Given that Linelight has firmly ensconced itself in my list of top puzzle games of all time, I figured this week would be a good time to give the puzzle genre the Top Five treatment. This was a stupid idea. Because there are so many more than five that are worth mentioning. I am stupid.
Puzzle games are brilliant, and the term covers a vast array of gameplay types. For that very reason, though, I need to start with a disclaimer. An honourable mention goes to Tetris for being too pioneering to even really fit into this genre. It doesn’t make the list, because I’m not actually sure if it counts as a puzzle game, yet it’s responsible in some fashion for every puzzle game since its creation. Thus…the Tetris Award For Being Tetris goes too…*drumroll*…Tetris!
Then we have the Honourable Mentions. Shoutouts go to Ghost Trick, Monument Valley, Gunpoint, LocoRoco, Dr. Mario, Braid, and a whole bunch more because I ran out of space. Also to Peggle, which doesn’t quite make the list for similar reasons to Tetris, but is simply brilliant and has the greatest use of Ode To Joy in anything ever. Well done Peggle, you get the Best Combination Of Slow-Mo And Opera In A Game Award. Maybe I’ll just do a Top Five Games That Might Be Puzzle Games But Probably Aren’t at some point.
Before Rockstar North became Rockstar North and started making vice-ridden sandboxes full of hookers and guns, they were known as DMA Design. Amongst other things, they created a puzzle game featuring suicidal rodents for Psygnosis. Players were charged with guiding anthropomorphic lemmings from A to B safely, bestowing skills upon them that allowed for digging, burrowing, climbing, staircase building, and the occasional explosive sacrifice for the greater good. Lemmings was darkly comic, and phenomenally addictive, especially when you factored in two-player options. As you got into the later levels, the opportunities for experimentation and time trials against your friends really opened up too. They don’t make ’em like this any more!
The games in The Room series aren’t particularly taxing, nor is the ‘escape’ genre particularly original. But it’s rather the incredibly slick, left-field variation on the theme that earns The Room and its superb sequels a place on this list. You spend your time poking and prodding about the game space, hunting for hidden switches and secret compartments, finding patterns and cracking codes. You’ll rarely get stuck, but instead the delight comes in the form of discovery as each component of the room peels back to reveal more intricate layers and curious devices. For me, I found myself in an odd state of almost childlike wonder the first time I played The Room. It doesn’t offer the challenge of many of the other games here, but it’s stunning and satisfying nonetheless.
The sheer inventiveness at the heart of Scribblenauts still boggles the mind. You play as Max, a young lad with a magical notepad that can will any noun under the sun into existence. Well, most nouns. The challenge with Scribblenauts was never about how to overcome a problem or objective, but rather to try and find the most outlandish way of doing it. Half the time, I’d ignore whatever was actually going on in a level, and start spawning Royal Rumbles between Cthulhu, dinosaurs, several tanks, and possibly deities too. Do you give yourself wings to reach that ledge over there, or do you summon a dragon, climb aboard and rename yourself Khaleesi? Instead of encouraging you to find solutions to problems, Scribblenauts just let you invent your own.
Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords
There are many Match-3 games, but the original Puzzle Quest is the absolute best. It helps that it’s an RPG first and foremost, and a good one at that. The story is pure hokum, but the class-based gameplay feeds into the tactical nature of the combat, which just happens to be conducted via matching coloured orbs. Because of this, Puzzle Quest manages to feel a lot more strategic than Bejeweled and its many knockoffs. The enemy variants, and the side-questy things you can do like capturing mounts, and besting prisoners to learn their skills, make for a Match-3 game with phenomenal depth and variety. Better yet, the variation in playstyle and the huge game world provide plenty of reasons to play it again and again. In fact, I might have to start my eighth playthrough right after this.
Once I’d given Tetris and Peggle their own awards, the question was never about whether Valve would take the top spot here, but rather which Portal game should have the crown. There are good arguments for either, but in the end I plumped for the sequel. The original was a stunning surprise – a gem hidden in The Orange Box that soon outshone its chums. It was the perfect length, and brilliantly innovative. But the sequel is, dare I say it, even better.
The simple addition of the gels that affected surface motion added even more depth to the puzzling mechanics, and they were matched by expansive level design that has yet to be bettered. Freed to explore all of Aperture and its history, the designers crafted an experience like no other. The razor-sharp script is possibly even funnier than the first. Stephen Merchant (and obviously Ellen McLain) are absolutely fantastic. No, the song wasn’t as good, but with Portal 2, Valve managed to do the impossible. They made first-person co-op puzzle platforming not just fun, but absolutely unmissable.
Still, those are just my thoughts, how about you folks? Let me know what your favourite puzzle games are!