Games 1/3/12: Pushmo, Wind-up Knight

For: Nintendo 3DS (via Nintendo eShop)
From: Intelligent Systems/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Price: $7

Though it took its sweet time, a stream of exciting original games is trickling onto Nintendo’s new handheld. Elsewhere, and following an even longer wait, Nintendo’s downloadable portable games channel is finally finding a groove.

No game embodies the light at the end both tunnels quite so perfectly as “Pushmo,” a $7 gem that also ranks among the best puzzle games to appear on any platform this past year.

In “Pushmo,” the goal of each level is to rescue a kid who’s stuck atop a structure and has no safe way to get down. You play as Mallo, and you have complete control of his running and jumping prowess.

Were the structures arranged accessibly, Mallo could simply climb them and rescue the kid. Of course, they aren’t. Each structure is comprised of multiple blocks of different shapes, and your task is to push and pull each piece (toward or away from you, but not side to side) until they’re arranged in such a way that Mallo can navigate upward and save the kid.

As Mallo’s mentor, Papa Blox, reveals different methods for arranging pieces, “Pushmo” offers some disconcertingly elementary levels on which to practice. It’s enough to wonder if the entire game will be entirely too easy to enjoy.

But around level 20, the tricks learned in those insultingly easy early levels start to manifest in more intricate ways.

At around level 55, “Pushmo” starts revealing its true self. The structures — sometimes formed in the shape of objects, animals or Nintendo characters — grow increasingly intricate and require layers of manipulation before a clear solution takes shape. A few additional wrinkles — manholes that warp Mallo around a level, switches that dictate which pieces can be manipulated at a given moment — eventually join the fray to complicate things further.

“Pushmo” comes with a staggering 250 levels baked in, and as the level count rises, it mixes patterns, switches and warp spots to create arrangements that are deviously clever and often look impossible to solve at first glance.

The fun, naturally, comes from the realization that a solution really does exist in there somewhere, and “Pushmo” takes wonderful measures to never let that fun degenerate into frustration.

There are, for instance, no unnecessary limitations in place. No time limit means you’re free to approach a puzzle as methodically as you please, and the lack of a move limit means you can engage in reckless trial and error without penalty. If you become hopelessly tangled, a reset switch at the far end of the level instantly resets everything. And a rewind button literally rewinds your progress if you make a mistake or two and want to hit the undo button without starting over. Finally, the option to skip levels and return later avails itself if you get stuck for a while.

None of these assists dumbs “Pushmo” down in any way whatsoever, but all of them combine to make even the most deviously difficult level a total pleasure to slowly pick apart and solve.

Also a pleasure: “Pushmo’s” presentation. Mallo and friends are the most delightful characters to debut in a Nintendo-branded game in years, and every facet of the game — from polished controls to vibrant level designs to an excellent utilization of stereoscopic 3D — would look first-rate in a $50 retail game.

Also? For your $7, “Pushmo” also throws in a shockingly robust level editor, complete with a means to trade created levels with other players. It’s easy to use, it works, and if “Pushmo” develops an active online community, the best value on the 3DS will only get better.


Wind-up Knight
Reviewed for: iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad (universal app)
Also available for: Android
From: Robot Invader
iTunes Store Rating: 9+ (infrequent/mild cartoon or fantasy violence)
Price: $1

If you play your share of mobile games, you’ve likely played “Wind-up Knight’s” opening level before. As the Wind-up Knight, you’re automatically and continually running forward, and your only means of control is to jump over trouble when trouble draws near. Yes, another running game. But “Knight’s” second level adds a wrinkle by giving you a sword and challenging you to thwack a few enemies while also leaping over trouble. Momentarily, you’ll also acquire the ability to roll underneath low-lying obstacles and block peril from above with a shield. Once you have a full arsenal, “Knight” truly comes into its own, throwing intricately perilous levels at you and demanding you juggle all four moves (sometimes two simultaneously) to survive the gauntlet. An upgrade system provides armor that affords some room for error (and, this being a mobile game, there naturally is the option to pay real money to unlock items without earning them). But until those slight comforts avail themselves, “Knight” is a make-one-mistake-and-try-again affair, making it one of the purest embodiments of NES-era console gaming to appear on mobile devices thus far. If that sounds like a recipe for aggravation, it’s worth noting “Knight” makes concessions to alleviate frustration: Challenging though its 52 levels become, they’re also manageably short. The controls are about as responsive as could be hoped for, collision detection is more generous in your favor than not, and when all else fails, the amusing visual and storytelling presentation make “Knight” too likable to stay mad at for long.