1991 was a different time for video games; Sony hadn’t made the PlayStation yet. The most popular home consoles were the Sega’s Genesis and Nintendo’s SNES. The era of 16-bit gaming was afoot, with games like Street Fighter II and Super Volley taking center stage as the most popular games of the time, at least in Japan. There were no yearly releases of Call of Dutys and Battlefields to play with your friends on Xbox Live. Instead, kids used to go to arcades to fuel their gamer thirst for competition.
Enter – Puyo Puyo, a puzzle game made by Compile. What Puyo Puyo is (in my opinion) a derivation of Tetris. In Tetris, your objective is simple. You have limited space with blocks constantly falling to fill your screen. If you manage to fill a horizontal line with no gaps, the line disappears if the screen fills. It’s game over.
Puyo Puyo is similar in the sense of blocks falling with limited screen estate and the rules for game over. Where it differs is instead of blocks of a predetermined shape, what falls are cute little colorful blobs called Puyo. Connecting 4 of these Puyos to the same color will have the same effect as connecting a line in Tetris; the Puyos will disappear, creating room for more Puyos to come.
At the time, it wasn’t immune to comparisons with Tetris and Dr. Mario.
The creator of the game and president of Compile Masamitsu Niitani was aware of this and avoided selling on one of the more popular systems of the time, Nintendo’s SNES, to avoid any controversies. So instead, the first Puyo Puyo was released on the MSX2 and the Famicom Disk System.
The Gameplay of the Yesteryear
So what makes it different from its competitors? Well, for starters, it had a two-player mode in which players could directly influence the screen of their rival.
The game encouraged making chain reactions (Placing your Puyos in a manner that allows multiple explosions off of one move); doing so sent your now dissolved Puyos to your opponent’s screen as grey Puyos, AKA garbage Puyos. Colored Puyos cannot match these garbage Puyos to colorful Puyos. The only way to get rid of them is to make a chain reaction adjacent to the grey Puyos, getting rid of them as collateral damage.
However, like every game, no first iteration is ever perfect, especially if it’s a multiplayer game. Humans tend to exploit a game since we’re not limited by a ruleset an AI could be. Players quickly realised the best way to win is to strategically place their Puyos, allowing a chain reaction of 5-6 groups. This allowed an instant win since there was no mechanic to defend your screen.
Compile saw the rising meta and introduced a mechanic in the sequel Puyo Puyo 2 called “The offset rule”. This new mechanic allowed players to mitigate incoming garbage Puyos by forming their own chains, reducing the number of garbage Puyos or completely countering them by having a chain bigger than their opponents.
However, that wasn’t the only mechanic introduced to better the competitive nature of the game. Over time the number of garbage Puyos per chain increases, thereby bringing a sense of urgency amongst the players. The game also rewarded players for clearing their board in the same way by increasing the number of garbage Puyos sent to the opponent.
All of these new mechanics made the game even more popular in the East. There were many competitions held across Japan for Puyo Puyo with the audience filled to the brim, cosplaying as various characters of the game and chanting moves according to what was happening on the low definition theatre type screen, much like the esports scenes of today (barring, of course, the low definition).
The fourth instalment of the game finally made its way to the Nintendo market in 1999. Each instalment introduced a new mechanic, remnants of which can be found still in versions of the current generation, and the player base has grown ever since.
Puyo Puyo and the Rest of the World
In 1993 Puyo Puyo saw its first American release, except it was titled “ Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine”. DRMBM was essentially a reskin of the original Puyo Puyo with entirely different characters and sold as a spin-off of the Sonic the Hedgehog series.
A similar title, “Kirby’s Avalanche”, was released in 1995 for the West. However, it wasn’t until 2003 when Puyo Pop Fever was released globally. Published by Sega and developed by the Sonic team, Puyo Pop Fever established itself worldwide and cultivated an initially small but growing and loyal fanbase.
However, the western fanbase was up for disappointment; it wouldn’t be for another 13 years that they’d see a new instalment of the game. Meanwhile, Japan enjoyed a steady flow of new Puyo Puyo’s with new characters, mechanics and improvements. Some ports of Puyo Puyo were released globally, but they were non-localized untranslated ports.
In 2017, Sega published Puyo Puyo Tetris globally and virtually for every popular platform. Kids who enjoyed Puyo Pop Fever were now grown-up but that shouldn’t stop anyone from playing what they enjoy. Ranking on many popular gaming websites as one of the year’s best releases, Puyo Puyo Tetris had sold over 1.4 million copies by 2020, appealing to old fans and newcomers alike.
The success was enough for Sega to publish its sequel Puyo Puyo Tetris 2 in December 2020, and continued development of new features and characters which were released as free updates till March 2021.
The first game pitted a Tetris player against a Puyo Puyo player as they used their skills in their respective games to inhibit their opponent’s progress. It didn’t take long for gamers to realise the biggest issue of Puyo Puyo Tetris, being fundamentally different games and Tetris being more fast-paced providing bigger blocks for the same size of playing screen.
Tetris was the superior game mode. It was proved at AnimEVO 2017 when Amamiya Taiyo, a professional Puyo Puyo player, wiped the floor in a 1 v 3 Tetris vs Puyo.
Undeterred, Sega released Puyo Puyo Champions in 2018 (localized for the States in 2019), which didn’t have the Tetris mode, before finally releasing PPT 2, which allowed players to play against each other using the same game mode i.e. Puyo vs Puyo or Tetris vs Tetris. This reduced the disparity between the game modes and was a welcome change by the competitive community.
Puyo Puyo has come a long way since 1991. It saw a change in the development team and a change in the licensing of the IP now being owned by SEGA, and while usually such changing of responsibility results in deterioration of quality and seasoned gamers won’t have trouble sounding out a long list of IPs that had an incredible start but later dwindled into the realms of mediocrity after being bought out and developers being told to not adhere to the vision that made the product successful in the first place. This is far from the case of Puyo Puyo. In my opinion, Puyo Puyo has been in good hands with Sega and has been treated with the diligence and care its fans deserve.
Puyo Puyo Tetris series features both the games Puyo Puyo and Tetris in the same package. It’s interesting how Puyo Puyo was created because of an oversaturated market of bland Tetris clones and 3 decades later they are being played in the same game, but that’s not the only addition to Sega’s amalgamation.
Puyo Puyo Tetris 2 featured RPG elements a la Puyo Puyo Chronicle (2016), the latter was never localized for a global market, so this was the first time for many to see RPG elements in a Tetris style puzzle game. This changed the core gameplay of the game more than can be imagined. For instance, filling out your screen no longer meant game over; instead, the player lost HP like an action game.
The RPG Element
It goes without saying, but the amount of innovation and creativity required to even consider adding RPG elements to Tetris is, for the most part inconceivable. The fact that it works so well is even more absurd.
Featured in PPT2 as a game mode called “Skill battle”, it adds statistics like HP, Mana and defence like an “Elder Scrolls” and assigns it to the player. The player can then use cards to boost these stats. Players can use the characters’ special abilities in their party to dole out attacks at the cost of their Mana bar. Of course, I cannot describe the RPG element without talking about characters first.
The characters in the original Puyo Puyo were from a different game altogether – Madō Monogatari. Since then, more characters have been added to almost every instalment as allowed by more disk space and improving technology. The 2016 3DS title Puyo Puyo Chronicle was the first in the series to let go of the 2D art style and incorporated a more modern 3D style.
While there is an overarching story stretching all the way back to the first game due to its many missed localisations, one can almost treat PPT 1 as a soft reboot. While the story still makes sense to a new player, veterans may think their characters got hit on the head and lost their memory.
Personally, the more detached gameplay is from the story, the more disinterested I am in it. Some fans might enjoy the story, but I have no feelings towards it. I don’t mind the story exists, and I wouldn’t mind if the next game did not. The fun for me lies in the characters and the different build types that can be made, allowing for more replayability in an already fun and never-ending puzzle game.
Puyo Puyo is a franchise that has not only survived for 30 years but has also managed not to alienate its fanbase. A rare feat, especially in the current climate where it takes just one sequel for the player base to lose all faith in a developer.
A significant factor as to why the fanbase has stayed loyal is that while the developers initially made some wonky and broken mechanics, they have improved on them in subsequent iterations. And while Puyo Puyo Tetris 2, the latest in the series, is not devoid of imbalance, it is closer and acceptable to what we could call an esports title.
PPT2 features a total of 6 different game modes, and all of them can be played against AI or with up to 4 players online or offline.
(Note – all game modes in this list exist in Puyo Puyo Tetris 2. However, some variation might be found in its predecessors).
The basic game mode without any frills or complications. It’s simple PvP (or AI) with a basic Puyo or Tetris board. Players can opt to play the same board or different boards, although it should be noted that some rules change if players are not playing the same board. This is to be expected to balance out Tetris’ pre-determined superiority.
This is the most “RPG” mode in the game. Players have to select a team of 3 characters and 4 skill cards. This selection dictates the playstyle of the player.
It is also interesting to note that not all characters’ skills are unlocked from the get-go. Instead, the player has to unlock them by progressing the individual character level. Also, not all skills will be accessible in both Tetris and Puyo. Some skills are exclusive to their relative board.
While the skills are primarily self-inflicted buffs, some characters have unique skills exclusive to them (Eg – Sonic’s “High Speed” skill that increases the speed of the pieces for the opponent).
Skill Battle also has a unique visual flair and special animations for the characters upon using various skills.
Party game mode is Puyo Puyo’s response to Tetris being superior. Each player is allowed to select Puyo or Tetris for their board but damaging the opponent is no longer the end goal (although it still helps). The goal of this mode is to have the highest score in a set time.
That’s not to say inflicting damage is not incentivised; knocking out your opponent will net you 3000 points and clear the opponent’s board. In addition, several items are dropped onto players’ boards, allowing them to either hinder the opponent or hasten their own progress reaching a better score.
Fusion mixes things up quite literally by using a bigger board (8×17 compared to the standard Puyo board which is 6×13 and the Tetris board which is 10×20) and featuring both Tetris and Puyo pieces.
This game mode takes some aspects from the “Active” game mode in Puyo Puyo 20th Anniversary. Players are allowed to chain multiple Puyos at the same time just like the “Active” game mode.
However, Players can also crush existing Puyos using Tetris pieces. Once the Tetris piece reaches the bottom after crushing the Puyo, the Puyos will fall back into place from the top of the board. If they don’t result in any line or chain clears the current combo ends.
Swap mode is a pretty basic game mode. In theory, Both players have 2 boards – A Tetris one and A Puyo Puyo board. A rather short-timer is played for both players, and upon hitting 0, both players swap boards to the other game. The tricky part is if there is a line clear (Tetris) and a chain clear (Puyo Puyo) within a short amount of time it results in a “Swap combo” which increases the damage of the attack to the opponent.
Big Bang was a mode first introduced in Puyo Puyo Tetris 1, but I believe it has better balancing in the sequel. The object is simple both the players are given a preset board.
Players playing Puyo Puyo will start in a “Fever state” similarly, players playing Tetris will have the “Lucky Attack”. The game’s objective is to clear as many preset boards as possible within the time limit. The player (or side if playing with 4 players) that lagged behind take damage to their HP. The game ends when either side loses all their HP.
Big bang is basically an iteration of “Fever mode” introduced in Puyo Puyo Fever. However, it is an easier variant of it, but as we all know, nothing is easy if it’s multiplayer.
Story & Lore
Some people might raise eyebrows. Lore? In a Tetris game? Surely I must be joking. While the story in no way takes the spotlight for this gem of a game, it is a part of it, and some of the fans take the lore very seriously. And rightly so, the lore stretches back all the way to 1990 with the release of the first Madō Monogatari.
While the lore is not nearly as intricate or deep as Dark Souls, S.T.A.L.K.E.R or Bioshock. It doesn’t have to be complex to be good or be enjoyed by the fans.
The series features many recurring characters and a story mode in almost every iteration. However, due to all games not releasing globally some character interactions and dialogues may not make sense to long time fans, as they feel that the characters reintroduce themselves almost as if they have amnesia and have forgotten interactions from previous games.
Some of the characters like Carbuncle, Arle and Satan are recurring characters however the series introduced new characters as technology got better and more content could be fit into a single game (Remember the original version of the game was 16-bit and might not have been bigger than 2MB in size).
All characters share some kind of positive or negative relationship with each other, for example, Carbuncle is Satan’s pet, but he hangs out with Arle. Satan has a strong belief that whoever Carbuncle chooses to stay with is destined to be his wife and thus claims Arle as his fiancee (Yikes!).
The characters’ personality is most at display in the Skill Battle mode, wherein unique animations and visuals are displayed upon using skills. All characters are also voiced in both Japanese and English, further immersing the players into the Puyo world. There is also a story mode which I wouldn’t blame newcomers for skimming over and playing just to unlock characters and skills, but it is there for those who find the story engaging. Like I said before, I don’t hate the story mode, but I don’t love it either.
Puyo Puyo is one of the oldest franchises to still have an active community and development. Although people working on it may have changed, the quality of the games has seldom seen a dip. It may not be as popular in the west as it is in its home country. It has seen an increase in its player base globally after the release of Puyo Puyo Tetris. Leaderboards have steadily seen an increase of non-Japanese players. At the same time, newcomers are trying to grasp the mechanics and figure out the meta of this one-of-a-kind competitive puzzle game. Puyo Puyo Tetris is available on almost any popular platform – PC, Xbox, PS, Switch.
I enjoyed my time with PPT2, but in my opinion, the Puyo vs Tetris still needs some balancing and overall, there are some mechanics and skills the community wants to get nerfed. However, I think it’s a step in the right direction. Who knows when we will see the next Puyo Puyo, perhaps sooner perhaps later. It would be interesting to see regardless, what decisions are made to better improve this 3-decade old game.
P.S. – During my research on the older non-localized instalments of the game, I came across the term “Kinako” one too many times. Due to my admittedly non-existent experience in Japanese, I haven’t a clue what it translates to. Googling it lead me to some Japanese food recipe blogs, so I haven’t the first. Perhaps “Kinako” is an obscure term used to describe the niche genre Puyo belongs to. As far as my understanding (which, rest assured, is very limited about Japanese as a language), Kinako is some sort of bread? Maybe when Google translate gets better, we’d know for sure.