Mario is certainly no stranger to puzzle games, but that doesn't make his pairing with Japanese megahit Puzzle & Dragons any less unexpected, what with Pokémon being available and all. But after going a few rounds with Puzzle & Dragons: Super Mario Bros. Edition last week, I have to say that I'm intrigued by Nintendo's latest collaboration.
First announced back in early January, Puzzle & Dragons: Super Mario Bros. Edition is an adaptation of GungHo Entertainment's mobile puzzle game, which mates Shin Megami Tensei-like monster collection and dungeon crawling with match-three gameplay. As expected, Puzzle & Dragons: Super Mario Bros. Edition swaps the original's dragons for characters from the Mario franchise, including the brothers themselves.
Rather than diving into dungeons, though, Puzzle & Dragons: Super Mario Bros. Edition plays out somewhat like the more recent New Super Mario Bros. games. Navigation is accomplished via the familiar overworld map, at the end of which awaits one of the Koopalings. Stages consist of a series of encounters with Goombas, Koopa Troopas, and other familiar Mario Bros. enemies, all of whom have their own strengths and weaknesses.
Part of what makes Puzzle & Dragons interesting is that it's not your typical Bejeweled clone. When you grab one of the orbs — represented here by stars, fire flowers, and hearts — a timer begins. In that time, you can use your orb to nudge other orbs into three-of-a-kind groups, hopefully finishing with a massive combo. Puzzle & Dragon's unique approach is an immediate improvement over typical match-three gameplay, reducing the impact of luck and forcing you to carefully plan your combos.
Adding another layer to Puzzle & Dragons' strategy are the elemental weaknesses — another element that should be familiar to Pokémon fans (seriously, this should have been a Pokémon game, but we'll roll with it). The elemental weaknesses make party selection crucial, since different characters have skills capable of changing the element of the orbs. There are six characters to a party in Puzzle & Dragons, with each character having their own element. Thankfully, Puzzle & Dragons let's you know ahead of time what elements to expect, making it easier to plan accordingly.
As you can tell, there's quite a lot to Puzzle & Dragons. I haven't even mentioned the character evolutions, which makes it possible to combine two party members to level them up, or to combine them with an item to make them more powerful. It was this element that contributed to the immense popularity of the original mobile version; though, thankfully, there are no microtransactions in this spinoff. Add in a dramatically improved presentation, and you have the makings of a very strong puzzle game for the Nintendo 3DS.
Over here at USgamer, we've been fans of Puzzle & Dragons for quite a while now, giving it a glowing review in 2013 and listing it among our 50 iPhone and iPad Games We Just Can't Delete. In his original review, Jaz wrote, "While Puzzle and Dragons is clearly not for everyone, there's a reason why it's a cultural phenomenon. Its mash-up of genres is fiendishly fun, deceptively deep and hugely addictive — which is why it's quietly become one of the biggest gaming success stories of the last year."
For my part, it's been a while since I last played Puzzle & Dragons, but I'm starting to remember what I found appealing about it. As puzzle games go, it really does a good job of seamlessly mixing monster acquisition, RPG elements, and match-three puzzles — components that could have overwhelmed each other in the wrong hands. And much as I complain about Puzzle & Dragons not being a Pokémon game, Mario's menagerie of Boos, Koopa Troopas, and Goombas are actually a pretty good fit for a game like this. If for some reason you don't like them, though, Nintendo is also including the original 3DS port — Puzzle & Dragons Z — for free.
In many ways, Puzzle & Dragons feels like the natural evolution of Puzzle Quest, which was very popular on the Nintendo DS in its day. Match-three games haven't exactly been rare since then, but none have captured my imagination in the same way as Puzzle Quest once did. Puzzle & Dragons: Super Mario Bros. Edition is the first one to have a chance, which makes me all the more interested to play more when it arrives in May.