Ghost Mania is the WiiWare reincarnation of an iPhone game called Spooky Spirits: Puzzle Drop!! This new version of the game features updated graphics and sound in addition to redesigned levels and an additional multiplayer mode, but was it worth exhuming those old bones? Is there life in this one yet, or is it an emotionless, shambling zombie? And, most importantly, will we keep making spooky monster puns throughout the entire review? Keep reading and find out!
First: the good. The presentation is pretty great, with crisp and colourful graphics. The 3D models of the two characters you will choose from (an irrelevant choice, as far as we can tell, as it doesn't seem to affect gameplay) seem a little at odds with the flat children's comic book style the game displays elsewhere, but they're still nice enough. And the music, almost surprisingly, is of a much higher quality than one might expect from such an inauspicious little puzzle game. As a visual and aural package, one can't really fault Ghost Mania for much.
Unfortunately, however, Ghost Mania isn't a painting or a soundtrack; it's a video game. And it's a flawed one.
For a puzzler, Ghost Mania spends a good amount of time being daringly unintuitive. We spent several minutes up front dropping coloured blocks onto like-coloured blocks, and wondering why they were never disappearing. It certainly isn't easy for a puzzle game to confuse seasoned gamers like us to the point that we don't have any concept of what we're supposed to do, but Ghost Mania managed it, for whatever that's worth.
It turns out that the number of coloured blocks you chain together means nothing unless you also drop a similarly-coloured, spirit-containing block onto them. This frees the spirit, eliminates the mass of blocks of that color, and assigns you points based upon how many blocks were eliminated at once. Whew.
This leads to an interesting complication to the standard "match three / four / whatever" puzzle game formula... or, at least it should. More often than not it becomes a hindrance to really enjoying the game. Unlike Tetris or Dr. Mario, for example, failure isn't necessarily the result of poorly managed pieces; it can be the inevitable result of an uncooperative random number generator.
For example, if the game sees it fit to overload you with green pieces to the point that the entire playing field is full of them, and yet never gives you a green block with a spirit trapped inside, then you won't be able to destroy the ever-growing green mass, and you'll fail the level. And, yes, Tetris and Dr. Mario may often feel like they are unfairly withholding the one piece you need to survive, but getting into a life or death situation in those games is always down to mismanaged pieces in the first place. Here, it's not a matter of block management; you simply can't do anything with the green pieces until the game randomly provides you with the one block that will let you detonate it. If that block doesn't come, you have no choice but to overload your playing field and lose the game.
Of course, this might sound like an unfairly hypothetical criticism, but it actually happened to us within just a few games, and then it happened again later with blue blocks. When a puzzle game doesn't necessarily even provide you with the pieces you need to solve the puzzle, we've got problems.
There are several modes to choose from, though the core concept described above remains relatively consistent through all of them. There's an adventure mode, which sees you clearing successive levels by means of achieving a target score. This is also the only mode with any sense of story, as Tim and Becky (the two possible player characters) are retrieving spirits that snuck out of captivity while they were napping on the job. No attempt is made to flesh out the story any more than that, and we are glad for it.
There's also a puzzle mode, which will require the screen to be cleared of coloured blocks within a small number of drops. Unfortunately this isn't much fun, as the solutions are pretty strictly predetermined, and there's no room for experimentation. As a series of increasingly complex logic puzzles, this is effectively challenging, and it will require plenty of forward thinking and careful planning, but it's not likely to appeal to those who like their puzzle games a little more dynamic.
The endless mode is exponentially more rewarding, as the gameplay isn't interrupted periodically to announce that you've cleared a level, and – for the only time – Ghost Mania allows its players to gather their own momentum. It still suffers from the potential unfairness of the random number generator, but if there's any real fun to be had, it's here, and really this should have been the headlining mode of the game from the start.
The head-to-head multiplayer modes (unique to the WiiWare version of this game) are useful for extending Ghost Mania's appeal, and the mix of rules (from a race to release spirits to a more aggressive battle mode in which cleared blocks appear in the opponent's field) ensures interest for at least a few rounds, but, really, playing with a friend will just highlight even more strongly the central flaw of Ghost Mania: the lack of inspiring any real desire to keep playing.
It's important for a puzzle game to grab its audience by the collar and not let go. It's what keeps us fitting pieces together in a playing field, even though we know the game will never end; it's what keeps us starting the game back up every single time we fail; it's what causes us to keep seeing those shapes flying around when we close our eyes to go to sleep. It's necessary because puzzle games are nearly always superficial by design. They don't tell deep stories and they don't promise us great rewards for completion (if the game is even completable, that is.) They just offer us a great deal of simple, accessible fun, and that's what keeps gamers coming back.
Ghost Mania lacks that... ahem... spirit. It's not a bad game by any means, but it manages to feel inconsequential, and the feeling you'll get from playing with a friend won't be the desire to keep playing round after round, but the desire to dig out a more gripping puzzle game in its place.
Ghost Mania provides its audience with a charming visual presentation and some admittedly catchy music, but the gameplay experience is subpar, and the puzzles are not all that engaging. While there are bound to be those who are satisfied by this title, it's certainly not going to distract most gamers from their favorite examples of the genre for long. For all of its positive aspects, Ghost Mania fails to instill that "one more round..." feeling that the best puzzle games provide, and this download is destined to haunt your WiiWare collection as the grim and lonely specter of what might have been.