A Slice of Life…and Pokemon Puzzle Challenge


Pokémon Puzzle Challenge for the Gameboy Color…one of many, many, spinoff games that came out during the latter part of Pokemania—the time when Pokémon paraphernalia could be seen in literally every room in my childhood house.  Pokémon beach towels and body wash in the bathroom, Pokémon toys and games galore in our bedrooms, Pokémon-themed kickballs and Frisbees in the garage, and of course a plethora of Pokémon-themed cereals, waffles and spaghetti-os in the pantry. It was as if someone (holding an oval charm, of course) left a Ditto in the daycare while trying to Masuda Method a shiny. Instead of an abundance of non-shiny breed-jects, however, we had an abundance of Pokémon products (I mean, we still do, but that’s beside the point!) My brother and I weren’t the only obsessive fans, however, it was as if every child in America had been infected with Pokerus, but instead of our stats growing exceptionally well, it was our passion for this globally popular franchise!

I, as a young (but not too young) child in the late 90s/early 2000s, was of course caught up in Pokemania, enjoying basically everything the franchise had to offer. I have fond memories of watching the television series six days a week on the now defunct Kids WB channel (RIP).  However, the Pokefanatic in me didn’t really blossom until 2003 with the release of Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire. I remember seeing those games advertised in the weekly Target ad that came bundled in the Saint Louis Post Dispatch every Sunday. Finally!! This was the moment I had been waiting for! I knew that Gold, Silver, Crystal and the first generation games were available on the Gameboy/ Gameboy Color, however, I did not have any of these games. You see, in our house, my dad had a strict “no buying yesterday’s technology” mindset and basically said “don’t bother” with any handheld games made during the Gameboy and Gameboy Color era. (He’s worked in computers and software since the early ‘80s, so he knows how fast technology starts to show its age). Having just allowed me to buy my first handheld (a Pink Gameboy Advance), my dad steered me away from old technology and towards the new GBA-era games of the early 2000s. Needless to say, the first GBA-era Pokemon games opened the floodgates for what would eventually become a life-long obsession.

But this review isn’t about Pokémon Ruby or Pokemon Sapphire. It’s about Pokémon Puzzle Challenge.

(I can hear the sound of people closing their browsers now—haha.)

This Poke-obsession continued for years and years to come. I have sizable GBA and Nintendo DS game libraries, but my GBC/GB collection is seriously lacking. Now that I have a somewhat steady paycheck, I’m able to bolster my handheld collection more than ever before. Between my brother, my boyfriend, and myself, we have most of the main series Pokémon games. I even have the majority of the spinoff games from the GBA/NDS era (Trozei, Pinball R&S, Dash (ICK!), all three Ranger games, most of the Mystery Dungeon games, etc). What I was lacking, however, were the GB/GBC spinoff games, like the Trading Card Game and Pokémon Puzzle Challenge. I vowed to pick up some of these titles as soon as I found them at a reasonable price. (I know they’re reasonable online, but I can’t help it. I like going to the store, picking up the game, inspecting the label, etc. It makes me nostalgic for old “going to the game store” days.)

Okay, now fast forward to a few weeks ago.

I am lucky enough to live just a short drive from of the best retro game shops that I’ve ever set foot in. I try to stop in once a week to talk to the guys that work there and of course, to peruse their fine wares. Maybe it was because it was payday, maybe it was because Pokémon Puzzle Challenge was only $7 WITH a nice clean label, or maybe it was a mix of the two things, but I walked out that day with two Sega Genesis game bags (we’ll talk about the Genesis on another day) and, you guessed it, Pokémon Puzzle Challenge. I couldn’t wait to get home and play re-skinned Pokémon Tetris Attack. That’s really all it is, but you know how to spell sucker, don’t you? Here, I’ll help: H-E-L-N-T-A-R-O.

Image of Pokemon Puzzle Challenge, Flying Pikachu Card, Special Edition Gameboy

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I take the game home and pop it into my GBA SP. After the satisfying start up “ping”, I was greeted with one of the cutest title screen introductions I’ve ever seen. Here comes Chikorita galumphing through a grassy field towards Totodile and Cyndaquil. The camera eventually pans up to reveal Pikachu and Pichu floating above the others through Rock Bottom’s preferred method of transportation: balloon travel. I think one of the reasons I enjoy this start-up screen so much is because it reminds me of an old Pokémon card that I have: Flying Pikachu, which features our beloved ele-rodent soaring high above the clouds through the use of a balloon.

After you press start, you are provided with a plethora of ways to enjoy this Poke-puzzle game.  You have the typical story mode, where you earn badges in the pursuit of becoming the Pokémon Puzzle Challenge Champion, along with the stereotypical timed challenges (Like Time Zone mode—meet specific time goals), endless challenges(Like Marathon mode—play until you lose), and a few other quintessential  game play modes. Of course I dive right into the challenge mode—let’s go! I selected the easy difficulty to start off with.

The object of Pokémon Puzzle Challenge is to (surprise!) match up blocks of the same color/pattern and clear the lines. If you match three or more in a vertical or horizontal line, the lines vanish ala Tetris style. If your playing field fills up with blocks and rises past the top of the screen, well, smell ya later. One of the interesting (and frustrating) things about PPC is that you can only move blocks horizontally and you can only swap a block with what is directly next to it. By selecting one block and then picking a neighboring block, you’ll have swapped the positions of the two blocks. Having completed this action, you're on your way to being the very best (like no one ever was!) at Pokémon Puzzle Challenge. Making repeated combinations takes your opponent’s health down to zero. This, of course, is the key to winning.

While the game play isn’t anything to write home about, the presentation of the game is absolutely adorable.

As you play the “challenge” mode, you’ll assume the role of Gold and go through the Johto Region battling the gym leaders from the G/S/C arc. Before you begin each battle, you’ll select a Pokémon from your team to fight with. You start the game with the three Johto starter Pokémon—Cyndaquil, Chikorita, and Totodile, but you can unlock more partner Pokémon throughout your journeys when playing through the game on “normal” and “hard” mode. When you start the battle, and the blocks fall into their place, the Pokémon you chose to “battle” with can be seen in the upper right-hand corner. You can also see the opponent’s Pokémon in the lower right-hand corner. Whenever you clear a set of four or more blocks, your Pokemon’s sprite will animate, appearing happy and launching an attack at your opponent’s sprite. The animated sprite work in this game is adorable. Seeing Totodile light up when I land a combo adds a nice touch of cuteness and uniqueness to an otherwise (fairly) monotonous game. On the flipside, your opponent’s Pokémon can send down immoveable stones that must be worked around in order to move blocks and win the battle. Sometimes your opponent will launch an attack at you, resulting in your Pokemon taking damage and showing a sad animation. You don’t exactly need an X-Speed to win at  PPC (does anybody even use those?) but it certainly helps to be a quick “puzzler” in the harder game modes.

Pokemon Puzzle Challenge Screenshot

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Once you make your way through the eight Johto gym leaders, you’ll come to the elite four and face off against each of them in the same way you “fought” against the gym leaders. Here’s the thing though, what you get to do after you beat the gym leaders depends on what difficulty mode you selected at the beginning of the game. My first time clearing the game was on “easy”. At the end of this run, I wasn’t even offered the chance to challenge the Elite Four. Okay, that's lame, but why not try the next setting just for fun? I go through the game on the “normal” difficulty and maybe I just suck at puzzle games, but I felt that the difficulty curve in this game went from riding a tricycle with training wheels to “racing to the Pokémon Center in the middle of a thunderstorm while trying to outrun a ticked off redhead AND trying to get your Spearow-attacked Pikachu the medical attention he needs to be the happy, healthy series mascot that he is. I had a lot of trouble going through the game on normal mode, and while I won’t give you an exact number, just know that I used way more than my fair share of continues.

Oh, there’s something I forgot to mention:

Every time you lose a battle, you lose the Pokémon you sent in to that battle. Not permanently, but for the rest of that challenge. Let’s say I face Whitney with my Cyndaquil and Cyndaquil falls in that battle, I can’t use Cyndaquil for any of the remaining five gym battles. If you lose all three of your Pokémon, you’re done. To help remedy this, you can unlock additional Pokémon to have in your team. However, I found these additional Pokemon VERY hard to unlock. If you pull off particular combos in gym leader battles (and only in “normal” and “hard” mode) you’ll get the option to face a random NPC trainer in the next battle. IF you battle this NPC and IF you win, you’ll get to keep one of their Pokémon. Some of the unlockable Pokémon include Pikachu, Marrill, Pichu, etc. With a fuller team, you’ll have more chances to win each battle and progress on to the Elite Four.

After basically having a big “X” stamped on my forehead by Karen and her stupid Murkrow, I decided that, okay, I need to go unlock additional Pokémon if I want to clear “normal” mode (without using a continue, which is apparently what I had to do in order to challenge Lance) and claim the title of Puzzle Challenge Champion. I started a new campaign and began to try setting off the combos that would unlock the NPCs required to obtain new Pokémon. For example, to unlock Pikachu, one needs to set off a seven block combo (I think?) in order to get the opportunity to face the Gentleman with the Pikachu. Alright, I’m starting to think I really do suck at puzzles because holy cow, setting off a seven block combo, and then winning that match (on “normal”, mind you!) took. me. forever. Any time I’d focus on the combo, I’d lose the match. When I’d just try to win the match, I wouldn’t combo high enough. Seriously, it took me a whole week to even see this Pikachu-promising NPC. Finally, I unlock the privilege to see the NPC and I lose to his Pikachu. Of course. So lather, rinse, repeat, and FINALLY, I combo seven blocks, win the gym leader fight, battle the NPC, win his fight, and then YES! He’s given me a Pikachu to add to my team. I was now slightly more prepared to take on the league! I used Pikachu and my three starters to play through the “normal” mode again, using too many continues and being forced to go through the campaign again. (Sigh) Are we having fun yet?

I played this game a lot during the work week, because it's not story-driven and can be easily picked up and put back down. We get to the weekend and I decide to bring my Gameboy and PPC cartridge with me when running errands. Not thinking twice about changing systems, I pull the cartridge out of my GBA SP and slide it into my GBC (sometimes I like to tote around my GBC and pretend I’ve stepped back into the nineties…I know I’m weird…I can’t help it.) I throw my GBC into my bag and I’m off on whatever adventure I had scheduled for that day.

Anyways, I’m waiting in line for something and what better time than this to continue my quest to become the Puzzle League Champion. I turn on the game, savor the “ping”, and am them prompted to select the difficulty for my challenge. That’s weird. I left off in the middle of a challenge, didn’t I? I select the “normal” difficulty, and to my horror, the Pikachu I spent a week unlocking is gone. Vanished. Like “GS Ball in Johto-series arc” vanished. What the heck? Why was my game wiped?

Then it all made sense.

I had removed the game from the GBA SP. The cartridge’s internal battery must have run dry and only saved my game data because it was inserted into a charged  GBA SP for the past few weeks. My desire to pretend it was 2000 again sucker-punched me in the gut by taking away the Pikachu I had worked so hard to unlock.

Whelp. I guess that's what I get for living in the past!

After that, I was pretty much done with Pokémon Puzzle Challenge. I had spent SO LONG unlocking that Pikachu that I was just kind of done for a while. Oh well, live and learn, I guess.

One more thing I would like to mention, however, is that PPC has an amazing soundtrack. It pulls familiar sights and sounds from the G/S/C games and revamps an already top-notch OST. I would jam out to this soundtrack any day of the week.

For those of you that want the TL;DR, here ya go:

Pros about Pokémon Puzzle Challenge:

  • The sprite art and animations
  • The premise of the game (battling familiar characters for a familiar title)
  • The revamped G/S/C Soundtrack

Cons about Pokémon Puzzle Challenge:

  • The ridiculous difficulty curve. Easy was a breeze. Normal gave me a wedgie and hooked me on the back of the bathroom stall door. I didn’t even bother with hard mode because I wanted to keep some semblance of my gaming self-esteem.
  • The obstacle course of events you have to get through to have THE CHANCE to unlock additional party Pokémon.
  • The fact that you can only move blocks horizontally.
  • The fact that to actually challenge the Elite Four and face the champion, you have to clear the eight gym leaders on “normal” and “hard” respectively. Give me a break!

When it’s all said and done, Pokémon Puzzle Challenge really IS worth your time, especially if you’re like me and enjoy games that are easy to pick up and put down. I go through phases with games where I’ll play obsessively for weeks and then abandon a game for six months. I’ll probably re-visit PPC later on, but for now, I’m going to continue to mourn the loss of my Puzzle-chu and move on to another game.

Thanks for reading my first review. I sincerely hope that you enjoyed it.

Please leave comments down below—I’d love to chat with you about games!

Thanks a bunch,

Helntaro


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