Yumekobo’s Puzzle Link titles are not well-known games in America (or maybe anywhere). Besides Puzzle Link having a Japan-only release for the original Neo-Geo Pocket, Puzzle Link and Puzzle Link 2 were released exclusively on a little-known handheld console called the Neo-Geo Pocket Color, which was made by SNK. In fact, the North American release of Puzzle Link 2 preceded the console’s discontinuation in America by a mere two months. For today’s article, I’ll be discussing and recommending the sequel—because it is similar to the original, but with a few very important improvements (some of which I’ll detail below).
Although Puzzle Link 2—like its predecessor and like many other Neo-Geo games—was well-received by critics at the time, the combination of its timing and the Neo-Geo Pocket Color’s tiny little share of the North American handheld console market means that the vast majority of gamers in my country have never heard of it, let alone played it.
But I was part of that minority share of the market, and I played it quite a bit when I was younger. And I think more people should know about it, because upon reflecting I figured out what made the gameplay such fun. So I decided to write this article on how Puzzle Link 2 builds compelling puzzle gameplay simply by establishing three complementary, concurrent player goals.
The Primary and Secondary Goals in Puzzle Link 2:
This is going to be a short article that shares some thematic overlap with a couple of my articles from the past, such as my article on Vlambeer’s Super Crate Box and my article on Terry Cavanagh’s VVVVVV. My thesis: Puzzle Link 2 builds a tight, compelling experience out of a simple gameplay scheme through the integration of its primary and secondary player goals together with a tertiary player goal and a seemingly innocuous player ability.
The main gameplay of Puzzle Link 2 is a tile-matching puzzle game, which is the genre that houses such other arcade-style advancing block or falling block puzzles as Tetris and Bubble Bobble. Essentially, the player must clear enough blocks from the screen to link two blocks marked with the letter ‘c’ and thereby complete each round. This is the player’s primary goal. The linking of the ‘c’ blocks and the clearing of the other blocks is accomplished by firing units of connecting pipe at the blocks.
The further into the game you get, the faster the blocks advance. If any block or blocks pass the line near the bottom of the field of play, the round is lost. Avoiding this negative consequence is the player’s secondary goal. On the other hand, if you win the round, you proceed to the next round in the campaign and so on until eventually—as in any arcade-style game—you log your initials into a scoreboard.
And that’s the game. So far, so unremarkable. But before I get to my point, I’d like to mention that these goals do at least have one nice mechanical touch, which is present is both the original and the sequel. That touch is the fact that the blocks do not advance down the screen while they are breaking or cascading, but the player retains control of their launcher at the bottom of the screen during that time. In this way, even when the blocks are marching at a very fast rate (like in the final level of the campaign, or after playing endless mode for a while), the player can still succeed by thinking quickly, pre-positioning the launcher for the next move, and chaining connections.
Puzzle Link 2 has a straightforward premise, and it’s fun to play. It’s a great time-passing game and was right at home on a handheld console. But even so, I’ve not hit the reason for this article yet. What turns Puzzle Link 2 from a neat and somewhat novel puzzle game into a game that held my attention for hours and hours when I was younger is its inclusion of in-game collectible cards. No joke. Here’s why:
The Tertiary Goal in Puzzle Link 2:
In order to acquire Puzzle Link 2’s in-game collectible cards, the player must complete each round before a timer bar to the left of the field of play completely depletes. Each round completed at a high enough rate yields one random card from the set associated with that level.
In theory, though they are emphasized by the intro cinematic and the minimal dialogue of the campaign, these time goals and cards can be completely ignored while playing. But if the repeated successes of the Pokémon franchise have taught us anything, it is that giving a player a discrete set of strange, collectible creatures is a tremendous motivator. That’s not, however, the end of the laudable design here.
While the original Puzzle Link also features these cards (in fact, the sequel reuses quite a few of the character art sprites from the cards in the original) and implements them into the main gameplay in the same way, it is missing a key gameplay ability that cashes in on their presence but which is only present in the sequel. That key gameplay ability is the ability to manually advance the blocks down the screen. (Side note: the first game is also lacking in anything to do with the cards, whereas the second at least implements a rudimentary card-based mini-game.)
In the first game, the blocks descend at a set rate (or possibly advance according to how much of the screen has been cleared—it’s not easy to discern). As a result, the player trivially obtains a card in almost every level. You almost have to intentionally dawdle after the on-screen appearance of the ‘c’ blocks in order to not obtain a card in the original.
But allowing the player to manually advance the blocks in Puzzle Link 2 sets up a situation where the player’s tertiary in-game goal meaningfully impacts on the primary and secondary goals. The player’s primary goal is to connect the ‘c’ blocks. The player’s secondary goal is to keep the other blocks from hitting the line at the bottom of the screen. And the player’s tertiary goal is to acquire a card. But in order to accomplish the third goal, the player must accomplish the first goal as rapidly as possible. And in order to accomplish the first goal as rapidly as possible, the player must actively endanger their completion of the second goal.
In effect, particularly in the later levels, skilled players will be constantly putting themselves in harm’s way and acting against their own best interests. If a player desires to collect more cards, then that player must challenge themselves by advancing the blocks toward the bottom line as often as possible. It turns what is otherwise a casual experience into one with a consistent source of tension. And for players that can’t meet the challenge or who prefer something more casual, the gameplay is not marred in any way; it scales organically to player preferences.
Puzzle Link 2 is a game with a main campaign that can be beaten in under an hour; it has characters, but no plot to speak of; and the characters bafflingly insist that you are competing with them although competition isn’t apparent in any of the gameplay. But through the successful implementation of collectibles and a means of controlling the rate of play, the game extends its replay value immensely (to say nothing of the couple of other game modes, like a static all-clear mode and an endless mode, that the title offers).
What you really ought to notice about this relationship among Puzzle Link 2’s primary, secondary, and tertiary goals is that it is utterly simple. You’ve got one goal to move toward, one goal to move away from, and one goal placing stress on the other two.
Notice, too, how close it comes to missing the mark. The first game, simply by lacking the manual advancement ability, completely lacks the rapid balancing act between clearing and advancing which occurs in the second game. If you’re a game designer and early players are saying they find your game boring, you should consider whether there is any small change like this that can be made to change the psychological experience of the game.
Good game design should ultimately be about adding and re-tooling features until a game is both consistently fun and meaningfully challenging, and then ceasing to add or change features before the game becomes cluttered or unfocused. The features that bring a given game into that window can be simple or they can be complex, but just because they’re sometimes simple that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily easy to devise. Puzzle Link comes close; Puzzle Link 2 nails it.
Integrated Game Goals: