Here's another reason to own a Nintendo DS.
Puzzle games and portable systems go hand-in-hand. Tetris is virtually synonymous with the original Game Boy, and various spin-offs of that classic have been released on handhelds ever since. There have been some great titles during that time (Magical Tetris Challenge and Puyo Pop, for example), but it’s been a while since players have been presented with something truly new and different on the puzzle scene. That is, until the release of Q Entertainment’s Meteos.
Meteos tells the story (yes, there is a story) of a rogue planet, Meteo, that appears from the depths of space and begins attacking other planets with deadly rocks known as “meteos”. The planets are defenseless until they discover that meteos can be fused together, causing them to launch into space and harmlessly explode into dust. Harnessing this explosive power for their own purposes, the planets create a warship – the “Metamo Ark” – capable of fusing and launching meteos. The Ark embarks on a mission to destroy Meteo and save as many planets as possible along the way.
While fully grounded in the “falling blocks” genre, it’s how blocks are combined and what happens to them afterwards that makes Meteos unique. Using the stylus and touch screen, players drag falling blocks of varying patterns up and down vertical columns. Matching three or more blocks of the same pattern, either vertically or horizontally, causes them to “fuse” into a single block and launch into the air. Fused blocks lift up those above them, allowing you to perform more combos on the lifted stack to keep propelling it upwards. Once blocks disappear off the top of the screen they are eliminated and launched at the opposing planet.
It’s a simple concept that’s easy to grasp, even for novice players. After learning the basics, you can move on to more advanced techniques that let you eliminate large chunks of blocks in a hurry. For example, the “Step Jump” (so named in the manual) involves matching blocks on the bottom corner of a descending stack with blocks from the columns beside it. Once the stack reaches the “ground”, it immediately fuses with the adjacent blocks and both stacks are lifted. You can keep doing this on both sides of a stack until you’ve lifted all blocks on the screen. When a stack is in the air, you can keep completing combos on it to launch it even higher. Horizontal combos give the stack a little bit of lift, while vertical combos usually send it rocketing off the screen. It’s great fun seeing how many blocks you can eliminate at once.
The force of gravity also differs by planet. Some planets have very strong gravity, meaning that launched stacks begin descending almost immediately and require multiple combos to be eliminated. Planets with weaker gravity let stacks descend slowly, giving you lots of time to stage your next move. Some planets have specific launch criteria, such as requiring stacks to be launched by horizontal combos only. With over thirty planets available, there’s more than enough variety to keep you on your toes.
Special items also drop onto the playing field. There are bombs that clear out entire rows of blocks, giant hammers that smash them at random, and smart bombs that clear the entire screen. These items are typically activated by tapping them with the stylus, but some activate automatically or only when cleared. The appearance of these items during play can be toggled on and off in the Options menu, so they can be turned off if you think they give an unfair advantage.
Items are especially important in multiplayer mode. Meteos supports up to four players in both VS. Mode (each player has a copy of Meteos) and DS Download Play mode (only one player has a copy). The difference is that you have the ability to pick any unlocked planet in VS. Mode, while DS Download Play only allows you to choose from four pre-selected planets. VS. Mode also saves everybody's stats (e.g. number of blocks cleared) just like the one player game, whereas DS Download Play does not. If you have some friends who aren’t sold on the game, this is the way to do it.
Gameplay is not without flaws, however. One of the complaints I’ve heard levied against Meteos is that you can “cheat” by randomly dragging blocks up and down, with the logic being that you’ll eventually form a combo by joining three blocks of the same type. I have to admit that this works to a certain degree, and it can get you out of some sticky situations in a manner that requires little skill or strategy. However, blocks drop too quickly to make it effective on a regular basis, and it’s a lot more sensible to plan out what you’re doing so that you can clear blocks in large quantities. Besides, playing the game this way isn’t much fun, so doing it just to prove a point doesn’t make much sense.
Meteos also has selectable difficulty and stock (number of times you get to retry the level) for all single-player modes (you can also play multiplayer against computer opponents, and even team up with a computer partner). There are five difficulty settings, and while this is a welcome feature, its effect on gameplay is often detrimental due to the cheap computer AI. On the most difficult setting your computer opponent doesn’t necessarily play any better or smarter than you do; instead, it simply dumps an entire screenful of blocks on you at random intervals. This leaves you scrambling and frustrated because you go from being totally in control to being completely devastated within seconds. A little more reasonable AI would have made the higher difficulty settings more enjoyable.
Meteos features one of the best implementations yet introduced for the DS’s touch screen and stylus controls. Dragging blocks up and down columns with the stylus is a breeze, providing a genuinely new way to play that’s a refreshing change from the D-Pad-driven puzzlers of the past. Control is precise for the most part, but the small size of the meteos blocks means that you’ll sometimes think you’ve grabbed one when you haven’t. Dragging a block from top to bottom is also tricky, because it’s easy to accidentally slide your stylus into the next column (therefore de-selecting your block) during the drag without realizing it. These gripes aren’t a big deal, but they do force you to pay close attention when selecting blocks and can cost you precious split-seconds when things get hectic.
There are non-touch controls as well, but they were clearly an afterthought. Players use the D-Pad to move a cursor around the playfield, “swapping” meteos with the A-button. The idea is to move them up and down each column by switching their positions with the one above or below, but the cursor is too slow and quickly moving a block more than a few spaces is practically impossible. You’ll want to stick with the stylus for this one.
Fortunately, Meteos features lots of different game modes to practice your controls with. The single-player mode has four variations: Simple, Deluge, Time War, and Star Trip. Simple lets you play as long as you can, with the blocks gradually dropping faster and faster. Deluge is similar, but the goal is to clear as many blocks as possible while they drop at a frenzied pace. Time War breaks down into four different time-related challenges: highest score in two minutes, highest score in five minutes, quickest time to clear 100 blocks, and quickest time to clear 1000 blocks. The first three challenges are more fun than difficult, but the 1000 block challenge is a tough one. As of this writing I’ve only been able to reach about 800 blocks before getting overwhelmed.
The jewel of one-player is Star Trip. The equivalent of a Story Mode, Star Trip’s premise is to have you defeat several consecutive planets in preparation for an ultimate showdown with Meteo itself. There are three different scenarios to choose from, two of which feature branching planet paths leading to multiple endings. For the third scenario, simply beating the level isn’t good enough. To get the “rarest” ending you must also fulfill challenges on each planet, such as clearing the screen of blocks or eliminating at least 200 blocks during the level. This is the mode you’ll spend countless hours with, traveling down all possible routes to see all the endings (some of them are quite nonsensical and humorous) while encountering new planets. Five levels of difficulty ensure that things won’t get too easy if you don’t want them to.
Another addictive feature is the ability to unlock new content in the “Fusion” store. As you complete levels, the game keeps a running tally of the number and types of blocks cleared (there are ten types initially). These blocks are used as currency to “fuse” (purchase) new block types, planets, items and level soundtracks. This is a great addition and you have to wonder why it isn't used in other puzzle games. It’s a great incentive to play more than you normally would, but it doesn’t feel forced or come off as a cheap ploy to extend playtime. Instead, it feels like a great opportunity to see what rare stuff is out there, and open up some really cool music.
Speaking of music, no review of Meteos would be complete without praising its excellent audio. Themes throughout the menus are top-notch, sounding at times like they’re coming out of a GameCube instead of a Nintendo DS. Each planet has its own dynamic soundtrack, comprised of a single backbeat (usually a drum of some sort, but there are other sounds as well) peppered with other types of percussion and player-triggered sound effects. Launching a stack might trigger a cymbal, while fusing a combo on a descending stack will elicit applause from a disembodied crowd. It sure beats hearing the same tired theme over and over again. Depending on the planet, soundtracks range from ambient sounds to rock and roll guitar riffs. Woodland planets have waterfall sounds in the background, while high-tech planets feature pumping techno. It’s impressive for a handheld game and will consistently blow you away with its quality and variety.
Meteos’s visuals are equally as stunning. The first proof is the amazing full-motion video sequence during the game’s introduction - it makes the movie in the Metroid Prime: Hunters demo look primitive by comparison. From then on you’re treated to visuals that go above and beyond what you’d expect from a puzzle game. Each planet has its own unique background and “look”, and the symbols used for each block type vary to reflect a planet’s overall style. Menus are clean, clear, and easy to navigate, with a design highly reminiscent of those in Super Smash Bros. Melee (just as Nintendo’s brawler allows you to “tilt” the screen with the C-stick, Meteos allows you to rearrange menu options by dragging them around with the stylus).
Both screens are used throughout, but gameplay takes place exclusively on the bottom touch screen. The top screen is more for utility than anything else; for example, when you’re in the Fusion store it displays your block inventory, and it shows you what planet you’re battling against. Its most significant use during gameplay is to display a close-up view of your opponent’s playing field. By tapping on a camera icon on the right side of the screen you can cycle through all the players currently involved in the game to see how well they’re doing. It’s not entirely useful (usually things are happening so quickly on the bottom screen that you won’t have time to examine the top), but it’s a cool extra.
That’s the running theme with Meteos – cool extras. Q Entertainment has gone the extra mile in virtually every facet of the game, giving it a sense of polish seldom seen in titles of any genre. The controls can be tricky and the AI can be cheap on hard difficulty settings, but playing with the stylus is a blast and it’s an entirely new experience to boot. Meteos is undoubtedly one of the best games on Nintendo DS and a must-own for every puzzler fan.