|Art Style: PiCTOBiTS|
|Genre||Tetris with a twist|
My Club Nintendo coins are finally going to good use, now that I can exchange them for games instead of cheap memorabilia. Fluidity was well worth zero dollars. And last month, I checked out Art Style: Cubello and found an interesting puzzle/lightgun hybrid.
Another month, another Art Style game to grab from the Club. Pictobits (called Picopict in other territories) is my fourth from the series, all of them quite different from one another. Of the four, Pictobits is the closest to a traditional puzzle game, falling blocks and all. As someone who tends to burn out quickly on those competitive block-movers, I kept my expectations low.
But Pictobits surprised me. It gets frantic, no doubt, but the bite-size challenges and uncommon variety pulled me over the speedbumps in the difficulty curve. The retro Nintendo style didn't hurt, either.
The Art Style aesthetic changes to suit each entry's gameplay but adheres to a common thread of minimalism, relying on simple shapes, colors, and sounds for an even mood across disparate game styles. Pictobits stays in line with its brethren with its dots-on-black visuals, but the recognizable NES hues exude some nostalgic flair uncommon to the series. The retro color scheme comes courtesy of the Eighties Nintendo theme that the game adopts, trimmed with old-school sprites and a soundtrack of extended tunes from Super Mario Bros., Ice Climber, and other hits of the era, all remixed with authentic 8-bit sound. It's a bit odd to see the forgettable Baseball and Japan/Europe-exclusive Devil World celebrated when Metroid and Kirby's Adventure are missing, but Pictobits roots itself into the early NES years, when the aesthetic of Nintendo's games were more limited and, thus, more similar. All in all, I like the look.
Art Style games are always easier to demonstrate than explain, but Pictobits could be described as Tetris with reversed roles. Rather than using the falling pieces to clear out the junk at the bottom of the screen, the player uses the junk at the bottom of the screen to clear out the falling pieces. Tapping a junk block with the stylus will put it in your reserve, from which you can place the block anywhere else on the screen. The object of the game is to clear the falling pieces by adding blocks to them in order to form lines (at least 4x1) or rectangles (at least 2x2) of the same color. The cleared pieces become pixels of the character on the top screen; a stage is finished when the character is complete. If a piece falls to the bottom of the screen or hits a non-clearing block, it splits into movable junk blocks. If the junk reaches the top of the screen, it's game over, just like Tetris.
It wouldn't be a puzzle game without some extra complications. Some blocks, marked with an X, are immovable once they become junk. They can gum up the works in a hurry, so it's important to clear them while they are still part of a slowly falling piece. Also, the puzzle game staple of chaining manifests in Pictobits as a rush to clear as many falling pieces as possible while the play field is frozen after a clear. For about a second, you'll have the opportunity to link another group of colors for a double points bonus, and then a second from there to clear more for a triple points bonus, and so forth. Sometimes, all it takes is quick stylus work, clearing one simple piece after another. Often, it will require some forethought, especially when the pieces are made up of multiple colors: eliminating one color chunk will cause the rest of the piece to instantly drop, making the window for chaining very short and restricting the placement options for clearing the piece further.
A few emergency options exist as well. If the junk builds too high, clicking the POW button in the left corner will clear the bottom rows and pull all the pieces to the bottom of the play field, even the immovable ones. But abusing the POW button will restrict the number of pieces that can be held at once, which is necessary to manage the play field. The limitations can be lifted by spending coins, which are earned primarily through chaining. These coins, if saved, can also be spent on tougher "Dark" stages and a sound test mode, too. I was a bit annoyed, grinding through old stages to unlock new ones, but the coin requirements are mostly fair.
More than any other DS game I've played, Pictobits demands skillful stylus work. The pieces move so quickly in later stages that you'll be tapping and dragging all over the screen, multiple times per second. It makes Trauma Center's surgery sprints look like fingerpainting. Occasionally, the game seemed to ignore my intended moves, though it's difficult to say whether that was a result of my panicked inaccuracy or slightly irresponsive controls. It was rare, but usually disastrous.
I think my favorite aspect of the Art Style series is the pacing: every game is made up of bite-size stages that make difficult challenges more approachable. Pictobits has an additional strength in that every stage feels unique. The changing color palettes and remixed Nintendo ditties contribute to that, but the arrangement of the falling blocks also differs in every stage. The first stage is a series of single color L pieces that fall in an orderly parade. Another stage primarily throws squares with two different colors at the player. A later stage that gave me plenty of trouble started out with complex, multicolored pieces that demanded sensitive placement and quick hands, then switched unexpectedly to huge checkerboard masses vulnerable only to relentless brute force. Some stages have fast-falling pieces that require rapid and precise tapping, others have slow behemoths that require brisk planning. Adaptation is necessary, but some stages will come easier than others depending on your strengths.
With fifteen normal stages and fifteen unlockable "Dark" stages, Pictobits is perhaps a tad short even for five dollars (or 150 Nintendo Coins). It took about two hours for me to finish the normal stages, at which point the credits roll. The first few Dark stages took me over an hour to crack, but at some point the game "clicked" with me. I steadily rolled through the rest, though the final stages were no cakewalk. Total play time was six hours, even with some time replaying earlier stages to unlock all the content.
Still, part of what I like about the series is that each entry has a finite number of challenges, and that number is small enough to see everything it has to offer in a reasonable amount of time and move on to another game. Here's hoping Club Nintendo keeps the Art Style games coming each month. Pictobits is available until the end of May, so check it out if you're a Club Nintendo member and want to explore the frontiers of the puzzle genre. Register a few Wii, DS, or 3DS games and you should have enough to scoop it up for your DSi or 3DS.