Koro koro puzzle: Happy panecchu! belongs to a selection of "experimental" titles that Nintendo released during the course of the GBA's lifespan which used special chips and sensors to add unusual or unique gameplay features to the games. The kind of technology and implementation in each game differed quite significantly, from Screw Breaker/Drill Dozer's simple rumble pak to Konami's Boktai's solar sensor, to varied results. But it's the more sizeable examples of this group, the motion-controlled games, that stand out, and, years later, games such as Mawaru! Made in Wario/Wario Ware: Twisted! would be acclaimed for the integration of the hardware into its design. In 2002, however, Happy panecchu! was the pioneer in this area; and, not unexpectedly, when the game was released, this feature was emphasised as the game's main selling point perhaps due to the fact that, like Boktai, it was an experimental game based on an original and unproven design with no familiar licence or IP.
But what an original design it proved to be: category-wise, Happy panecchu! is ostensibly a puzzle game, but not one that you'd recognise at first glance. It takes the tilt control found in the GBC gem Koro koro Kirby/Kirby's Tilt 'n' Tumble and applies it to a puzzle system that works horizontally instead of vertically, like one of those dexterity puzzles of which the aim is to try to lead a metal ball to a goal by tilting the puzzle box itself. Although instead of a metal ball, what you have are panecchu: round, multi-coloured living machine blobs that you slide around a playing field with a large square peg in the middle to arrange three or more of the same colour together to make them happy. (Which is to say, to make them disappear, an action accompanied by a gleeful "Happy!" sound.) This is the basis behind the "panecchu concept," but it's only a basis, upon which the game quickly and swiftly builds more upon the basic axioms of its design.
While the aim of the game is to have happy panecchu, the way to succeed in the game consists of doing more than just clearing panecchu from the stage. The key to Happy panecchu! is, like most other puzzle games, found in combos or chains, which open the possibilities for offensive or defensive tactics for the player. In Happy panecchu!, this sounds simple to do: just keep arranging three or more panecchu of the same colour consecutively (without any wasted movement), and the reward for doing so is a unit of bomb-panecchu: panecchus that explode with a press of the B-button, eliminating themselves and any other items around them, while at the same time creating a block in the competition's arena.
The genius of Happy panecchu! is that everything stacks up: perversely, you can group the bomb-panecchus in the field to merge together and create even bigger, meaner bombs with bigger, meaner effects. The problem, however, is that you need more panecchu to make longer chains in order to summon more bomb-panecchu; so the only option is to add even more panecchu into the field, (which, tellingly, is done only at the discretion of the player at the press of the A-button). The veteran Happy panecchu! player will be accustomed to the "chicken" game-nature of the game: even if it's game over for the player if the screen is so filled up that he or she cannot make any more moves, it's crucial to keep adding more and more into the field to have a chance of winning. Add to that blocks forced onto the field by the opposition and advanced items such as diamonds (which clear panecchu in a different way), and it's tempting to think that "Crazy panecchu!" would be a more apposite title to the game.
But everything is kept sane thanks to the logic of each game mode. However frenzied the action in the puzzle arena might become, the actual variations of the game are tidily compartmentalised into five different modes that slowly reveal the complexity of the game. The most substantial of these are "Block Battle" and "K.O. by Bomb," versus modes with interesting variations on the standard duel model of puzzle games but the others can be equally compelling. Two other modes of the game, "High Score by Bomb" and "Clear Everything!," are score-based and time-based time-trials respectively, and can be immensely addictive; and the one non-competitive mode in the game, "I.Q. Challenge," in which the aim is to clear puzzles with the least number of moves, featuring panecchu in oddly laid-out stages, lives up to its name with panache.
What makes Happy panecchu! really shine, however, is the tilt control that is crucial to everything in the game. However controversial the idea, what makes it unique to play and to enjoy is that is provides an amazing "physicality" to the gameplay. The game behaves fine on an SP, Micro, or DS, but played on the system for which it was intended to be played on the original GBA the game becomes a futuristic, abstract version of a nineteenth-century dexterity puzzle, thanks to the placement of the screen squarely in the middle of the portable. Speed is important, of course, but much more so are rhythm and accuracy, which are fully emphasised by the tilt motion. One flick of the wrist creates a combo; another movement, another combo: more than just moving objects around on a screen, at times Happy panecchu! really is felt as if one were moulding the gameplay. It's an incredible tool also underlined by the precariousness of its method: let stress or nervousness set in, and the mistakes pile up, which adds another layer of tension that makes Happy panecchu! almost postmodern in its approach.
This game proved to be the last game for developer Mobile 21, and one can sense that there was a desire to pour everything every bit of effort, every piece of soul into the game for one last bang. Contributing to the strengths of the concept, the rhythms of Happy panecchu! are accentuated by the details in every corner of the game. There are the more noticeable details: the sublime art design and truly happy graphics of the panecchu world, the bip-boppity uppity songs truly tuned-in to the gameplay, the way that the game records all your gameplay statistics. And then there are the smaller details: trophies of your achievements that are built up in the title screen, the everyday oddity of the characters you meet in the "Block Battle" mode, even your name imprinted upon the playing field.
But still the question about the central pillar of the game, the tilt-control method, remains and critics of the game have argued that using the D-pad would have been a wiser choice. However, by doing so it would squelch the physicality of the game, making it a much more sterile and less intuitive experience.
A more substantial criticism can be made, however, of the difficulty spikes in the versus modes that take away some of the game's friendly appeal. Despite a very user-friendly help menu that teaches the player tactics and tips essential for success, the latter stages of "Block Battle" in particular demand too much skill from the player in comparison to earlier stages. Also disappointing is that, despite the wonderful integration of a second player into its design, (all modes except "I.Q. Challenge" are playable against another human opponent, as long as each player owns a copy of the game, for obvious reasons), multi-player options are limited and implemented somewhat unimaginatively. Except for the nature of the competition, there is no special perk to playing against a human opponent, and, for a system in which four-player link-battles were a selling point early in its history, it's surprising to see that nothing was done to accommodate more than two players. And it's a shame to see this limit, as it would have been interesting to speculate how an additional player or two could have added to the game.
In fact, Happy panecchu! is a game that encourages speculation: about alternative control methods, additional players, and about the decision to make it exclusive to Japan. Despite the brilliance and originality of its design, Happy panecchu! was never able to distribute its joyful happiness via a global tour, much to the detriment of the worldwide GBA market. It's an odd decision, because the game has no distinguishing cultural-based feature that designates it as being too "exotic" or culturally specific, and it's not even based on a local licence of any kind. Perhaps it was due to an unpopularity that was felt towards tilt-control games in the West; perhaps it was done so as to not distort the image of the GBA outside of Japan; perhaps simply the reason was that the game was created within the environment of the "GB Mobile System," which didn't exist outside of the Land of the Rising Sun. Whatever the reasons might be Happy panecchu! remains a hidden gem in the GBA's library: a gem that everybody needs to experience.