It’d be interesting to see what the gaming landscape would look like were it not for Alexey Pajitnov developing Tetris all those years ago, or indeed what would have happened if Nintendo hadn’t gotten in on the act when they did. The chances are that Xbox Live Arcade would certainly be a little lighter in terms of quantity, and some would argue a little better off in terms of quality at the same time. That isn’t to say that the likes of Bejewelled, Lumines and Super Puzzle Fighter aren’t great games however, but do we really need hundreds of variants on the same theme? Apparently we do, at roughly the rate of one per month, and Poker Smash is February 2008′s block-manipulating downloadable poster child.
Planet Puzzle… Smash?
If you’ve ever played a version of Planet Puzzle League (which in turn was based on the SNES classic Tetris Attack, which also ‘inspired’ bejewelled), then you’ll know what to expect here. Coloured blocks ascend the screen in five different rows, at an ever increasing speed depending on how long the player can last out. The object is to match three or more blocks of the same colour, which will then disappear and allow anything above to tumble into the gaps, creating combination chains if planned correctly. If any of the blocks reach the top of the screen, it’s game over.
In this instance, the left stick controls a highlight cursor, whilst the right controls the direction that you wish to move the chosen block. Blocks can only be shifted horizontally, but can be ‘jumped’ across gaps by holding the chosen direction for a longer period. Pulling the left trigger speeds up the rate at which the blocks are appearing from the bottom of the screen (useful at lower difficulties and for creating large chains), whilst the right trigger depletes a slow-motion timer, allowing you a breather when things get a little tight at the top of the screen.
A set number of ‘bombs’ are also available on the A button, which have the effect of removing a chosen card from the screen, allowing the column above to shift down one place. It’s a simple and elegant control scheme for an already proven concept, and works extremely well on the 360 pad.
Of course if that was all there was to the game, Nintendo would be on the phone to Microsoft’s lawyers within a few minutes, and so the twist here is combining the coloured-block system with that of a standard deck of playing cards. More specifically, the five cards needed to make up the highest hands in a traditional game of Poker.
This adds another dimension entirely. Whilst you can play the game entirely based on colour combinations (each colour corresponds to a specific type of card), the real depth lies within creating combinations of high-scoring poker hands. 3,4 and 5 of a kind are the most common, but the high scores are kept back for the likes of royal flushes and straights, which can be devilishly difficult to pull off successfully. Chaining together combinations requires an extreme amount of skill, and spotting all of the block patterns necessary to create a large ‘smash’ is nigh-on impossible in the beginning.
In time however, things begin to fall into place, and strategies open up. Creating three and four of a kind will eventually become something to avoid, and setting up chains and huge combinations becomes commonplace. This is a game of immense hidden depth, and practice will certainly reward those that can stick with the unrelenting initial difficulty curve. Puzzle mode is an excellent edition here, challenging the player with simply clearing all of the blocks of a particular setup, but teaching subtle tactics and combinations along the way.
Added to this is a robust and seemingly lag-free multiplayer mode, and some smooth presentational aspects. Indeed everything about the package seems polished to a high degree, from the ambient sound effects through the enthusiastic and oddly tuneful commentator. Subtle graphical hints are also commonplace, such as a slight glow from cards of the same suit whenever a high hand is possible, helping the player through the mid-level of play where I suspect many may hit a brick wall in terms of difficulty.
Hail to the King
For a sliding-block title then, Poker Smash acquits itself fairly well, and will definitely warrant extended play for those interested in the genre. Some may argue that the addition of playing card mechanics over-complicates what essentially amounts to a re-release of Planet Puzzle League, but for those that are so inclined, the extra layer of depth provides a rewarding and hellishly difficult challenge.
This may not be a game for the casual puzzlers out there, but then XBLA is chock-full of those anyway, and it’s nice to have a title of this calibre for those that wish to involve themselves a little more in the experience. An unexpected Smash, then.