• Panel De Pon Review - Nintendo DS

    At what point does the revolutionary become the mainstream? It's a question that is not often asked in the usual videogame discourse, but one that would be interesting to analyse in order to understand why when classics from yesteryear, such as Super Mario 64, are ported to new systems, they are "reimagined" with new control systems or something even more drastic.

    The release of Panel de Pon DS is an interesting case in this regard. The original Panel de Pon was released for the Super Famicom, which, superficially, looked like nothing more than just an unexceptional puzzle game. However, although ensconced in a fluffy cloud of heart-branded blocks and ambrosia faerie meringue, the game was really a challenge to the status quo. In fact, more than the original, the title used for the Western localisation of the game, Tetris Attack, was rather apposite: the formula that developer Intelligent Systems created in 1994 for the game was in itself an attack on the Tetris blueprint that had been both a blessing and a curse upon all other following puzzle games.

    Following the lead of Puyo Puyo––a contemporary challenger to the Tetris hegemony––the aim of Panel de Pon wasn't to clear lines, but rather the objects in the playing field. Intelligent Systems' game added two other intricacies to its own architecture: it dispensed with the idea of continuous falling blocks, and it projected the player's control from the pieces in the field to an on-screen cursor that was used to flip tiles on a horizontal plane. What was created, then, was a kind of endless two-dimensional escalating Rubik's Cube, where it was up to the player to figure out a way out of the maze by creating patterns that would make blocks disappear if there were three or more of the same colour lined up in a row or column.

    Although it remains an impressive formula that has been repackaged throughout the years, subsequent ports of the game would alter their approach with a couple of changes, most probably in response to changes in the puzzle market. The most recent port, on the GBA, dispensed with characters and a story mode altogether, but it is Panel de Pon DS that seems most acutely aware of the need to reïnvent itself to adapt into a twenty-first century of iPod looks, "Touch Generations" features, and more image- and sound-oriented games such as Lumines. As if seeking a break from its past, there are no sickly-sweet characters and pastel-coloured backgrounds; no squeaky cute voices and honey-dew melodies in the DS update: what one is confronted with rather is a puzzle game with sleek, clean menus, cool hues and tones, a variety of skins and themes that complement the action on-screen, and a soundtrack with a bias towards entrancing and upbeat electronic music.

    The changes in the presentation of the game foreshadow a change in the actual mechanics of the Panel de Pon structure which were an expected new feature in the game's post-modernisation for the dual-screen, touch-screen potentials of the DS. Most of Panel de Pon DS remains the same, and yet not the same, thanks to a small change: instead of relying on the switch-based methods of the older versions via a cursor, in Panel de Pon DS the player can now drag any block horizontally via the touch screen. Accordingly, and taking advantage of the columnar style of play, the game also plays in the "book" position as default. There is an option to use the D-pad and turn Panel de Pon DS to a horizontal set-up (presumably to appease critics of the default mode), but to use this method is to resist against the energy of change emanating from the DS card's crevices: using the stylus to move the blocks around is quicker, much easier and less abstract by its tactility, which counters the more abstract nature of the rest of the game.

    And it is remarkable to see how well the new control system works in the DS update––there is a richness in Panel de Pon DS that was not present in earlier versions, as if the game had been reborn by the touch screen. The DS game features the basic "Endless" mode and puzzle modes present in past iterations, but the greater flexibility that the touch control allows probably explains the fact that there is a greater emphasis on incredibly addictive timed and competition modes (including a bare-bones Wi-Fi mode), with different branching variations in terms of score, getting rid of blocks, or how fast you raise the level of the blocks.

    The rejuvenation of the game also marks an opportunity to address the game's biggest stumbling block: its sharp learning curve. The Panel de Pon design is somewhat demanding, as the concept behind the game is easy to grasp, but exponentially difficult to master. While the basic aim of the game is to clear the blocks on-screen, players are encouraged to do so in more and more efficient ways, using combos (more than three blocks cleared at once) and chains (different block combinations triggered from a previous combo); with the addition of obstructing blocks and items in the Versus modes, the game's block maze began to take more intricate shapes which became too labyrinthine for many players to enjoy beyond a certain level.

    The one-player game, then, acts as a response to these criticisms, disguising the fact that a significant portion of its apparatus can be considered to be an extended tutorial. Despite the obvious tutorial section, the game features a Brain Training-like "Daily Play," which records one's results in the three Time Trial stages once per day. But perhaps a more explicit instructor in the game is the "Puzzle" mode of the game, which acts really as a cram school that teaches pattern identification and rote learning in order to improve one's own level. Further help to the beginner can be also found in a (controversial) hint option that points out available chain possibilities during play and the segregation of Wi-Fi mode into "Free Play" and "Beginners Versus" modes.

    The latter point might make the game seem like as a snobbish club––it's difficult to avoid the thought that players must "graduate" through the one-player game in order to obtain entry into the "real" Panel de Pon experience. Enjoyment of the game is not limited to a magic show of endless chain combinations and towering block attacks on other players. In either on- or off-line mode, the game can be scrumptiously enjoyable and addictive, especially due to its competitive nature.

    But there is an appeal there: a luring call of the puzzle siren that compels one to endeavour to progress to other spheres away from the rabbit-in-a-hat. Playing the game in Hard can be an exhilarating experience; once everything has clicked into place, the tower of blocks becomes a visual index of chains and patterns and colours and vectors tied in to a frenetic pace of a stage that is mutating and transforming its hues around your actions, in which the layering of attacks and reversals elicits the most bountiful sounds of electronic bells that accompany any chain reaction. As the numbers of linking routes and chained falling blocks surge to double figures, one hears stratospheric sounds created from the most basic of melodic motifs of simpler chains that expand, re-orbit, and realise into figures that smash with intense brightness across the crystal matrices of perception.

    In some respects, sometimes the game has been tinkered with a bit too much: the inclusion of a "Birthday Vs." option in the Wi-Fi mode (which compares your on-line results against other players' who share your own birthday) and item blocks (previously seen in a very similar format in Nintendo's re-ïmagining of Tetris in a DS costume) are curious, albeit gimmicky diversions. But Panel de Pon DS is a great subtle revelation: a game that, transformed by the new technology of the DS, manages to rise to the high level heralded by the concept behind the game with splendid flair.