The eShop is rife with puzzle games, and it’s understandable as to why; they’re fairly simple in design and can provide a huge amount of entertainment to an incredibly broad audience. Some of them can be a little bit monotonous or shameless clones of another game, but you’ll sometimes find something just a little bit different without being quite as mind-bending as Wario’s Woods.
Pokémon Puzzle Challenge takes place in the Johto region that's famous from Pokémon Gold and Silver, and features many of the iconic critters from that generation of games, such as Cyndaquil, Totodile, and Chikorita. Of course there’s the obligatory appearance of Pikachu as well, but we’d be surprised if the loveable red-cheeked menace wasn’t here. One could be forgiven for thinking that this is just a generic puzzle game with a Pokémon skin slapped over the top, meanwhile, but that’s not entirely the case.
The basic premise of Pokémon Puzzle Challenge is to switch coloured blocks along a horizontal axis so that they line up to make three or more in a row. As you’re clearing blocks the level slowly rises revealing a new row of blocks every time, which you can also speed up by pressing the B button. If that sounds simple to you, you’re right. If that sounds easy to you, you couldn’t be more wrong.
There are a number of different modes, most of which have a difficulty setting which can be set to Easy, Normal, or Hard. These don’t actually increase the rate of the flowing blocks as you might assume – that's handled by a separate ‘Speed’ option – but rather increase the number of coloured blocks you have to work with as well as presenting you with more complicated arrangements of blocks. This is a nice touch, as you can still feel like you’re being challenged at slower speeds, and you’re gradually eased into the chaos that occurs at higher levels rather than just being thrown straight in.
The modes are nicely varied as well. There’s the typical Marathon mode where you simply play until you fail or simply lose patience, there’s the Line Clear mode which tasks you with clearing a certain number of rows so that there are no blocks above a previous line, and then there’s Time Zone mode, where you have a set amount of time in which to attain the highest possible score you can. These are the simplest of the six modes, as the others take on significantly more detailed elements.
Challenge mode is easily the option that has the closest connection to the Pokémon series. You fight gym leaders one after another and ‘attack’ their Pokémon by clearing lines and creating combos; you can also line up special blocks with exclamation marks on them to hit them extra hard. Once their HP is depleted you move on to the next opponent. In Puzzle mode you’re presented with a specific set of blocks and a limited number of moves in which to clear them — these start off simple but rapidly become taxing, and even though the first ten are almost laughably easy there are fifty more to put you through your paces, and put you through your paces they will. Garbage! mode is much like Marathon, except every so often huge blocks of ‘garbage’ will be dumped down on top of your blocks and you have to clear them by creating a line of blocks that connects with them. They don’t just disappear once you’ve done this, instead they turn into normal blocks and attempt to choke your cleverly-planned arrangements. All of the modes in the game are nicely unique compared to one another, and allow a vast variety of gameplay despite the basic premise remaining the same.
The presentation in this title is rather lovely; the colours are bold and clear, the blocks are all clearly distinguishable from one another and the text is easy to read. Whenever you play you choose a Pokémon which sets the background for your game, which is a nice touch but does very little; you can unlock additional Pokémon by completing undisclosed challenges, but it’s purely aesthetic. All of the game modes are unlocked at the start, which is good, but unfortunately the 3DS still does not have compatibility to allow multiplayer on some Virtual Console titles, so two-player mode is strictly unusable. The sound in this game is excellent, taking some of the best tracks from the first and second generation of Pokémon and re-orchestrating them to make them more dynamic and enjoyable.
Pokémon Puzzle Challenge is a deceptively meaty experience with plenty of content to keep you occupied for hours at a time, or you can simply dip into it every so often for a few minutes if that’s what you prefer. The Pokémon theme is not a complete necessity, but it does allow for the Challenge mode to have a bit more substance to it. All in all this is a very solid title, and for the price you really can’t go wrong if you’re a puzzle fan.