Although many people assume that Zuma was the first game to feature match-three marble shooting, the honour actually goes to Puzz Loop, a 1998 arcade release by Pang creator Mitchell Corporation. Sequels on the DS and WiiWare have since followed, and now there’s a fresh entry in the series on the 3DS eShop - not that you’d know at first glance, as Tokyo Crash Mobs tries its hardest to look as little like its forerunners as possible.
Instead of shooting shiny marbles at other shiny marbles, you’re hurling irritating scenesters at other irritating scenesters. The pretence behind the game’s barmy plot is that you’re trying to overcome queues for certain events, such as the opening of a fancy restaurant or waiting in line for your school lunch. Scenesters come in different coloured suits, and as you might expect, you have to match three or more to clear them from play. This is achieved by aiming with the stylus on the 3DS touch screen - which displays an image of the line as dots, as well as showing the colour of the next scenester you’ll have to hurl. However, you’ll find your attention focused mainly on the uppermost display, as this shows the line and where your next shot will land.
Tokyo Crash Mobs features two main characters in the form of Grace and Savannah. While the core gameplay remains the same - you’re attempting to remove all the scenesters by matching them - the two girls have different delivery methods. Grace is all about throwing scenesters, and can lob them over curves in the line to hit distant sections. Savannah prefers to roll her hapless individuals into play - a more direct method (and the one closest to the original Puzz Loop gameplay), but one that means she can’t hit far-away sections of the line without waiting a short time for the targets to leap into the air.
To further complicate matters, you have to deal with elements such as queue-jumpers (who can be dealt with by hitting them with a scenester before they cut in), exploding bomb balls (these stun your character, but if you can hit them before that happens they remove a few targets from the line) and - on later levels - dual lines. This latter feature really ramps up the challenge, as you have to keep your eyes on two lines at once.
Thankfully, you’re not totally alone when it comes to dealing with the scenester menace. Special items come into play, such as a barrier which pauses the movement of the line, a ball of yarn which takes out multiple targets and an umbrella which changes the colour of these pests for a short time, making it easier to form combination chains (or “cliques” as the game calls them).
As well as the standard levels, you also have “Team Battles” which require the use of both Grace and Savannah’s unique talents. These matches are slightly different from the norm as they’re viewed from directly behind the protagonists, and involve hitting coloured ninjas before they get chance to inflict any damage on our lovely duo. Although the entire game uses a 3D effect, it’s in this mode where it really comes to life - to be honest, during the standard levels, you’re best off playing with 3D switched off, as it can make it hard to aim.
Indeed, aiming your shots is something of a bind throughout the entire game. Because you’re dealing with people-shaped projectiles and not easily-identifiable round marbles, actually judging where you shot will land isn’t always straightforward - especially when you’re trying to hit a bend in the line, where scenesters overlap and make it hard to judge the fall of your shot. Using a combination of the top-screen and bottom-screen mitigates this problem to an extent, but never totally removes it.
The game’s control issues are made even more obvious as you move into the later levels, where the already stern difficulty ramps up dramatically. An entirely perfect performance is required to pass some of the latter challenges, and success often hinges on using special items effectively. The small margin for error means that your shots have to be incredibly accurate; when the action hots up, it’s sometimes frustratingly hard to place the scenesters where you want them to be.
Alongside Story Mode there’s Challenge Mode, which is essentially where you’ll be spending the majority of your time once you’ve finished all of the levels. Here, you’re seeking to knock out 999 scenesters before they overwhelm your character. As score-based games go it’s good fun, not to mention immensely challenging - actually getting rid of all 999 targets is anything but easy. However, its long-term appeal is limited and it won’t keep you coming back forever.
With its mixture of digitised sprites and flat, 2D environments, Tokyo Crash Mobs is attractive but has a few rough edges; the aforementioned 3D effect looks good, but is impractical when you’re actually playing. The sound is functional, with some humdrum tunes and spot effects; the constant cries and shouts of the scenesters are initially amusing, but they quickly become very annoying after prolonged play. Mercifully, you can disable the voices in the options menu, as well as place bold, coloured symbols over the heads of targets to make it easier to spot potential matches.
Finally, there’s a Movie Maze, which allows you to view all of the live-action cutscenes from the game - provided you’ve already unlocked them, of course. It’s impressive that the developer has managed to include so much full motion video in this release, but to be honest the videos themselves are rather creepy, and eminently skippable. Aside from raising a wry smile the first time you see them, they add nothing to the overall experience.
You’ve got to admire Mitchell Corporation’s boldness in giving its successful Puzz Loop formula a fresh lick of paint - Tokyo Crash Mobs is quirky and unique, with a sense of humour which sets it apart from similar puzzle titles. However, the occasionally awkward controls and the removal of the neat, round marbles take the edge off the experience; the former makes it hard to aim, and the latter means you often can’t see where gaps are in the line. These two problems combine to make Tokyo Crash Mobs mildly frustrating at times — at least in the original Puzz Loop you could blame your misjudged shots on yourself — whereas here it feels, at times, as if you’re fighting with the game.
Despite its problems, Tokyo Crash Mobs remains an entertaining and enjoyable romp, and there’s more than enough of the classic Puzz Loop brilliance to make it a worthwhile download, especially if you’re already a card-carrying fan of Mitchell Corporation's work. It’s just a shame that it doesn’t improve dramatically on the existing entries in the series, because this is one franchise that deserves to have a genuine renaissance.