The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Puzzle & Dragons Z + Super Mario Bros. Edition’ struggles to make free-to-play games worth a higher price of admission

(Courtesy of Nintendo)

Puzzle & Dragons Z + Super Mario Bros. Edition
Developed by: GungHo Online Entertainment
Published by: Nintendo
Available on: Nintendo 3DS

Video games depend on obscuring information, presenting players with an obvious goal that must be attained through indirect and often cryptic means. In “Puzzle & Dragons,” a free-to-play mobile game first released in 2012, one survives monster-filled dungeons by matching rows of colored tiles in the time-honored fashion of Bejeweled, Candy Crush, or Jewel Quest. The game, made by long-time Japanese MMORPG (massively multiplayer role-playing game) developer GungHo Online Entertainment, has proven an enormous success. Its simple gameplay set against a fantasy backdrop made the color matching seem doubly purposeful, and helped GungHo earn more than $3.75 million a day.

This year the company collaborated with Nintendo to bring a new entry in the series to the 3DS in North America alongside a version built around the Super Mario Bros. universe with “Puzzle & Dragons Z + Super Mario Bros. Edition.” The game is a generous package with two lengthy games bundled into one cartridge. But in many ways, the free-to-play approach to design feels at odds with the paid-for package Nintendo has built its business around. Playing “Puzzle & Dragons Z + Super Mario Bros. Edition” feels alternately amusing and off-putting, overly easy and wildly unfair, instantly understandable and bloated with secondary systems.

The “Puzzle & Dragons Z” portion of the bundle is set up like a Pokémon game, with players controlling a brave youngster in a city of the future who is drawn into an academy where other children don VR headsets and descend into digital dungeons, collecting color-coded monsters. These monsters can be collected and used to fill out their virtual combat team as they fight through ever more difficult battles. In the Mario version, things get moving with Mario antagonist Bowser once again kidnapping the Princess and retreating across eight worlds, each filled with a familiar cast of Koopas, Goombas, Bullet Bills, and Koopalings. They are dispatched by matching tiles to trigger elemental attacks.

There are six possible tile colors—red for fire, blue for water, green for earth, pink for healing, yellow for light, and and purple for dark—each of which is stronger against some and weaker against other tiles. You’ll be able to assemble a team of five allies, each with his own color-based elemental to counter enemies. You collect these teammates from gift boxes that enemies have a small chance of dropping after you kill them. Each can be leveled up to deal more damage by gaining experience points.

There are hundreds of different teammates with elemental-affinity variations, and after a few levels you’ll be spending lots of time preparing your team according to the level’s enemies, as well as the available tiles—not all six tile types are always available in each level. The role-playing overlay gives some extra tactical consideration to the business of creating long combo chains. These chains are made from tiles falling into new spaces, cascading into confettied bonus multipliers that can turn weak teams into fearsome ones.

It’s here that the differing design concepts become most apparent. Free-to-play games are designed around creating conflict between short-term desires and long-term plans, inducing purchases on essentially useless in-game goods. If you die mid-level in the free-to-play versions, you can buy Magic Stones that allow you to continue without having to lose all of the items and upgrades you have collected. But in the 3DS version you simply collect them as in-level treasures. Stripped of their real monetary value, these stones and the systems they connect to, feel strangely disruptive.

Ramin Shokrizade, a games economist and writer, describes Puzzle & Dragons’ ‘masterful’ use of the idea of reward removal through its level design, each of which has five or more regular enemy battles before a dramatic difficulty spike with a boss battle that threatens to wipe away all of the items and power-ups earned throughout the level. “The longer you allow the player to have the reward before you take it away, the more powerful is the effect,” he writes.

The relatively small tile grid—six across and five down—amplifies this effect, often forcing players to guess which tiles will fall from off-screen. This eventually feels like an avenue for artificially tweaking the flow of combat for reward-removal mechanics. It might work on a free-to-play phone game but feels arbitrary and intrusive in a full price game. The tactical thought and skill development required to advance eventually feels like a vehicle for coercing players to over-commit to a game that’s engineered to ensure failure.

In contrast, the design ethos of Mario games isn’t the threat of loss, but delight in variation and discovery, games designed to engineer success rather than failure. Nintendo’s Koichi Hayashida recently described the philosophy of Mario games with the concept of “kishōtenketsu,” a four-part narrative structure adapted from Chinese poetry.  An idea is introduced, developed through complication, an unexpected twist reveals some unconsidered aspect in the original idea, and then everything is brought together in the conclusion. Instead of using unrevealed information as a way to make players spend money once they feel maximally invested in a level, Mario games are built with a self-discipline which ensure surprise and discovery in each new unseen twist.

Playing “Puzzle & Dragons Z + Super Mario Bros Edition” feels like being caught between these two design philosophies. It’s a long and complex game in which one can spend dozens of hours assembling teams, gaining levels, learning abilities, and fighting new creatures. But the undiscovered wonders one hopes are waiting in the gaps always end up as the wrong tile in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Michael Thomsen is a writer in New York. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Slate, The New Republic, The Daily Beast, The New Inquiry, Kill Screen, Edge, and Gamasutra. Follow him on Twitter @mike_thomsen.

More game reviews:

The Witcher 3: One of the best blockbuster role-playing games ever made

Paintball turf war: With Nintendo’s ‘Splatoon,’ slinging vivid paint means having a ball

Sunset: A beautiful game about a house cleaner’s view of a revolution

Wolfenstein: The Old Blood: A game that comfortably embraces the silly

Kerbal Space Program review is playful masterpiece of space exploration

‘Broken Age’: The Kickstarter success-story is finally complete and the worth the wait

‘Affordable Space Adventures’: Where innovative design meets an elegant universe

Dark Souls II’: Scholar of the First Sin is a remaster that proves not all change is progress

AdVenture Capitalist’: An addictive game about the irony of addiction to money