Game Review: Pokémon Puzzle Challenge & Puzzle League

Only Clefairy remains

Written by ritabuuk and dubiousdisc
Posted on August 24th 2020
Stage 1

Once upon a time in Japan, there was a Super Nintendo puzzle game called Panel de Pon, developed by Intelligent Systems (of Fire Emblem fame). You play as Lip, the fairy of flowers, who wakes up one day to find her other fairy friends have been turned evil. You go on a puzzle adventure to avenge your friends, save them from the grasp of evil, and then all the fairies go to Hell to defeat the demon king himself.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this concept. However, it seems that whoever was in charge of localizing this game hated everything about it. They took out the original characters and only kept the puzzle game itself to be rebranded as an inexplicable Super Mario Bros. spin-off game. Not just a Super Mario Bros. spin-off game, but specifically a Yoshi's Island spin-off game, making this a rebranded spin-off of a spin-off...

Tetris Attack
Panel de Pon
Tetris Attack is wonderful, if you are allergic to fairies.

We cannot find anything as to why, but we can speculate it had to do with how, at that time in the US, marketers were trying to turn video games into a thing for little boys only, and they didn't think that little boys should play a game about fairies, with a fairy as the main character.

Since the game didn't get to come out at that time, we can never know if it would have done well in the US or not. However, it did well in Japan, and we think this could have worked in the US too. This was around the same time as the Care Bears, Rainbow Brite, My Little Pony, Troll dolls, and Lisa Frank - when rainbows were powerful and high fantasy, and fairies were in, and boys weren't yet completely stifled by oppressively gendered marketing. Thinking back to her childhood friends, Denise even thinks that the boys she knew at the time would have enjoyed playing this game without batting an eye at it featuring fairies. And, although the marketers wanted to strictly present video games as a toy for boys, it's not like there were no women or girls who owned a game console themselves, or lived in a house with an console that the whole family could use. TL;DR: marketers are evil.

Is it really true that little boys would have objected to a game with power metal fairies?
Tetris Attack cover
Angry American Garbage Block! And whoever added that text box on the right must be a passionate graphic designer.

Not content to mess with the entire soul of the game, the localizers also completely messed up the name. Panel de Pon wouldn't do, so they called it Tetris Attack. Even though it has nothing to do with Tetris. The only thing it shares with Tetris is that they're both puzzle games, and there are blocks to move around. And it has very little to do with Attack, either. While the game is often two-player versus, with successful moves from one player impeding the other, the word "attack" is... needlessly aggressive for a puzzle game about blocks. It also makes it sound like this is the cool version of Tetris, or the hard version of Tetris, or like the Tetris shapes are coming to attack you... and none of this is remotely true. They called it Tetris Attack just to piggyback on the success of Tetris, in the same way that rebranding this as a Mario game was piggybacking on the success of Mario, because, according to the marketers from above, original things don't sell, and everything should just be a sequel or a spin-off of the one thing that somehow slipped through their fingers and got to be successful without their meddling.

The people involved with Tetris were unhappy with this naming stunt, which they feel both harmed the Tetris brand, and made it so that Panel de Pon could not be appreciated in its own right and remembered with its own name.

Nintendo came to me soon after we formed The Tetris Company, and we were just wrestling with what we were going to do. And so, at the time, we had the copyright, the gameplay, and the name “Tetris”, and our Russian partners, [...] Electronica Technica, they wanted to make money, no matter what. That’s it, “however you could make money, make money”. When Nintendo came to us, and said “we would like to take this Japanese game called Panel de Pon, and rename it Tetris Attack, I’m saying, “it’s not Tetris”. But my partner’s saying “but it is money!” [...] In retrospect, we should never have done that. I don’t think that’s a good idea. It dilutes the brand, it’s like naming another cartoon character Mickey Mouse just cause you need the money. It’s just a bad idea. [...] [Panel de Pon] was a good game! But the game should have had its own life, its own name. [...] It should have had its own name. It kind of got lost in history cause it got the name Tetris, but it’s not Tetris. It could have, it should have stood up on its own two feet.
Henk Rogers (Interview with Alexey Pajitnov and Henk Rogers on Tetris)

Nintendo of America did this piggybacking for some short-sighted marketing bullshit, which in the end made it so that, outside of Japan, this game lacked a name to be remembered by, and therefore couldn't become known as a new branch of puzzle games. It seems like a small thing, but being able to talk about something is important to its longevity as an idea. You can go to a random person and talk about Bejeweled, and they might know and remember this title and what it means, and then you can tell them all about Puzzle Quest and its Bejeweled-playing sandworms. But if you go to a random person and talk about Tetris Attack, you kinda need to start with a preamble like we're doing right now, or else they'll think it's actually related with Tetris when it's not, it's another game entirely with completely different mechanics, there are no Tetris shapes, you don't have to make a complete line, and no, The Sims 2 is not the same game as The Sims 2 or The Sims 2 and just... TL;DR: marketers are evil.

Puzzle Challenge boxart

So, this preamble was to start talking about Pokémon Puzzle Challenge, which is yet another repackaging of Panel de Pon. It was originally developed as a Game Boy port or sequel of the SNES Panel de Pon, but, partway through development, Intelligent Systems was instructed to rebrand it as a Pokémon game, both inside and outside of Japan. The poor fairies get no love, and now Nintendo is piggybacking on three franchises of no actual relevance to the game.

Artwork involving the fairies is still hidden in the code of Puzzle Challenge, and accessible by inputting the longest cheat code we've ever seen:

Puzzle Challenge secret pause screen with Lip the fairy
If using a non-GBC Game Boy, Panel de Pon GB can accessed from the GBC-only screen by pressing A (24x), B (24x). (You will hear a chime after pressing each button the required amount of times.) If on a Game Boy Color or a newer handheld, the GBC-only screen must first be triggered from the title screen by entering Up (2x), Right (4x), Down, Left (10x), Up (4x), Right, Down (6x), B. Once the screen is displayed, pressing A (24x), B (24x) will launch Panel de Pon GB.
The Cutting Room Floor: Pokémon Puzzle Challenge

By when you'll be done inputting that, you won't have any fingers left to play the actual game with.

Even though we imagine this decision was foisted upon them and they had to rip out all their original fairy characters with tears in their eyes, Intelligent Systems did a great job at making this game into a Pokémon game, though. It is such a wonderful celebration of Johto.

Choose your Pokémon

In the main Challenge mode, you play the game as Gold (Ethan) on his journey through Johto, and battling all of the Gym Leaders and other trainers on the way to face the Elite Four and finally Lance. There are also a Marathon mode (endless play), a puzzle mode in which you have to clear a board in a determinate number of moves, and other side modes.

In Pokémon Puzzle Challenge, you play Panel de Pon as a stand-in for the Pokémon battles. During each puzzle battle, there are little sprites of your Pokémon and your opponent's Pokémon, and they animate based on what is happening in the game, but they are actually cosmetic. The only purpose of you having more than one Pokémon is that each Pokémon represents a "life". If you lose against an opponent with Chikorita, Chikorita faints and is no longer available for the rest of this run. But you can still use any of your other Pokémon to keep trying. When you run out of Pokémon, Game Over, try again.

We like trying to pick the Pokémon that makes sense according to type match-up, but that's only for our own internal roleplaying in our own heads, as it doesn't actually make any difference in the game play. You can pick the most ineffectual and disadvantageous type match-ups according to the main series games, Totodile against Pikachu if you want, but it doesn't matter. So, instead, you can just go with your favorite Pokémon that is available in the game and not worry about it.

The Johto starters in the opening

Even though the Pokémon artwork is cosmetic, boy if it is cosmetic. The sprites are a joy. The animations are so nice. When we learned that this game was made by Intelligent Systems, which, two years later, would go on and release Fire Emblem 6 with the spritework that we also adore, everything made more sense.

The music is amazing, too, with both remixes of known Pokémon music and even some original tracks. When you are in trouble, the music gets appropriately alarmed. The remix of the music for the final battle against Lance is Hardcore as All Fuck.

The sound effects and special effects are spot-on as well. When you're about to lose underneath a giant garbage block, all the tiles squish and sag under the pressure. As you make long and difficult chains, the pitch of the sound effects gets higher and higher until the Game Boy is squealing, as if it cannot deal with how awesome you're being. When the game gets intense, the way things slow down and squish and the sound effects scream make it really seem like the Game Boy is bursting at the seams with awesome.

This loud fucker.

During the Pokémon battles, when a combo or a chain is pulled off, the Pokémon that did that will do its cry. Most of the time, it's a good detail. However, some Pokémon in this game have really obnoxious cries. We mean Steelix especially. You must defeat Jasmine as quickly as possible to not have to hear that clattering sound again. Jynx, too. Try harder difficulty modes to hear non-stop screaming of Pokémon. We don't disagree with the choice of Pokémon, just, that's so loud.

The choice of what to put in the game is very good, too. The game features all the Gym Leaders of Johto with bonus artwork of them in front of their home town, with all the detail of what's most notable about each town, and this is all sprite art, with limited color palettes, and they look so good... And this was back when we had no art of these characters, so seeing this artwork in this game was mind-blowing. Frankly, we still don't have any better official art of these characters, and certainly not with as much love and skill as this.

Falkner Bugsy Whitney Morty Jasmine Chuck Pryce Clair

Plus, each Gym Leader will fight with one of their signature Pokémon, which gets also special artwork and animations. And then, as Gold, your Pokémon team is the quintessential Johto experience. At first, you only have the starters, but as you progress through the game and do certain cool moves, you may be challenged by a special Trainer, winning against which will unlock a certain Pokémon. If you do it all, your starters will be joined by Marill, Pikachu, Sentret, Togepi, Pichu, and Bellossom, plus Igglybuff, Elekid, Magby, and Cleffa in Marathon mode. What a wonderful team. They knew what we cared about.

The game does not tell you how to unlock these Pokémon. At the time, you would have just played a lot and maybe eventually met the requirements, and maybe you'd never know exactly what you did that led to a certain Pokémon becoming available. If you had a guide, maybe you had more of a clue of what you had to do, but the guides weren't very clear either, leading to the current information that you can find on the Internet being unclear or even flat out wrong.

We tested this out ourselves, so let us set it straight. Be sure to take notice of which is a chain and which is a combo. To unlock any of these Pokémon, you must be playing Challenge mode in Normal or higher difficulty, and pull off one of these objectives in a successful Gym battle before you fight Clair. If you are successful, you will unlock the appearance of a trainer who will challenge you to battle. If you win against them, they will gift you their Pokémon. You can only unlock the appearance of a trainer once per run. If you'd like, we also added our personal suggestions as for when and how to pull off these feats:

By the way, the way you do all of this is essentially achievements, before games had achievements. Plus, you get something in-game for it, with the fact that you have unlocked Sentret as your badge of how badass you are.

Overall, this game is super fun and super wonderful and it fills us with happiness. The game balance is perfect, never too frustrating or too easy, as you can set your difficulty as you want. It's full of surprises, too. There's the unlockable Pokémon, and... (click to reveal spoilers) not one, but two bonus difficulty settings! You thought you were cool because you beat the game in Hard mode? Try Super Hard! You thought you were super cool because you beat the game in Super Hard mode? What about Intense? It blew our mind that they added a new mode not once, but twice. And, by the way, is Intense appropriately named or what? You essentially spend the entire game in sudden death mode. With non-stop Pokémon cries as they attack in nothing less than chains of ten.

Pokémon Puzzle League

Pokémon Puzzle League
Only for Nintendo 64, thankfully

Now, for something similar but completely different, let's talk about Pokémon Puzzle League on the Nintendo 64.

Puzzle League is also a Pokémon game based on Panel de Pon, but it's based specifically on the 4Kids dub of the Pokémon anime. It was developed in the US, and only ever released in North America and in Europe - Japan didn't need this, they were happy with their fairies. It roughly follows the plot of the anime, with Ash going through the Kanto Gym Leaders, and meeting other side characters on the way.

Unlike with Puzzle Challenge, we didn't play this game when it was new, so our reactions here are almost... archeological. 4Kids hasn't been involved in the dubbing of the Pokémon anime for ages now, and everything about this game is no longer relevant, but it gives us feelings of nostalgia for the time. It's like finding an episode of the old anime that we never saw before.

An extremely low-budget episode, though. Just as we talked about how beautiful Puzzle Challenge looks for being a Game Boy Color game with such limited capabilities, we need to talk about how terrible this game looks while being on the Nintendo 64. Even though this game should have immensely higher resolution than the Game Boy Color's tiny screen, it looks worse rather than better. Everything is so small and low-contrast. And that's during gameplay... but this game also has cutscenes. Cutscenes which are better described as slideshows with animated details, and look to have been created in PowerPoint using traced screen-caps from the anime. These seem to have been created specifically for this game, or at least edited together specifically for this game. We remember some scenes from the anime that were kinda like this, but not. It looks like a fever dream of the Pokémon anime. And this game was made by the US team. Did they commission the Japanese anime team for $20 worth of animation? Because, yeah, that's what it looks like. Beyond the quality of the animation, there's the concept of what we're seeing. It's baffling.

Ash poolside with drink and phone
What is even going on.

As soon as the game starts, you are treated to a cutscene of Ash lounging poolside, wearing his jeans, black T-shirt, and gloves, minus his usual jacket and hat. You know, typical poolside attire. He is enjoying a fancy glass of lemonade (lemon-slice and all). Pikachu is also enjoying a drink as it floats in an inner tube, wearing a pair of cool shades. Suddenly, a telephone rings. Somehow, Ash is holding a cordless telephone, and the visuals cut to a video call of Professor Oak, who informs Ash about his invitation to an upcoming prestigious Puzzle tournament. Pikachu lowers the shades like some sort of gangster rockstar asshole (which, to be fair, is in-character), and Ash decides to go sign up right now. For some reason, Professor Oak then squishes his face against the glass and yells at top volume. This is traced from when Professor Oak would get glomped by Muk, but Muk isn't there, and there is no reason for Professor Oak to be acting this way. It's like he's urgently trying to reach Ash before he leaves, in order to give him the vital information of... be sure to check out the tutorial. Yeah, okay.

The fact that Oak is telling Ash about this puzzle tournament and the existence of a puzzle village means that the puzzles are somehow literal, when in Puzzle Challenge they were actually Pokémon battles played through the puzzle. And yet, somehow, Ash needs to solve a puzzle by sending out his Pokémon, and everyone is also fighting with Pokémon while solving puzzles. Are the Pokémon solving the puzzles?

Professor Oak squished to the screen
What is even going on.

So, Ash grabs his jacket and the camera cuts to him running through the grass at light speed (now in his full outfit), and then he's on a hill overlooking, not Viridian City, but, less glamorously, Pokémon Puzzle League Village, as the giant sign points out.

Pokémon Puzzle League Village
Plenty of real estate to add: "Gary was here. Ash is a loser."

During the cutscenes, the camera cuts go so fast back-and-forth, it looks like some sort of meme, or Dingo Pictures movie, or like a parody of itself. You can watch it yourself here. If you must.

If you ever skip watching this entire opening cutscene that plays whenever you start up the game, the last frame you saw will haunt you for the rest of your play session - it will appear any time something else is loading, revealing that this game was programmed on approximately a $20 budget as well.

The befabled Puzzle Village acts as a menu. The game modes are mostly the same as Puzzle Challenge, plus the ability of having two-player couch vs-mode, this being a console game that is meant to be suffered by the whole family. Like in Puzzle Challenge, the main attraction is the Challenge Mode, which is the story mode of the game - if you want to call whatever is going on in this game a story.

To a casual observer, the gameplay is exactly the same as Puzzle Challenge or Panel de Pon. But actually, it's like... Wrong Puzzle Challenge. The speed at which you can move around, and at which the game itself is moving, is such that we find ourselves never being able to move fast enough while the game is outrunning us.

Puzzle League
It looks like there's nothing amiss, but trust us, ok?

There is something wrong with the way it controls. Rosy described it as trying to play the game though ten daisy-chained controllers. Denise described it as if she were trying to work a controller that had been sunk into a cube of Jell-O. There is a delay between what you intend to do and the speed at which the cursor moves across the screen. In all the aforementioned instances of Panel de Pon, whenever we lose, it is always because we failed at doing something. We face the Game Over screen going, "Aw, goddamn it, I fucked up." In this game, instead, losing is a function of the game being poorly made, and we blame the game instead.

This means that, in this game, we are constantly gasping for breath and not able to devote any forethought to constructing awesome chains, because at any time, any big garbage block that comes our way could spell instant death. In other versions of Panel de Pon, we can strategize when to be defensive vs. when to go on the offensive, and when is the time to make a big complicated move vs. when is the time to quick get a stop and clear away some junk. In Puzzle League, instead, it feels like we just can't go any faster than we already are going, and it's somehow nowhere near fast enough, and we're getting nothing done anyway.

So in this game, the game itself somehow doesn't function as well. That's why they added a completely new game mode. In Threeeee Deeeee!

Pokémon Puzzle League in 3D

Rather than the tiles being in a rectangle, it is like the two sides are bent around to form a cylinder. Now there are no sides, and you can switch the blocks around the whole cylinder. This means that you can only easily view one sliver of the board at any time. So, the result is that you can get absolutely nothing done anywhere. Whatever you are doing on one side, you are neglecting something on the other side. We feel like we can't see anything properly, no thanks to the warped effect of the cylinder. Moving the cursor around changes the view in a nauseating way. In other words, it feels like whatever tiny bit of control over the game we had in 2D mode is now completely gone. While we appreciate the attempt to add a new twist and more challenge, this game mode is just not fun.

One thing we found interesting going from Puzzle Challenge to Puzzle League is that, in Puzzle League, we can see the opponent's board, and what moves the AI is making. As is to be expected from an AI, it's simultaneously inhumanly good and yet has no clue. In higher difficulties, it moves around like greased lightning, in contrast with our jello-encased-daisy-chained mess. Well, of course, it doesn't need to use a controller. It makes moves while on the way to its primary objective, setting up moves like ten steps ahead. And yet, it completely misses on obvious things. The AI also has no fear about scrolling the board up to get more blocks, even if it means putting itself in unnecessary peril - and we've seen the AI opponent lose in that way. In its greed for setting up a ten-chain, it will disregard the rising column off the side, and lose so pathetically like that.

But the part of this game that stands out the most is the sound. Let's begin with the soundtrack. It's all based on the music 4Kids produced for Pikachu's Jukebox and trailers and whatnot. All these songs have always been absolute cheese, but here, they are presented in what sounds like instrumental midi versions. In particular, My Best Friends (the 80s power ballad cheese wheel that goes "you will always be my beeeest frieeeends"), sounds like it's being played on a distant midi church organ, which shifts the tone from cheesy to unintentionally unsettling, like a nightmare involving clowns.

In Puzzle Challenge, we said the music gets more intense when you're in danger. In Puzzle League, we think there was an attempt to do that, but the choice of the more intense music is not nearly as intense as appropriate. It's sometimes hard to tell which of the two tracks is the intense one. Plus, we think the game is deciding when to play the intense music by checking if either player is in danger, which means that you might be doing perfectly fine, and you'll hear the intense music all of a sudden, because it's actually the AI-controlled opponent who's in trouble because they willingly scrolled their blocks up to the top to set up that ten-chain. Apparently, the game is on the AI's side. That makes sense.

Music aside, all the characters in this game are voice acted! And it's not like they're just recycling anime clips, it sounds like they got the original 4Kids voice actors to do all new lines just for this game! That's impressive. Even the Pokémon are voice-acted, for the most part. Even though Nidoqueen is using the stock bear sound, and Arcanine sounds like a person mocking a dog, and Abra sounds like it's dying.

Unfortunately, during the gameplay, each character has two lines, the line for when they do a combo and the line for when they break a block of garbage. So, it will get repetitive. Sometimes, they do both at the same time, so they say both lines at the same time. Which can lead to some hilarious mishmash lines. Giovanni's lines are "You're wasting my time" and "Your world will be mine". When he tries to say both at the same time, no thanks to the voice acting being kinda muffled, we end up thinking we heard things like "Your world will be time", "You're wasting my mime", and "You will be mine". We almost lose just out of how much it makes us laugh.

Our favorite, though, is Blaine. In his chain-smoking nasal voice, he goes, "When you're hot, you're hot". We also like to interrupt him when he awards us his badge at the end, so that he says, "Congratulations! You've won the volcano". It's your problem now!

Beyond the Gym Leaders, there are also a few other characters that appear in the anime. Gary is there. Tracey is there, unbelievably. Ritchie is there, with his Pokémon Sparky, Zippo, and Happy. And, surprisingly, Lorelei is there, and she's even called Lorelei, even though the anime changed her name to Prima. Since Lance and Agatha never appeared back then in the anime, the Elite Four of this game is actually just the Elite Two: Lorelei and Bruno.

Team Rocket's Golbat
When did they ever get a Golbat? What about Lickitung or Victreebel? What about Meowth?

In the Puzzle Village, there is a building labeled "Spa Service". This label didn't interest us enough to click on it until we played every other game mode. We were wrong, though, because this part of the game is centered on Team Rocket. In this section, Jessie, James, and Meowth are running a spa, as a homage to the episode where Jessie and James run a hair salon. This is however only a front to steal Ash's Pokémon, and so they take Bulbasaur and Squirtle, leaving Ash only with Pikachu. For some out of character reason. The story is that Ash is chasing Team Rocket all over the Puzzle Village, and finding where they're hiding in disguise. We thought that this would involve some in-game scavenger hunt, but it's actually only flavor text for each level, and explains why Team Rocket is shown in different costumes throughout this mode.

The gameplay of this part is the same as the Line Clear mode from Puzzle Challenge. What is more of note is the new art of Jessie, James, and Meowth in some of their most iconic costumes. The first one is the viking costumes from Mewtwo Strikes Back. Never in our lives did we think we'd ever see that again. There's also James's wedding gown, the yakuza costumes, and Meowth as the swan from swan lake. Maybe we're just Team Rocket losers, but we were very gleeful to see this. There's also once again the sound aspect: this part has more lines for Jessie, James, and Meowth. When you're getting in trouble, they laugh at you. But when you do well, they also root for you. That's adorable.

Team Rocket's wedding costumes
Remember that episode when the fandom went nuts?

And, guess who else is there? (click to reveal spoilers)

Team Rocket 2
Like they would willingly introduce themselves as number two.

Along the way of doing the Line Clear with Jessie and James, you'll be interrupted by a battle with Butch and Cassidy. They introduce themselves as Team Rocket 2. This is what 4Kids thinks they should be called?

Another character that we weren't expecting to see was Mewtwo. Together with Pikatwo even. We never expected to see Pikatwo in a game. Mewtwo's voice acting in this game was a part of figuring out the mystery of his undead voice actor.

Ash with the trophy
Was it a portkey?

The Mewtwo stage is reached once you defeat Gary in Super Hard mode. There's a cutscene of Ash getting his trophy... Then he looks inside the trophy, and all of a sudden he's in Mewtwo's castle. Mewtwo is there, taunting Ash, saying he's the Puzzle Master, and it's his destiny to beat Ash at puzzles. Remember that plotpoint from the movie?

If you manage to beat Mewtwo, Ash gets hit by a beam of light traced from the end of Mewtwo Strikes Back, and is teleported back to the pool. He immediately starts ranting about how it was a dream, and then notices the trophy on the poolside table - not the trophy from before, this is a glass monolith kind of trophy, you know those ones that are never as cool as the cups. Oh, so it wasn't a dream after all. Nice. And that's how the game ends. Mewtwo's voice proclaims Ash the Puzzle Master. This whole experience has been the weirdest thing.

So, in conclusion, this game is trash, but it made us laugh a lot. At least to us old fart Pokémon fans, hearing the voice actors do these unique lines was fun and nostalgic. Blaine's lines alone were fun enough to make this a worthwhile experience. Don't play it, though. Play the one on the Game Boy Color.