My current Facebook cover photo is a screenshot of my favorite cutscene moment from Puyo Puyo Tetris. My current profile picture is of Ringo, the main character of the third of three Puyo Puyo universes. *record scratch, freeze frame* You must be wondering: How did I get here?
To understand involves going back to where it all started, one undergrad college era ago. I was hanging at my friends’ on-campus apartment, and one of our other friends brought over one of those PS2 Sega Genesis game collections for everyone to play and see.
It had some of the usual standard fare—Sonic games, Golden Axe, the works—but mixed in there somewhere was this weird competitive gravity-centric Sonic puzzle game spin-off. Using one of the Sonic television shows (and the purported lesser show at that) as its basis.
I bore witness to Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine. Its existence was bizarre, but little did I know at the time that it was just one part of a somehow far weirder legacy.
The hints of that began showing up in short time, though, when I found out from my then-friend-now-girlfriend that it was a rendition of a game series called Puyo Pop, as the title was localized in the US. She even had the one Nintendo DS version that came out in the States, Puyo Pop Fever. This Dr. Robotnik thing, it turned out, was a re-skinned localization—Doki Doki Panic re-purposed as Super Mario Bros. 2-style— of one of the early Genesis-era Puyo games.
Fun fact: Neither of us knew at the time that there was also ANOTHER re-skin of the same game for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, Kirby’s Avalanche.
For the uninitiated, Puyo Puyo is a puzzle game in a somewhat similar vein to Dr. Mario, but more competition-focused. The pieces, like Dr. Mario’s pills, are a pair of single or double-colored puyo which get dropped from the ceiling to be positioned and rotated before reaching the floor. Unlike the pills, however, pairs of puyo are not solid and rigid. If one of the puyo hangs over empty space, it will separate from the other and fall until it drops onto either the floor or another puyo.
To clear out puyo, you connect four or more of the same color together. Upon popping, the puyo still on the board will fall into their new places as dictated by gravity, which is of vast importance in terms of technique and strategy: It’s possible to set up the pieces such that when one group of puyo are popped, the puyo sitting above can then fall in such a way that another group of four or more puyo connect together, thereby popping that second group as well. Do that, and you will have just performed a chain—in this example, a two-chain.
With enough intelligent piece placement, it is possible to set up longer and larger chains of popped puyo, potentially reaching Rube Goldberg machine levels of ridiculous-ness. Being able to do that is essential, not just because it rids your board of clutter, but also because that is how to attack and (in later games of the series, post-original game/Mean Bean Machine/Kirby’s Avalanche) defend against your opponent.
Clearing large amounts of puyo builds up a reserve of gray-colored “nuisance puyo” to be dropped on your opponent’s board, analogous to garbage lines that pop up from the ground in battle-centric Tetris game modes. At its weakest, these puyo can mess up somebody’s game plan by covering up their hard work. At its strongest, it can fill up their board to the brim, leading to their defeat.
The more puyo popped—whether from popping more than four puyo at a time or (the stronger option) making long chains—the more nuisance sent to your enemy. And if you are about to receive world of hurt from being dropped on your head thanks to a good chain? Well, you’d better counteract their nuisance puyo with a good chain of your own, then!
That all adds up to a highly difficult yet thoroughly satisfying puzzle game. At the basest level, setting up a nice chain and seeing everything get decimated in sequence feels just plain good. Going deeper, however, whereas the likes of Tetris and Tetris Attack/Pokémon Puzzle League prioritize speed, Puyo Puyo mixes in a risk/reward element that you need to constantly tend to: How big should you build your chains, and when should you set them off?
Set off a small chain, and it’s more likely that the enemy can override your attack with a bigger chain, yet they also end earlier, giving the enemy less time to set off a response. Longer chains, on the other hand, may be far more powerful and have to be countered with other long chains, but also take more time and require more puyo to set up, making them increasingly riskier propositions.
There is enough depth and balance in that tug-of-war to turn it into something worthy of tournament-level aspirations. In fact, when my girlfriend and I attended Pennsylvania’s TooManyGames convention earlier this year, one of the tournaments on offer was Puyo Puyo Tetris, and we both participated in it! We were worried that it was going to be an event with very few participants, but to our delight, it ended up actually being a full 32-person bracket. Our experiences and what we witnessed are too plentiful to expand upon here, but in short, the whole event and the community of players surrounding it was incredible.
Puyo Puyo is one hell of a mental exercise, and that lends itself well to not only playing the game, but even the mere act of watching it. Once you know enough about the game to get a feel for its rhythm and somewhat comprehend how long chains work, viewing others’ matches can be compelling and instructive to a degree that dwarfs most other eSports.
That’s one of the key factors as to why I have been so into Puyo Puyo: It is an eminently watchable game. I think that may be due to a few reasons. First, it is a distilled, focused experience that plays out over a single screen rather than a scrolling or sprawling map, and doesn’t put up the high barriers of understanding which are endemic to games with multiple characters possessing differing abilities. Second, because any chain, no matter how long or complex, must completely finish before the player is allowed to even put down another piece, Puyo Puyo almost never gets too chaotic to comprehend.
Third, spectating is not just easy to do, but simply fun as hell, too! The risk/reward dilemma that enriches its competitive pedigree also makes matches engrossing, and it simply gets more hype as the skill level on display rises. Not many other feelings can match the suspense of seeing whether someone’s massive counter-chain will be powerful enough to whittle down the armada of nuisance puyo being sent their way, or the tension from a large set-up this close to being ruined by a few stupid pieces of nuisance puyo. The drama practically writes itself.
Liking it as a game does not explain the entirety of my dedication towards it, however. Otherwise, I would have been into it for years off the backs of Mean Bean Machine or Puyo Pop Fever instead of just recently. Rather, most of it comes from other aspects of its nature. Things that I did not truly recognize and appreciate until delving into Puyo Puyo Tetris.
Enter—as alluded to earlier—its “far weirder” legacy.
This game series started in 1991, and has consistently pumped out games over the span of 26 years, with releases happening as recently as this year. It’s even gotten a shout-out vis a vis Mean Bean Machine by way of a playable segment in the newly-released Sonic Mania.
What you are seeing embedded above is part of a televised Puyo Puyo Tsu tournament held in 1997—three years after the game’s release in 1994—predating the days of competitive StarCraft getting broadcast in South Korea. Look at how massive that crowd is.
And yes, they seriously are yelling out the characters’ attack catchphrases in unison during chains. On television. It’s also been referenced in anime multiple times, going up to as recently as Gamers! from the current Summer 2017 season. Puyo Puyo is a legitimate Japanese cultural institution.
That is quite the impressive feat, even moreso for something that originated as a puzzle game spin-off of an RPG series. That would be Madou Monogatari, which debuted in 1989. So yes, Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine was, in fact, a puzzle game spin-off based on another puzzle game spin-off.
Puyo Puyo’s popularity and longevity eventually overshadowed its origin series, making it an equivalent case to Law & Order and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit...if SVU deviated from the original’s legal drama roots and was a science fiction action show instead. Or if Pokémon Puzzle League had eventually overtaken the main Pokémon games.
It gets even more bizarre from there. Due in large part from a change in developers, from the original Compile to its current caretaker Sega, when Sega began making their own games starting with Puyo Puyo Fever (Puyo Pop Fever in the US), they did away with the Madou Monogatari setting in favor of a whole new original world and cast. In lieu of Arle, the new protagonist was now prospective magician Amitie!
However, they still put in Arle and her animal mascot buddy Carbuncle, a nod to games past, as guest characters. That is all quite understandable and normal, but only up to a point. Because Sega then went one step farther than normal with some comic book-ass explanation about their presence in Amitie’s world by saying that Arle and Carbuncle had traveled between dimensions, leaving their world behind and ending up in a completely new one.
The Madou Monogatari cast and the Fever world thus existed together, though were only very loosely connected. Oh, but that is not the even the end of it! Not even close. Because after a while, Puyo Puyo 7 rolled in to make things positively bonkers.
It changed its setting TO ANOTHER UNIVERSE ENTIRELY; instead of Arle or Amitie, the protagonist was now some schoolgirl, Ringo. Yet Arle still made an appearance. And the plot was about interdimensional shenanigans that ended up getting—count em, y’all—three different universes involved.
Yep, Puyo Puyo eventually snowballed into a multiversal romp more reminiscent of Marvel and DC than the humble fantasy RPG spin-off it began as. It utterly defies all logic.
Before starting Puyo Puyo Tetris, however, I knew just about none of that! My awareness extended to only the Fever characters and knowing that Arle came from a different set of games. So it was quite the shock when delving into a game involving characters from three Puyo Puyo universes and a FOURTH Tetris-based universe made up of personifications of the different tetromino types.
And I absolutely love it. The entirety of the presentation, from the designs to everyone’s voice lines, oozes character. It even wholly makes playing the story mode worthwhile, because while the gameplay is thoroughly rote—a mix of CPU matches and time/score attacks based on the various game modes—the cutscenes surrounding it are delicious.
The writing is self-aware and stupidly hilarious much of the time, yet also combined with an ability to make all these characters, about whom I had no clue, instantly endearing. No joke, I put Puyo Puyo Tetris second fiddle only to the Netherrealm Studios games in terms of story modes in genres that have no business telling stories.
There’s a dark mage swordsman (Schezo) who obliviously says inappropriate shit all the time. Shinji Ikari voices an interdimensional prankster (Eccolo) who accuses you of being a cheater and liar when doing chains. The square Tetrimino is personified as a mascot character (O) who talks by saying different combinations and variations of “pi”, Pokémon-style. There’s a creepy possessed astrology-obsessed girl (Feli) who doesn’t act much less creepy when free from possession.
An anthropomorphized dragon (Draco Centauros) just randomly teleports into space, and her main reaction is disappointment because no one else is around to witness her cuteness. Ringo attacks with goddamn math terminology. Matt Mercer—a.k.a Levi from Attack on Titan, a.k.a. McCree—plays a hot dad character (Ex) from the Tetris universe. A HOT DAD. FROM THE TETRIS UNIVERSE.
It’s dumb. It’s really really dumb. And it’s delightful.
Its charm works so well, in fact, I have become irrationally invested. The vast majority of the time, I don’t ship anybody whatsoever, yet this stupid game has me actively rooting for Ringo and the fucking T piece to be a couple. At least two-thirds of my recent visits to TV Tropes have been dedicated to looking up various Puyo Puyo-related pages out of hunger for all the stupid trope-y red meat I could find.
Puyo Puyo is a confounding, monolithic, wholly singular entity in a way that few other video games could ever match. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Also, the music is pretty sweet.