Fans of Lumines and Meteos will appreciate the subtle and addictive design of Groovin' Blocks, the first must-own WiiWare title.
Everyone knows that the best action-puzzle games, like Tetris, connect with something deep in your brain tissue. They are so simple that you barely have to think, yet so satisfying that you can't stop playing. These are games that make you zone out, entering into something like a Zen state of consciousness. You probably wouldn't expect puzzle gaming's "holy grail" to be found on WiiWare, at least outside Hudson's upcoming version of Tetris. And yet here is Groovin' Blocks, a brilliant little game that combines falling blocks and hard-hitting beats for something fresh and totally mesmerizing.
The core gameplay is instantly familiar – colored blocks fall from the top, and you try to shuffle the colors and place the pieces so that three or more same-colored blocks will match up and disappear. There are a couple of minor tweaks worth mentioning. First, clearing blocks is "contagious", meaning that adjacent blocks of the same color (but not in the matching set) will also be zapped away. Second, there are power-up blocks with useful effects like slowing down falling blocks, shifting the colors of nearby blocks, and destroying nearby blocks.
What sets Groovin' Blocks apart is the integration of rhythm into the gameplay. Every level is set to a different techno song, meaning there is a finite end once the song is over. This effectively breaks up the game into short bursts (usually three to five minutes long), which is nice for quick sessions.
The point of having these driving techno songs is to provide a heavy beat that sets the tempo of gameplay. As with Tetris and other puzzle games, you can press down on the D-pad to immediately drop a block into place. If you drop blocks on the beat of the music, they'll be worth more points and will eventually build up a score multiplier. It's a simple little addition that feels natural but adds a lot of depth to how you play. Don't be embarrassed to nod your head or tap your foot while playing… those are legitimate strategies for high scores! For those of us with no innate sense of rhythm, there's also a visual indicator of the beats, so you can just rely on hand-eye coordination and good timing. If even that is too hard, you can always ignore the music and play Groovin' Blocks like any other puzzle game. There's no penalty for doing so; you just won't score as many points or activate the power-up blocks.
What's impressive about the rhythm element is that it is so smoothly integrated with the rest of the game. It never feels like you're playing two games at once. What could have been a distraction instead actually helps you slide into that groovy state of mind and play the game even better. When everything finally clicks in your brain, Groovin' Blocks is on par with some of the best puzzle games ever made.
Where it may not quite reside in that pantheon is in terms of longevity. The game's design relies on different songs to provide variety, but the track list is slightly shorter than I would have liked. Still, the amount of music packed into the game is very respectable for a downloadable game. Moreover, each song can be replayed to get higher scores, which is encouraged by the unlockable content structure. New songs and upgraded power-ups are revealed by ranking highly on each level. The "Casual" tier is easy to open up, but the two other tiers are significantly harder and include a couple of extra songs not available on Casual.
Other features include a standard versus mode for two players and a more unusual cooperative mode, in which you bothplace blocks on the same field. It's fun and hectic but also unfulfilling, since the game doesn't record your cooperative score or ranking. The lack of any kind of high score table or online leader board is also mildly disappointing.
Groovin' Blocks is one of those games that can be hard to explain, but it is easy to pick up and understand once you play it. It's special among WiiWare games for being such a well-rounded, complete package and for avoiding common gimmicks like misplaced motion control and garish Mii integration. This game could easily be released on Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network, and it probably will be in the future. That's certainly no reason to avoid it on WiiWare, as this is easily one of the most polished games on the service and also happens to be a great value at a relatively low price. With its broad appeal, simple gameplay, and addictive nature, Groovin' Blocks should be occupying a couple hundred memory blocks on everyone's Wii.