you close a chain the blocks explode with a little flash and display the points awarded. Likewise when the Normal game ends due to the machinery being blocked up the screen whites out and then grey vapour effects are overlaid; implying a massive explosion. Multipliers for combos are big and bombastic as is the Level Up! announcement. The game is presented pillar-boxed in the centre with convex sides giving the impression of a vertical arcade CRT -- the whole effect is that of a 50s cartoon meeting an 80s arcade game. It's not the flashiest of games in the special effects department, but the visual presentation is definitely going beyond the basics.
The visuals may be pleasing, but the audio department is really what elevates this game from competent to must-have for puzzle fans. Sound effects have a nice industrial quality fitting the factory setting with blocks clanking down in metallic fashion and explosions of blocks and the final ending sounding like breaking machinery -- very nice. The music is possibly amongst the best you'll hear on WiiWare and if the developers would be so kind as to offer it for sale on it's own we can guarantee at least one purchase will be made (do you take PayPal?). The track for the normal game gives the impression of being several songs but is really one long ambient techno recording. The funky soundtrack for the other solo modes wouldn't be out of place in a 1970s film and the quality of the recordings included will make you think there's a CD playing along, it's really that good.
Magnetis offers a competent core gameplay mechanic that is both intuitive and provides enough depth to keep players coming back for more. The lack of variety in the gameplay and omission of online leaderboards will take the shine off replay value for some, but the visual polish and outstanding soundtrack definitely make up for it and ensure Magnetis will find a place in every puzzle fan's collection.