For good or bad, nearly every puzzle game inevitably draws comparisons to Tetris, the inescapable once-and-future king of the genre. While such comparisons may be unavoidable, Puyo Pop succeeds precisely because of how much it diverges from the well-known classic — so much so that even veteran puzzle gamers will be challenged by the intricacies of the gameplay at first. Merely matching up Puyo of the same color will not be enough; learning how to build combo chains is the secret behind winning, and doing so takes planning, quick reflexes, and a little bit of luck. Luckily, the instruction manual explains three different techniques of setting up chains, including one with the humorously nonsensical title of “Gut-Feeling.”
In “Single Puyo Pop” mode and the multiplayer modes, you’re always paired against an opponent, whether it is human or CPU-controlled. The object is to force your competition into filling their playfield with Puyo by sending them “Block Puyo,” which are created when you create chains or link over five Puyo of the same color. While these versus-style matches are seemingly the heart of the game, the single-player “Endless Puyo” mode is just as enjoyable, if not more. Freed from having to keep the pressure on your opponent, this mode emphasizes strategy over snap judgments, and it’s a good way to experiment with different gameplay approaches.
The graphics are simple, but not detrimentally so. The use of bright colors and attractive character designs accent the uncluttered playfield to create an overall pleasing visual experience. The music and sound effects are similarly unobtrusive, adding to the atmosphere without making themselves the center of attention.
Apart from a little-noticed release on the NeoGeo Pocket Color in 1999, Puyo Pop for the GBA represents the first chance most gamers have to experience Puyo Puyo in its true form, without tacked-on characters like Kirby and Dr. Robotnik. Developed by the venerable Sonic Team, this version is a polished, well-rounded game that should please even the most demanding players. As such, it’s a must-have for genre fans as well as the casual gamer looking for a fun title to take on the road.