Ever since Tetris introduced gamers to the joys of skydiving shapes, block-dropping puzzlers have fallen into place on nearly every console and handheld under the sun, and for good reason: they're simple to learn, endlessly replayable, and - when done right - utterly addicting. Seeking to fill a simian-sized gap in the Wii U's digital library, newly-minted developer Log Games has brought a primate-themed twist on the falling-block formula to the eShop with Puzzle Monkeys. It's not much to look at, but it's what's inside that counts, and Puzzle Monkeys packs some surprisingly unique mechanics into a fun little budget-priced package.
Puzzle Monkeys has two main modes of play, somewhat uncreatively named 'Mode A' and 'Mode B'. Mode A plays the most like a traditional falling-block game - or more precisely, like a mashup of several of them. Like Tetris, you'll guide and rotate blocks as they fall from the top to the bottom of the screen, positioning and combining them carefully to avoid a game-ending pileup. Like Puyo Puyo, you'll have several different colours of blocks to work with and, like Lumines, these blocks come packaged in 2x2 squares. As per Columns, same-coloured blocks will disappear if you can line up three or more in a vertical, horizontal, or diagonal line. And finally like Dr. Mario, your primary goal in each round is to clear a set number of pre-placed blocks (here, 'Monkey Blocks') off the screen.
Puzzle Monkeys isn't all borrowed concepts, however, and Mode A introduces a unique mechanic that shakes things up quite a bit. Each corner of the GamePad's mirrored display holds a different colour cube - red, green, yellow or blue - and tapping any one of those colour zones will make all blocks of the corresponding colour disappear from the square that's currently on its way down. It's a simple concept, but it makes a huge difference in how you play the game; provided you can think fast enough and factor in gravity's toll on the newly-wayward pieces, it gives you an incredible amount of control over how the blocks stack up, and pulling off precision combos using your block-chopping power feels great.
As unique as this mechanic is, there's an initial sense that it's not explored as fully as it could have been - you can breeze through the early levels without needing to use it at all, and the primarily horizontal playing field takes much of the pressure off. But airborne block-breaking becomes increasingly important as the difficulty (and speed) ramps up, and even more so in the semi-secret mode, 'Mode A+'. Unlocked by either finishing Level 10 of Mode A or clearing 500 Monkey Blocks, here rows of Monkey Blocks will push up periodically from the bottom of the screen, significantly upping the challenge for confident players.
Mode B is a different beast altogether, and is controlled entirely with the touchscreen. The goal is still to clear away the Monkey Blocks in each level by matching three or more of a kind, but instead of guiding groups of blocks as they fall, here, a series of single blocks parades across the top of the screen from right to left, assembly line style. Tapping any of the coloured cubes in the corners of the GamePad will eliminate all blocks of that colour from the conga line, and cause the remaining ones to fall straight down onto the blocks below; they'll also plummet if the leftmost sliding block reaches the end of the screen.
With less control over the blocks, arranging them the way you'd like becomes much trickier - you'll need to think 'backwards' in terms of which colour you're eliminating, and juggle both positions and timing along the line as you look for an opportunity to drop. It feels a bit like rubbing your belly and patting your head at the same time, and - especially on higher speeds - it's seriously tough. While this makes for a very different game to Mode A, it doesn't necessarily translate into more fun - Mode B is definitely enjoyable in small bursts, and players looking to prove their puzzling skills will relish the challenge, but we found ourselves playing Mode A much more overall.
In terms of gameplay, Puzzle Monkeys feels remarkably fresh, but it's unfortunately dragged down by a presentation that's anything but. In the touchscreen-only menus and the static, pre-rendered backgrounds, the game gives off a late 90's CG feel that recalls the awkward growing pains of the 32-bit era, while the solid-colour 2D blocks and UI elements could be borrowed from any low-budget browser game. The monkey faces are cute, as are the explosive block-breaking animations, but on the whole the game feels sadly generic - in fact, beyond the smiling simian faces and a mild tropical theme, the monkey motif doesn't play into the presentation much at all. The soundtrack is more interesting, with three appreciably distinct tracks: an uptempo, danceable theme, a surprisingly sombre synth number, and an upbeat melody that calls to mind the cheery chiptunes of Dr. Mario or Wario's Woods.
The controls are also nice and polished - there's even the traditional 'hard drop' assigned to 'Up' on the D-Pad in Mode A - and though the combination of button-based and Simon-style touchscreen inputs take a bit of getting used to, once it clicks it feels great. Unfortunately, Puzzle Monkeys' reliance on the GamePad's touchscreen means there aren't any multiplayer modes. Online leaderboards will help extend the replay value for score-minded players, but the traditional junk-block-trading of multiplayer puzzlers is definitely missed.
With two very different modes of play, innovative mechanics and a budget price, Puzzle Monkeys packs a thoroughly respectable puzzle punch. The lacklustre presentation is a turnoff, as is the absence of any head-to-head play, but veteran puzzle gamers will still get a kick out of the twists it brings to the standard falling-block formula. Players willing to overlook the rough-and-ready packaging will find plenty of genuinely fun primate puzzling here.