Games 4/11: Super Paper Mario, Tetris Evolution, Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords

Super Paper Mario
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Intelligent Systems/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief, mild cartoon violence)

If you liked “Paper Mario’s” brilliantly original art direction and laugh-a-minute storytelling more than you enjoyed actually playing it, good news: “Super Paper Mario” brings back the former with more panache than ever while more or less scrapping the latter.

Role-playing elements — hit points, experience, magic — still run wild, but “SPM” has much more in common with Mario games of old than its predecessors. Imagine playing “Super Mario World” with a chatty storyline and Colorform graphics, and you have some idea, old-fashioned control scheme and all, how “SPM” works.

To have a complete idea, you’ll need to see the game in motion for yourself. “SPM” introduces the concept of dimensional flipping, which allows you to transform the environment from two dimensions to three and back at any point in the adventure. Flat objects suddenly sprout a z axis after a dimensional flip, which rotates the vantage point and reveals secrets and shortcuts behind, around and through objects that previously were flat and impassable.

Describing dimensional flipping on paper is tricky because it’s (a) probably unlike anything you’ve ever seen before and (b) something only a game with “SPM’s” visual style could credibly execute. Fortunately, Intelligent Systems does not waste the opportunity, utilizing a would-be gimmick in a multitude of clever — and more importantly, seamless — ways. Purely from a gameplay standpoint, “SPM” is an ingenious and often wild marriage between classic and contemporary. With respect to those who miss the turn-based combat, this is an inspired step forward into new territory.

Be warned, though: Getting to that gameplay can sometimes take a while. “SPM” slathers on a funny, ridiculously out-there storyline that will whisk you to such exotic locales as a hell dimension, space, a nerd’s hideout, numerous throwback levels and even a women’s restroom. Occasionally, though, it lays it on a bit thick — as in “20 minute-long stretch of reading, fetch questing and backtracking before you can get back to the real action” thick.

These interruptions, along with levels that vary wildly in terms of length and puzzle-versus-action quotient, sometimes make “SPM” a tough game to play with the “jump in, play a level and jump out” frame of mind. Fortunately, save points are rather frequent, so you always can leave business unfinished for later.

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Tetris Evolution
For: Xbox 360
From: Mass Media/THQ
ESRB Rating: Everyone

It might seem a bit odd paying $30 for a boxed copy of “Tetris Evolution” with so many downloadable puzzle games available for less on Xbox Live Arcade. Perhaps you can’t fathom the idea of paying for a game that, high-definition graphics or not, doesn’t look all that different than it ever has.

Here’s what “Evolution” offers that those other games cannot: 1,000 achievement points, which equate to a brand-new challenge for players as sweet on Microsoft’s innovative Gamerscore system as they are “Tetris.” Mass Media has created an extensive to-do list for “Tetris” vets to complete, ranging from on-the-spot wizardry (consecutive tetrises, high-speed line clearing) to more time-intensive feats (cracking the half-million mark in Marathon mode, for instance). These challenges, along with four-player Live/offline support and a few new modes, should keep the diehards playing long after they’ve gotten their $30’s worth.

If THQ’s first “Tetris” effort five years ago proved it’s possible to break “Tetris,” “Evolution” makes the case for second chances. The mind-bogging omission of scoring has been rectified. Meanwhile, options that dumbed things down for longtime players — most notably ghost pieces and infinite spin — are back but completely user-configurable in all modes. “Evolution” even includes an extended spin option, a nice compromise between being able to spin a piece infinitely (i.e., cheat) or not at all (classic, but perhaps too demanding given the rapid speed progression between levels).

Likewise, while “Evolution” doesn’t come out with barrels blazing in the personality department, it clobbers its anemic predecessor with some funky background videos and custom soundtrack support. (The default music wears quickly, so have some music ready.) The game’s personality quotient still isn’t in the same ballpark as Nintendo’s recent “Tetris DS,” nor are the alternate modes as wild as what Nintendo devised. “Evolution” offers 11 (eight single-player, three multiplayer) modes of play, but they’re variations on the rules more than anything else.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing — at all, in fact. Traditionalists who continue to love the game after all these years will appreciate the new challenges each mode brings, and “Evolution” offers a nice selection of achievements to unlock (as well as online competition and leaderboards to conquer) for most. Little ground is broken, but the ingredients for keeping this disc in heavy rotation on your 360 are everywhere.

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Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords
For: Nintendo DS (also available for PSP)
From: D3Publisher
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (suggestive themes)

“Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords ” is a gentle reminder that sometimes, no matter how much you might love something, it just doesn’t love you back. D3Publisher took a role-playing game and a puzzle game, threw them into a blender and fashioned a clever and surprisingly seamless hybrid of two very different genres. It also unleashed the most “bleep!”-inducing game in the DS’ library.

“Quest” structures itself like a typical role-playing game: You select a hero class, advance through the storyline, engage in battles and build up your statistics by collecting experience. But instead of the usual battle sequences, “Quest” has you challenge your enemies to a series of puzzle-offs.

If you’ve ever played “Bejeweled” or “Zoo Keeper,” these throwdowns immediately feel familiar. The fundamentals are identical: Flip two adjacent gems to form rows of three, four or five and clear them from the eight-by-eight grid. Gems sitting above the cleared gems trickle down, and new gems fill in the empty spots.

But “Quest” changes the game considerably by having both combatants take turns on the same grid. Different gems have different meanings — some inflict immediate damage, while others contain magic, gold and experience points — and you need to be sharp in order to not only clear the gems you need most, but do so while not setting up your opponent to benefit similarly. “Quest” also places increased importance on clearing four or five gems at once by rewarding such efforts with a crucial bonus turn.

If you’re waiting for “It’s not as tricky as it sounds,” keep waiting. “Quest” is fiendishly difficult right from the start; even the training opponent plays like a virtuoso. It doesn’t help matters that, in a puzzle formula that’s modestly but unavoidably dependent on luck, your A.I. opponents always seem to have it on their side. The game also occasionally misreads your stylus input, which can lead to serious penalty.

No fight is wasted; the experience and gold you accumulate are yours to keep even in defeat. But get used to losing. “Quest” is deep and rewarding once you overcome the learning curve, but you’ll need lots of patience to reach that summit. If that isn’t possible, or if you simply want a good, straightforward “Bejeweled” clone on the DS, “Zoo Keeper” remains a better option.