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Video Game Reviews

Ratings are based on a five-point scale, in homage to the the late, great Next Generation Magazine.

Nintendo DS

Rating: * 1/2
Polarium - video game reviews

November 2, 2005

Polarium is a good example of a game system's first generation of software. Here is a title that takes advantage of the Nintendo DS' touch screen (indeed, builds the whole game around it), but the whole experience remains sloppy and unfocused. The crusher is that this could have been an excellent little puzzler if the playtesters had bothered to show up.

The game is based around the idea of flipping squares - white to black, black to white - with the DS stylus. Horizontal lines of the same color are removed from the playfield and score points. Polarium offers two different game modes: a standard, Tetris-style arcade puzzler where groups of blocks drop down from above, and a challenge mode, where the player must solve 100 puzzles by removing all the blocks with one pen stroke.

Of these two modes, challenge is the better by far. Perhaps because there is no pressure to clear the playfield in a set time, it fosters a real sit-and-think approach. And the movement of the stylus is fairly smooth enough to allow you to doodle your way to a solution. The difficulty of these puzzles range from embarassingly easy to bafflingly hard. There are 100 puzzles to solve, and I suspect you have to be a bit of a sadist to actually work your way through all of them.

Perhaps this is the fatal flaw of the black/white design. There are so many patterns you can create before the puzzles become too difficult and abstract. The word "gimmick" comes to mind; but, then again, I'm reminded that puzzle games are very often difficult games. The great Chip's Challenge is a perfect example, as is the landmark Sokouban series (a puzzler whose influence is so far-reaching that nearly every modern game involves a crate-moving scene at some point).

No, of Polarium's two game modes, challenge gets a pass from me. A Gameboy Advance version will soon be arriving, and you may feel inclined to wait for that version.

Polarium's real crime comes from the arcade puzzler mode. I'm not sure if this mode was always part of the design, or if it was merely hobbled together at the last second. Clearly, what we see here is a breakdown in basic game design and play testing. The Bride of Zoo Keeper Quest Mode! In 3-D!

Here's the problem. When you want to flip a series of blocks, you simply draw a line with your stylus. But in order to finish the line and switch those blocks over, you need to tap the final block again. Then, as the white blocks switch over to black, or vice versa, you must wait for the animation to complete before you can begin another line.

In the casual challenge mode, this isn't an issue, because you're only making one movement. But you can imagine how many problems this presents for an arcade mode, when blocks relentlessly move downward from the top of the screen. Why, praytell, am I being handcuffed? This isn't some lowly computer that can barely draw the graphics.

Notice that blocks don't fall down randomly, or one at a time. They fall down in set patterns, usually three rows at a time. I think the idea is that you're supposed to eliminate each series of blocks before the next stack falls down. This has two main problems: first, the game devolves into a simple series of patterns to memorize, and two, if you ever fall behind, you're screwed. It's fiendishly difficult to catch up before the playfield fills up with blocks.

The great strength of Tetris, and all the best videogames, is its improvisational feel. You're not being forced to play the way the designers want you to. Polarium's designers are more interested in forcing your hand. What good is this? You can just imagine how this game should properly play, allowing you to tap and draw blocks at your own pace, finding brilliant solutions to impossible situations, clearing the screen of blocks at the last possible moment.

None of that happens in puzzle mode. Instead, you're forced to click around and wait for the damn animations to finish so you can play again. Not that the game will bother to wait for you. Oh, no.

Can somebody tell the Quality Control department to step away from the foosball table and do their damned jobs? Is that too much to ask for? This for a game that retailed for $40 new? You've got to be kidding me.