It is said that there is a fine line between genius and madness. It should also be said that there is a fine line between classic game design and the flawed genius of a broken idea. The defining characteristic of a good puzzle game is control. The player needs to be able to effectively manage and manipulate the tools given to them to succeed. The point at which the level of control slips from manageable into randomness is the point at which the puzzle game fails. Usually that point happens at the drawing board and, as much as Drop7 does right, it failed at the first hurdle.
Drop7 is all about number crunching. You are given a 7x7 grid to fill up with discs. Each disc has a numerical value ranging from 1-7. The mechanic is fairly simple to get to grips with. If you arrange a set of discs so that there are the same number of discs on either the horizontal or the vertical axis then all of the discs showing that number will disappear. For example, if you have three discs on the furthest right hand side of the grid that all show the number ‘4’ and you place a ‘2’ disc on top of them, the three ‘4’ discs will disappear (at that point there will be a total of four discs in the Y axis) and the ‘2’ will drop down and remain on the grid.
The reality is that this isn’t anywhere near as complex as it might sound and the set up allows you to create chains of drops with relative ease. There is a combo scoring system that goes up in multiples of seven for each successive drop you can chain. It is clear from early doors that Area/Code truly believe in the power of ‘7’.
Then there is the double edged sword. The single design facet that elevates Drop7 to the levels of near Tetris-like addictiveness and at the same time blows the whole concept up from the inside out. Some of the discs are greyed out so you don’t know what their value is until you have destroyed an adjoining disc. It takes two ‘blasts’ to reveal the number of the greyed out disc and adds a highly random element to proceedings. It is quite possible to play a perfect game, doing everything just as you should only to be cut off at the pass by a row of adjoining ‘1’ circles halfway up your grid. Anyone who has played Drop7 will instantly understand how annoying this can be. Some players would describe it as game breaking, others might be kinder and choose to ignore the (fairly obvious) lack of forethought at the design stage. Whatever the outcome it is this aspect of the game that takes the power of control away from the player. It is this and this alone that stops Drop7 from becoming the next Tetris.
It permeates all the game modes on offer as well. Normal is a fairly boring affair where you have the option to drop grey discs as and when you are granted them. Unlike recent iterations of Tetris you are not shown the next drop you are allowed to make, only your current offering from the great disc God. Sequence is a set pattern of drops that, if you were so inclined, you could memorize, learn and adapt to ‘beat’ but of course, with all good puzzle games, there isn’t really an ending. You just go until you game drops off, like a leper in a nudist colony. The real meat is in the hardcore mode. Every 5 drops a row of complete grey discs is added to the bottom of the grid for you to dispose of. The trick is to manage the grey disc disposal while allowing yourself enough options to get rid of any tricky ‘1’ or ‘2’ discs that spring up later in the game. This is helped tremendously by the age of trick of being encouraged to beat yourself.
There is no competitive multiplayer to speak of but there is a cumulative high score table that you can use to track your progress against yourself and, should you wish, against the world[*]. The addition of this high score table is just why Drop7 is so damn addictive though. Despite the huge design flaw the game is extremely entertaining. The ‘one more go’ effect is in full force with this one and the elegance of the rest of the game design is such that you can happily concentrate on something else whilst playing Drop7 and your game won’t suffer. It is a perfect commuting game.
This presents a problem. It is so easy to fall in love with Drop7 that it is easy to ignore the fairly obvious flaw with the random nature of the grey discs that, with the absence of a critical eye, it is easy to herald Drop7 as the greatest puzzle game in years. The high score chasing, addictive gameplay, the short bursts of relaxing and yet stressful tension, the unexpected high score wins and the brilliant discovery that there is an exploit you can exploit to protect your hard earned cumulative high score. It should be a classic. As it stands though, Drop7 has to take its place in a far larger crowd as a work of flawed genius.
[*] This is done via Facebook of all things so if you don’t want to look like you spend two hours of every day playing Drop7 it might be best to turn this feature off.