Not all Neo Geo games are created equal. Although the majority of titles on SNK’s system offer great blasts of arcade goodness, there were also a number of Neo Geo games back in the day that didn’t quite meet the high standards set by other gems like The King Of Fighters or Metal Slug. Puzzled, sadly, is a perfect example of this.
Its plot is unique, at least. There’s a village full of men and a village full of women, and they used to always be at war until the gods decided “time to pack this in” and built a ruddy big wall separating them. The villages are now bored of this set-up, so they each send a representative – a young lad and a young lass – up in hot air balloons in the hope that they’ll meet each other at the top and try to convince the gods together that the wall should be torn down.
An original story, then, but if the resulting game looks like Tetris, that’s because it is. Well, sort of. The basic gist is the same: you have seven different Tetrominos dropping from the sky at random and if you can form a complete line with them, that line will disappear. You know this, you don’t need to have it explained to you. The difference, however, is the presence of the aforementioned hot air balloon.
You see, the game’s made up of 50 stages and at the bottom of each stage is a balloon – either a round pink one or one with a face drawn on it, depending on whether you chose to play as the boy or the girl. This balloon starts each level surrounded by a bunch of blocks which are preventing it from floating upwards. Until you can free it, they’re stuck there.
The aim, then, isn’t just to keep clearing lines as is normally the case in Tetris, but to clear the blocks surrounding the balloon so you can make a big enough gap for it to escape and float up past the top of the screen. The longer you take to do this, the faster the blocks will drop so it’s in your best interests to free the balloon pronto.
The problem is, many of the levels have horrendous block layouts that make doing this a massive chore. It’s possible to spend a good 10 minutes on what should be a fairly straightforward level because the blocks are laid out in such a way that it takes you an absolute age to work your way through them.
On top of this, the controls are awkward. Whereas most good Tetris games and clones have two rotate buttons so you can turn pieces clockwise or anti-clockwise, Puzzled only has a single button: it’s anti-clockwise and that’s that. This makes it far more fiddly than it needs to be, and fitting some blocks in when the speed increases can be massively frustrating, especially given that the game’s controls don’t feel too responsive in general. This coupled with the counter-intuitive stage design means players are in for an annoying time, and even Tetris experts can expect to die a lot as they find themselves trying to slog through poorly-arranged block scatterings.
As one of the earliest Neo Geo games, Puzzled is also far and away the most basic-looking offering in the system’s library. Most of Hamster Corporation’s Neo Geo games on Switch at least do a great job of representing the visual glory of arcade gaming during the ‘90s, but if someone was to tell you this this was a Master System game you wouldn’t bat an eyelid: it looks functional enough but makes no attempt to push the boat out, or even raise the anchor.
The one main thing going for it is that, as a puzzle game, it’s one of the better fits for the High-Score Mode present in all of Hamster’s Switch conversions. That said, Magical Drop II is a far better Neo Geo puzzler and it’s also available on the Switch, so that should really be your main port of call.
At its core, Puzzled is essentially a Tetris knock-off that tries to do something clever with it but in doing so removes what makes Tetris so enjoyable. Its poor stage design leads to some frustrating moments and the more you play it the more each level feels like a chore rather than an exciting step forward. The only thing we’re Puzzled about is why this was chosen for the Switch treatment ahead of far more deserving Neo Geo games.