Balloon Pop Remix, the latest offering from developer UFO Interactive, is a stylus-based variation on the "bubble-pop" puzzle theme. You slide the stylus over two or more adjacent balloons of any colour to pop them, and as the balloons from below float up to take their place, any matching colour combination of three or more will pop as well. It's a simple concept, but it's a classic formula for a reason, and this title wraps it in a wonderfully upbeat presentation to make a thoroughly enjoyable eShop experience.
The main attraction in Balloon Pop Remix is the Story mode. Here you'll follow the plight of a jellybean-like alien who, having crash-landed on earth, must recover the far-flung components of its spaceship over twelve stages. On the surface, any balloon-popping exploits you might engage in wouldn't have much to do with this, but the puzzle action on the bottom screen is integrated nicely with our hero's journey on the top screen. The number of balloons you can pop at a time is restricted by your "Mana" gauge on the left-hand side of the bottom screen. It decreases slowly with time and refills as you pop balloons and score combos, and has three levels that affect the speed of your adorable alien up top as it makes its way to a lost spaceship part at the end of the level. With the Mana gauge at its highest, the alien runs as fast as its little legs can go; in the middle level, it ambles along, and at the lowest level, it sits and waits patiently for you to start racking up some combos. If your Mana rests on empty for too long, it's game over.
It's easy enough to plan chains of two or three pops, but it's also quite common to create truly spectacular combos by accident, as serendipitously coloured balloons rise up from the screen; it's the puzzle game equivalent of holding 'right' to pull-off a dazzling, high-speed escape in a Sonic the Hedgehog game, and it feels great. New items and gameplay elements are introduced as you progress through the story, which helps keep all the popping feeling fresh, and there's also a timed "Mission" in each stage, where you'll be tasked with popping a certain number of one balloon colour before the timer runs out. It's a fun way to change up the gameplay in the relatively lengthy levels, and the reward for successful completion is an endearing accessory for your extraterrestrial friend: hats of every kind, but also funkier items like an alien-sized potato sack to hop along in.
Puzzle mode, where you're given a pre-set arrangement of balloons to pop within a certain number of moves, is lots of fun and a great way to get the hang of the game and learn how to make longer combos. There are 100 puzzles to clear, which should keep you busy for a while, and they're a nice alternative to the main game when you've only got a few minutes. There's also an Endless mode, where you can choose a stage from the Story mode and play (along with any accessories earned in Story mode) until you run out of Mana, and four mini-games to unlock, though they're overly simplistic and not likely to hold your interest for long.
While it's not pushing any polygons, it has to be said that Balloon Pop Remix looks fantastic. The top screen in particular is a wonderful example of how to use the 3DS's stereoscopic effect to the fullest in a 2D game: shimmering, level-specific flourishes such as shooting stars, flowers, raindrops and lens-flares float and zoom across the screen at different depth levels, with celebratory confetti joining the fray for larger combos. It looks brilliant and works perfectly here; since you spend 99% of the time looking at the bottom screen, it's essentially like having a fireworks show in your peripheral vision as you play.
The music is also a treat, with cheery melodies combining synthesizers and handbells into the kind of soundtrack you might expect to hear at a theme park on the alien's home planet. The songs approach the catchy standards of classic Puzzle Bobble tunes, and will be stuck in your head long after your 3DS is tucked away. There's a nice variety of both music and visuals over the different stages, and it's all very 'kiddie', in a good way.
Balloon Pop Remix is a lovely little puzzle game, and what's here is wonderful, but there are a few omissions worth noting. First, popping these balloons is entirely a single-player experience, which is a shame simply because local multiplayer would have been so much fun. It's easy to imagine classic multiplayer puzzle game elements, like sending your opponent "junk" or countdown balloons, working well here. Second, for a puzzle game, Balloon Pop Remix does a decidedly lackluster job at keeping high-scores. The top five scores for Story mode and Endless mode are saved, but that's it — no initialing scores to claim them, and no differentiating between the various levels (with decidedly different gameplay elements) within either mode. And finally, there are no difficulty levels to choose between. While the standard mode provides a good challenge, it would've been nice for hardcore puzzle fans to crank it up a notch and, equally, for younger players to be able to play through this very kid-friendly game at a more kid-friendly difficulty.
Balloon Pop Remix shouldn't be overlooked. In fact, it's a shame that it has such a generic-sounding name, because the solid gameplay and utterly charming presentation make this very well done puzzler stand out more than the title would suggest. It's a bit on the pricey side at $7.99, and if multiplayer or high-score keeping are deal-breakers for you then you'll have to look elsewhere, but otherwise puzzle fans looking for a new eShop fix will have a blast.