Eyes fixed on the screen, almost completely immobile except when I would try something, frown, and go back to staring with intense concentration... if you could have seen me on my couch playing the "Cascade" level in Rubik's Puzzle Galaxy: RUSH, you probably wouldn't have found it very exciting. But despite how it looked, I was having a great deal of fun.
Rubik's Puzzle Galaxy: RUSH is a puzzle game in the purest sense. It is not like Tetris or other "falling blocks" games that demand more from your reflexes than you brain. Instead, you are actually tasked with solving something. I've always enjoyed these games to some degree, but I never really asked myself what made these games fun until Puzzle Galaxy kind of forced me to.
What makes a good puzzle?
1 - It has to be challenging. The whole point of the exercise is to give your neurons a little workout, after all. A puzzle that is too easy is a puzzle that has failed its job: stimulate your brain. When the solution is too obvious, then you don't feel like you have solved anything as much as you feel you are going through the motions.
2 - Solving it has to feel rewarding. That feeling is tied to the challenge the puzzle presented, of course, but not all challenging puzzles feel rewarding. When you have finally solved a problem, you should feel like you arrived to the solution through logic. You should feel smart. You should walk away with the impression that the guy who designed it is one clever little devil but damn it, you've beaten him! A bad puzzle will instead feel cheap: you get the impression that you solved it only through dumb luck or endless trial-and-error.
3 - It has to feel surmountable. This is of course tied to the previous two points: the puzzle has to be just challenging enough and look like it will test your brain, not your patience or your good fortune. For this, the puzzle has to give the player a clue as to where to start and has to give feedback if you are on the wrong track. If it is unclear what you have to do, if you have too much freedom and not enough direction, it is quite possible you will not even feel like attempting to solve the puzzle.
But enough philosophizing, it's about time I talked about this game proper, right? Basically, Puzzle Galaxy tasks the player with getting colored blocks to their respective goals. The blocks move in a straight line until they hit a wall, and when they do, they will always turn right. You are given a set of tiles that will allow you to alter the blocks' direction and create a path to the goal, and the blocks cannot fall off the board or collide with each other, otherwise you have failed.
It is a very good looking Wiiware game, attractive in the same way that Apple products are attractive: white dominates the screen, except for the brightly colored blocks that just pop out of your television. The game is all straight lines, which usually spells disaster for those with high definition displays, but there is no aliasing in this game. It is quite impressive.
The game offers 66 puzzles: 22 Easy ones, 22 Intermediate ones, and 22 Hard ones. The Easy puzzles certainly are easy: they present no challenge whatsoever. Just by looking at the screen and the tiles you have been given, what you have to do just jumps out at you. I understand that they serve as a tutorial to prepare you for the rest of the game, but then why have so many? The decision to have an equal number of puzzles in each category seems quite arbitrary to me. There is no point in having so many. The Easy puzzles fail the first 2 criteria, so it's just a matter of mindlessly going through the motions, and then watch the outcome.
The Intermediate puzzles are slightly more satisfying, as some of them demand that you use the tiles at your disposition in ways that may surprise you. Many look deceptively simple until you start placing your tiles and suddenly realize that the solution isn't as straightforward as it appeared at first sight. You will need to get creative, but usually at least the name of the level gives you a clue as to how to proceed. This is when the game is at its best.
But already, you realize that not all puzzles are created equal as some of them have obvious solutions, yet demand constant trial-and-error to get the timing right so the blocks won't collide. These puzzles fail the first two criteria as well.
Then there is the set of Hard puzzles. Good lord. 66 doesn't feel like a whole lot, and after breezing through the first two sets you may feel the game will be quite short even for a $6 investment, but then you hit this brick wall. The "Cascade" level I mentioned in the first paragraph had me staring at the screen for over an hour, completely dumbfounded as to how such a seemingly straightforward puzzle with such a limited number of tiles to use could be so hard to figure out. But eventually, the solution came to me, and I just felt like shouting "In your face, Two Tribes (the developer)!".
Sadly, not every Hard level is as memorable as that one, and too many of them fail the third criteria: feeling surmountable. I have literally no idea where I'm supposed to start, the names of the levels don't give me a clue, and it is not obvious at all, when I do try something and fail, if a small adjustment is required or if I am completely off the track. As I write this review I have a dozen puzzles left to solve and I am not even sure if some of them are solvable. These puzzles don't make me want to solve them. They do not make staring at the screen for hours fun.
So there you have it. Playing the game, my opinion of it changed wildly depending on the level. At first the puzzles were so easy and dumb I thought the very fundamentals of the game couldn't produce a challenging puzzle. Then I got to sets of puzzles that were more creative, but mixed with others that really weren't as solid and fun. And then I got to puzzles that just made me want to give up.
High highs, and low lows, yielding in the end this ho hum score. A pity.
So it's like the opposite of Wii Sports? Frowning while you play makes Miyamoto frown. And if Miyamoto's frowning, he may not release you from captivity.
I like your breakdown of the puzzle genre. It is a tricky tightrope to walk, and the puzzle genre is very subjective, because the metrics of the criteria that you listed change from person to person. And I think that there's an additional wrinkle to the third point: the maximum amount of time that a player wants to spend to solve a single puzzle. You may enjoy being stuck for an hour, but a lot of people would probably shelve the game after five minutes (or skip past the puzzle). I thought Picross DS had an interesting balance. In the Intermediate levels, the game was a fast-paced, free-flowing experience, though a slighly easy one. When you hit Expert Mode, or whatever, it became much more laborious and discontinuous and, for me, much less fun.
Anyway, Puzzle Galaxy: Rush sounds familiar. It sounds like one part of the demo of the DS game. Is it the same? And is it on the Wii game? I found that for $2 at Best Buy.
Isn't it kind of sad that you're commending the Wii for being able to mimic vector graphics?
I thought a lot about puzzle design while playing this from some reason. I went from "How does this even qualify as a puzzle game? It's so easy" to "Hey, you can make challenging puzzles with this concept after all, but why aren't they all fun?".
I really think the amount of time you're willing to spend on a puzzle depends entirely on how easy it looks to solve. "Cascade" didn't look so much like a challenge, but every time I would try something and fail, I would think "How the hell have I not solved this already? You won't beat me, game designer!". Whereas other puzzles had me half-heartedly try a few things, then quickly say "This is impossible. NEXT!".
Oh yeah, you can choose from a bunch of puzzles when you're stuck, you don't have to solve each one to go on to the next.
I don't know about the DS and Wii retail games. Unwrap your copy and compare to this trailer! I do know the game is available on Steam sasn the Rubik license, as "RUSH". There is a demo.
Haha, and the game doesn't mimic vector graphics, it just doesn't look like Art Style: Cubello, which was a nice surprise. It's not HD, but it doesn't have jaggies that will hurt the eyes of graphics whores.
The similarity with Chu Chu Rocket stops as the "placing arrows on a board" part. CCR is more of a reflex game as I described in my review: you need to act fast and keep your cool more than you need to "solve" anything. Lemmings is the closer comparison.
And it IS in a very similar situation as Thruspace, absolutely.
I think the best puzzle design makes you feel clever for solving it without stumping you for too long. I always say this, but I really love the puzzle design of Twilight Princess. I was continually applauding the puzzle developers in my mind as I played. Not too tough, but always very satisfying.
Pandareus, your post makes it clear how subjective a 'good' puzzle game is.
I still think the trickiest part is balancing the ultimate difficulty so as not to alienate parts of the audience. Super Guide or a Hint System would work, I guess.