There are times in life when one says something that sounds — the moment the words reach the air — like it was spoken by one's parents. These are the times when one feels old, uncertain ... somewhat horrified.
I've had a game called "Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords" in my Nintendo DS recently. It has surprised me a few ways. Among the shocks, it sometimes makes me feel like I'm my mom. I didn't expect that and some other shocks when I started playing my first role-playing-puzzle game.
"Puzzle Quest" is a hybrid game. It is a mash-up of old "Final Fantasy"-style adventuring and the match-three-colored-gems-in-a-row puzzle game "Bejeweled." Consider it a merger of one kind of game popular with many people under 30 and another game that is a favorite of people on the other side of that age.
In "Puzzle Quest," I play the heroic knight Osodor. I move him across a map full of castles and taverns and dragon lairs. I accept quests, gain gold coins and get points for my victories and steadily level up my guy's battle, cunning and fire-mastery stats. That's the "FF" part. When I have Osodor actually fight dragons and other knight-hating foes, the battles are conducted as "Bejeweled"-style contests. Each combatant has a set number of health points and takes turns trying to move and match gems on an 8-inch-by-8-inch grid. Lining three skulls in a row causes damage of five points to the enemy; a buildup of vital red (fire) magic power can be turned back into a blaze attack in a later turn; three clusters of gold coins yield a cash bonus; and so forth.
My first "Puzzle Quest" surprise was that the mash-up works. I'm not even saying whether it's fun, just that it works. That alone is an exceptional feat. I could pick two game genres from a hat and claim they can be combined. How about a hybrid of a fighting game crossed with "Sim City"? How about "Guitar Hero" merged with "Ridge Racer"? Could the games be combined in a way that got the best out of both styles? How about a combination of "Tetris" and "Galaga"? I've played that last one. It's called "Invalid Tangram" and it actually works as a game that is equal parts of its inspirations (see "GameFile: Independent Games Festival; 'Crush'; Lily Allen In Simlish & More"). "Puzzle Quest" proves that a puzzle game can be used to connect elements of an adventure game. The combo works.
My second surprise was that, the more I have played "Puzzle Quest" over the last few days, the more I've had the thought pop into my had that I have essentially been playing a glorified version of "Bejeweled." And that is something I would expect my mom to be doing, not me. What's next, a match of "Halo" that plays out as a bunch of "Zuma" or "Tetris" games? Would I fall for that too?
Several people I know are playing "Puzzle Quest" obsessively. It has devoured their free time. I've gingerly asked them if anything seems wrong with the game, if there's any aspect that begins to bother them after the first few hours of novelty pass. So far only one has said his opinion of the game has soured "for all kinds of complicated reasons." That friend is leaving me in suspense, but I wonder if the issue for him is that he also has been made to feel he's playing a game he shouldn't be playing. After all, isn't "Bejeweled" a game for people with simple gaming tastes? Isn't it a game for moms? Shouldn't I be playing more complex stuff?
What I sense I'm experiencing is a conflict of my perceived refined gamer self and the reality of a pop-friendly style of game I had previously avoided. It's kind of like being a music snob and then having a favorite band cover a catchy pop song. Should I resist or accept?
My third surprise from "Puzzle Quest" is where I've seen the game. Understand the context when I explain that I now see skulls and colored gems everywhere. When I step on the elevator at work I get excited that two of the illuminated elevator buttons are one combo-making move away from a third. On my computer desktop I notice that sliding one folder into the same row as three others would form a string worthy of a free "Puzzle Quest" turn. I wrote about the experience of seeing a game even after you've turned it off before (go here and scroll down to the February 6 entry of Multiplayer to read the piece). I can deal with that phenomenon when I'm seeing buildings to jump over. I'm not sure I can handle the world in front of me suddenly looking like a "Bejeweled" board.
I welcome games that surprise me, even if they make me question my very identity as a gamer. Am I me? Am I becoming my mom? Am I now a combo-stringing obsessive in need or reorganizing my sock drawer?
"Puzzle Quest" is available now on the Nintendo DS and PSP. The game's publisher, D3, has also promised the title for Xbox Live Arcade later this year.