You can hardly swing a stylus without hitting a match-three game on the 3DS eShop these days, but so far the relentless tide of phoned-in puzzlers has mostly sidestepped the Wii U’s digital storefront. And while Chests O’ Booty might at first look like a pirate-themed take on more of the same, it’s actually a surprisingly unique puzzle game. It’s rough around the edges — and some questionable design decisions drag it down — but if you’re a puzzle fan looking for something new to plunder, it might be worth a punt.
Chests O’ Booty plays a bit like a cross between Bejeweled and Threes - you’re working to rearrange coins on a gridded board, but instead of eliminating them by matching, you score points by combining adjacent pieces through simple math. Coins come in five denominations — 1, 5, 10, 50, and 100 — and pressing the ‘A’ button with your cursor on a coin will automatically collapse any adjacent currency of the same value into the next highest unit. If you see five ‘1’ coins touching, for instance, you can click any one of them to collapse them to a ‘5’; two ‘5’s can combine to make a ’10’, five ’10’s make a ’50’, and so on. If you manage to merge five ‘100’ coins, you’ll end up with a gem — pair up two gems, and they’ll leave the board and grant you a substantial bag of bonus points.
It’s a relatively straightforward concept, but there’s a good deal of strategy involved in choosing which of the adjacent coins to click on when combining your change. The resulting piece will end up taking the spot of the token you tapped, so planning ahead and setting yourself up for future moves is key — crafting a ’50’ coin won’t do you any good if it’s several tiles away from a twin. The ‘B’ button can be used to knock out individual coins, so there’s room for some post-hoc rearranging, but it still takes practice, and the process makes for a thoughtfully tricky puzzle game — trading your way up from a pile of ‘1’s to a pair of gems is always satisfying.
There are two main modes in which to sort your silver: Casual and Timed. Casual lets you play as long as you’d like on an endless board, while ostensibly shooting for a high score. It’s fun, but the setup feels incomplete, as it’s lacking an essential ingredient for puzzle gameplay: pressure. The board will continue to fill with new coins at steady intervals, and if there’s no room they’ll simply bounce off into the water. There’s no equivalent to ‘going over the line’, as in Tetris or Puyo-Puyo, and since you can punch out problematic pieces with the ‘B’ button, there’s no way to run out of moves, as in Bejeweled. In other words, you literally can’t lose.
That’s not necessarily a drawback in and of itself, of course — it does make for a relaxing experience where you’re free to puzzle over the math at your own pace, and the trading-sequence gameplay still provides its own sense of quiet satisfaction. It’s disappointing, however, in that it makes high scores essentially meaningless, and dependent on play time just as much as skill — if not more so. It also means that individual sessions lack any sense of momentum; you’re just combining coins until you choose not to any more, at which point you’ll move your cursor over to the ‘X’ icon and tap yourself out — a decidedly anticlimactic end.
Thankfully, things are a bit better in the Timed mode. Here you’ll start with 45 seconds on the clock, and try to stay afloat as long as possible, earning extra time by clearing gems and aiming to hit the highest score you can. Unfortunately, while Casual mode is devoid of any pressure at all, this mode turns the knob past ‘high’ and then twists it off entirely. You’ll only pick up a paltry five second extension for each set of gems cleared — an achievement which routinely took us upwards of 30 seconds in itself — and it’s easy enough to run through the entire timer without managing the feat even once. Selectable difficulty levels with different time limits would have been very welcome — as it stands, Timed mode is essentially a 45-second burst for all but the best buccaneers.
If you prefer direct competition to racing the clock, there’s also a two-player Versus mode, which lets you pit your coin-combining skills against a Player Two. Each player has their own half-sized playing field to work with, and every time you clear away a pair of gems a skull coin tied to your board will rise from the depths. Each coin lets you fire off one of three nasty weapons: a bomb, which blasts away one of your opponent’s pegs, a mug of beer, which plunges their playing field underwater and reverses their controls, or a coin-flip, which turns random tokens on their board into garbage blocks. You’ll win by knocking out all three of your opponent’s pegs, so clearing gems and sending out bombs is the name of the game.
Versus mode is fun, and a nice change of pace, but we also ran into a particularly unfortunate control bug: we were unable to actually activate any of the weapons — including the bomb — using the GamePad. Our second player had no trouble blasting away at our board using a Wii Remote, and by pairing a Wii U Pro controller we were eventually able to fight back, but no matter how many times we tried, clicking on the weapon icons using the GamePad’s buttons simply did nothing. Since the bomb is needed to knock off your opponent’s pegs, this essentially renders the mode unplayable — or at least unwinnable by Player One — without two controllers in addition to the GamePad.
The GamePad can be used for off-TV play, but on either screen Chests O’ Booty isn’t much to look at. There’s a cool effect that sees the main menu options bobbing around in the water before you begin, but that’s about as ambitious as it gets; everything else feels decidedly utilitarian, and the clip-art coins and simple 3D models give off an early-aughts shareware vibe. That said, it does have a nice, calm atmosphere, and the single background of a hanging lantern in front of the sea is eerily serene. It’s also remarkably restrained with the pirate motif, especially considering its name — outside of the manual text, there’s no pirate-speak to speak of, and not a trace of the typical skull-and-crossbones corsair clichés. The soundtrack gives a similarly subtle nod to the theme, consisting of a few short orchestral loops that summon up images of stormy seas rather than shipboard swashbuckling.
With its unique mashup of matching and math, Chests O’ Booty could be just the thing for puzzle gamers looking for a new experience, but a mediocre presentation, design issues, and a lack of polish keep it from truly delivering on that promise. Still, the basic gameplay can be relatively satisfying, and there’s certainly some relaxing fun to be had aboard. If you’re fine with its flaws, Chests O’ Booty offers up a decent diversion and something different for just a few doubloons.