Publisher: Namco Bandai
Developer: Namco Bandai
Release Date: November 14, 2006
Though Shigeru Miyamoto deserves all the credit in the world for his work at Nintendo, it pains me to see the late Gunpei Yokoi ignored by all but the hardcore gamers and gaming historians. Yokoi's legacy has been tainted by his involvement in the development of the Virtual Boy, but considering what he accomplished in the years before it, I am more than willing to give him a pass on it. During his years at Nintendo, Yokoi developed the Game & Watch series of LCD handhelds, not to mention the original Game Boy system. As the head of Nintendo's R&D1 group, Yokoi helped develop some of the most beloved games of all time, including Fire Emblem, Kid Icarus, and the first three entries in the Metroid series.
Gunpei Yokoi is also responsible for some of the best puzzle games of the last two decades. Dr. Mario and Tetris Attack (Panel de Pon) lead the pack, but one you may not have heard of is Gunpey. After leaving Nintendo in 1996, Yokoi oversaw the development of Bandai's WonderSwan system. While working on the system, he helped develop the concept for Gunpey, which was named in his honor when it was released alongside the WonderSwan in 1999, two years after his death. Gunpey never made its way onto another system, and the WonderSwan never made it to the States, nearly ensuring a life of obscurity for the title outside of Japan.
Until now, that is. Tetsuya Mizuguchi and Q Entertainment, current darlings of the puzzle genre, have reimagined the black-and-white puzzler for the brilliant color screen of the PlayStation Portable. Unlike the WonderSwan version, which required gamers to turn the system sideways to simulate a larger vertical viewing space, Gunpey uses the increased pixel count and enhanced processor of the PSP to create a sharp, vivid visual experience similar to that of Lumines. Also just like Lumines, it features a heap of "skins," with each skin featuring a unique animated background paired with a pulsating techno track. However, Gunpey is much less interesting and addictive than that brick-busting modern classic, making it more of a diversion than something to which you might devote several hours.
Gunpey tasks the player with aligning five tiles on a 5x10 board (five horizontal spots, 10 vertical) to create a zigzagged line from one side of the screen to the other. Doing so eliminates that line from the screen, and the object of the game is to ensure that no tiles hit the top of the screen; otherwise, it's game over. There are four tile types available: slash, backslash, caret (^), and an upside-down caret. The tiles scroll upwards from the bottom of the screen, and the flow can be controlled manually by pressing the X or Circle button or using the analog stick. Though the board is five spaces wide, there may be only one to four tiles present each time the tiles scroll upwards.
Changing the tiles around is done with the Square and Triangle buttons. The cursor takes up two vertical tiles, and pressing either button will swap the tiles over which that the cursor is placed. The tiles cannot be swapped horizontally or diagonally, so you must make vertical swaps to create horizontal lines. It may not look anything like Tetris Attack, but the similarities are staggering. In Tetris Attack, bricks flowed upwards from the bottom of the screen, and your goal was to use a two-space horizontal cursor to arrange similarly colored blocks into a vertical column of three. Doing so would eliminate those blocks, and avoiding the top of the screen was still the name of the game. By changing the orientation of the cursor and swapping bricks for ASCII symbols, Yokoi created a totally new experience, but one that lacks the refined, fast-paced action of its pseudo-predecessor.
Once you create a complete line, it will glow yellow and remain on the screen for a couple of seconds. During this time, the tiles will cease scrolling from the base and you will have the opportunity to add onto your line. For example, if you used a slash on the farthest right space to complete a line, you could attach a backslash directly underneath it. The backslash would be connected to both the line and the right side of the board, and the game would count the move as part of your combo. Setting up larger combos intentionally can be rather difficult, though, and you will often have to spend time just shifting tiles downwards from the top of the screen to stay alive.
The game has two ways of determining how tiles react when placed above a created line. If you play in Original mode, they remain in their exact spots regardless of your other actions. However, if you play in Break mode, all tiles located above a created line will shift downwards when the line is removed. The tiles do not shift all the way down; rather, they shift down as many spots as tiles you cleared in that column when creating the line. Even in Break mode, you will have to do the shifting to stay in the game. This is usually because the game occasionally withholds tiles from a particular column when they emerge from the base of the screen. You may have four of the five tiles arranged to create a line, but if a single column is devoid of tiles, you are stuck until one appears.
Ultimately, the gameplay comes in short bursts and is not particularly fluid or exciting enough to generate marathon sessions. Gunpey attempts to overcome this issue with its colorful backgrounds and techno tracks, but neat visuals mean very little in the puzzle genre. Still, I don't want to take anything away from the skins; the animated backgrounds are varied and well-designed, for the most part. One shows hand-drawn characters walking through what looks to be a Japanese town, while another has a kangaroo as a disc jockey; Mizuguchi and Co., are a bit eccentric, it seems. Some might take issue with a drawing of a dog taking care of his business in one of the skins, though, and I have to question why it was even included in the game. "Crude Humor" is the only reason cited for the game being rated "E10," and its removal should have granted the game a standard "E" rating. Sadly, the skins do nothing to the designs of the tiles, which always feature green characters, no matter the setting.
Gunpey features several modes of play, with Challenge being the most prominent. Challenge gives you an endless stream of tiles, and new skins can be unlocked by knocking out lines and making monster combos. When the skin changes, so may change the tempo of how fast the tiles appear, though it is not typically a linear progression (you may go from a speedy emergence rate to a much slower one, then to a mid-level rate). Single Skin mode eliminates the variances in speed, but also eliminates the chance of unlocking new skins. Double Skin mode is an excellent idea, and one I would like to see embraced in other puzzle games. In this mode, you work two 5x10 boards at once, with one being active at any given time. The other is shrunk down (but still visible), and you can switch boards at any time by using the shoulder buttons. It adds an extra aspect of challenge to the game, and does not feel a gimmicky add-on.
The widescreen display of the PSP lends itself well to the 10x10 mode, which is fairly self-explanatory; in this game mode, the board is twice as wide as usual, creating a more challenging alterative to the standard 5x10 gameplay. Though you can gain a significant amount of points in the 10x10 mode, the complex experience usually does not last as long. Give it a whirl, but do not be surprised if you are knocked out within a couple of minutes.
Finally, Gunpey features the standard ad-hoc multiplayer mode, but does not contain any sort of disc-swapping mode. Considering the general malaise felt by many toward second-rate puzzle games, I seriously doubt you will find many people with whom to play. It is also worth noting that Gunpey has no auto-save capabilities (or even a prompt to save), so you will have to enter the options menu on a regular basis if you want to save your records or progress.
The PSP has no shortage of games in the puzzle genre this fall, and the quality entries are usually slow-paced and complex (Mercury Meltdown) or fast-paced and simplistic (Lumines II). Gunpey is simplistic and slowly paced, creating an experience that neither entrances nor exhilarates. Most importantly, it is missing that third element that is crucial in every great puzzle game: addictiveness. I do not doubt that Gunpey was a very solid game back in 1999, but in 2006, it just cannot compete with the current leaders of the genre, Lumines and Meteos, which were both created and developed by Q Entertainment. No offense to the late Gunpei Yokoi, but they may want to stick to their own concepts from now on.
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