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Game Review: Pushmo

Is this 3DS downloadable a pushover or does it pull off a win? *groan* We can't believe we just wrote that.

By / Posted on 06 January 2012

PushmoNintendo had a bit of a tough time in 2011. Having absolutely redefined what it meant to be a “gamer” with the crossover mega-sensations of the DS and Wii, both platforms were clearly on their last legs and first-party software development had moved along to their successors, causing a drought of worthwhile gaming experiences from the company that practically invented the modern videogame. New hardware is always exciting, but the 3DS launch was quiet and generally grim (as evidenced by the fact that, despite taking our 3DS with us everywhere for its first several months on the market, we only saw fit to review one game for the platform all year, and it didn’t even have the words “Mario” or “Zelda” in the title). Stagnation had been discussed for years prior, though, particularly because Nintendo had barely produced an original property worthy of note in several years, just sequels and spinoffs of established 20-year-old franchises. The Gamecube saw the birth of Pikmin and Chibi-Robo, the DS brought about… Nintendogs… and the Wii introduced Miis, the weeble-wobble avatars of the players outside of the game. The animation studios in Hollywood crank out a new mascot every few months, so why hasn’t Nintendo had a worthwhile original character in so long?

Before going much farther into this, we feel it only fair to share that Intelligent Systems has long been our favorite development team within Nintendo’s first-party studios. While other studios focus on tech demos, casual “blue ocean” games and endless franchise sequels, Intelligent Systems has more of a history turning out inventive and charming new experiences. Series handled by Intelligent Systems include the furiously addictive Puzzle League, maddening meta-game WarioWare, hilarious and beautiful RPG Paper Mario, and innovative strategy titles Fire Emblem and Advance Wars. Beyond producing consistently excellent games with fantastic senses of personality, Intelligent Systems’ games run the gamut of genres that the rest of Nintendo dares not touch.

PushmoThe fates collided just in time for the holidays, though, as Intelligent Systems gave the 3DS its first must-have original title starring a brand new character with all the potential in the world to become a lovable new icon. Pushmo is a game about climbing constructs of blocks in order to retrieve the children caught high up in the blocks. The player controls Mallo, a chubby-cheeked puffball wearing what appears to be a sumo wrestler’s mawashi over red footie pajamas. The rules of pushing and pulling blocks are demonstrated rather smoothly as stages progress, eventually adding tricks like ladders that connect across the puzzle like Mario’s warp pipes or buttons that extend all of the blocks of a particular color as far as they can out (towards the player’s face, with the 3D slider turned on). The challenge comes as stages become more complex, involving several tools, some of which are traps and shouldn’t be used at all.

Stage designs start innocently enough, as well, with simple towers and walls the color palette of Neapolitan ice cream. Soon, though, you’ll find Mallo ascending dinosaurs, Christmas trees and sprites of classic Nintendo characters. You might wonder why you’d never imagined climbing a giant Bullet Bill before, considering how much fun it is exploring the characters’ geometry like never before. As in any good puzzle game, of course, solutions begin to become devious, and stages that initially leave the player scratching their head will later cause the same gamer to feel as though they’ve bent reality to their will once the puzzle is solved. The patterns of pulling out blocks, backtracking, and attacking from another angle in later stages begin to feel like sequence-breaking, as though you were cheating the game until you realize that yes, that is the way you’re supposed to solve this puzzle. If one gets truly stuck, though, there’s no penalty for skipping ahead to the next stage and coming back again later.

Pushmo QR codesBy the time the stages craft themselves after familiar sprites (just before the 150th stage) most gamers will begin to imagine other bits of pixel art that would make compelling stages, so it’s a good thing Pushmo includes a full-featured level editor. Just draw the way you would with any other pixel art application, place the goal and watch your stage come to life. The only problem area is sharing custom levels with friends. Pushmo will save your stage as a QR code to the SD card, which you can then hook up to your computer and share as a picture via email, Facebook, or even print out, but all of this occurs outside of the 3DS and requires a touch of technical know-how that might just have been easily avoided by utilising StreetPass or SpotPass to share stages wirelessly. Once you’ve received a friends’ QR code, though, downloading their stage is as simple as opening the level editor and pointing your 3DS camera at the image and voila! there is is, ready to save and play.

Pushmo, along with the similarly experimental FreakyForms that hit the eShop weeks prior, are exactly the sorts of new experiences we’ve come to expect from Nintendo, and we’re happy to see them offered in bite-sized downloadable chunks with tons of reply value thanks to user-generated content. Sharing that content is unnecessarily complex in Pushmo, but that’s the only blemish on an otherwise remarkably charming and fun puzzler for all ages. Any 3DS without Pushmo is a 3DS blatantly ignoring its potential.

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Derrick Sanskrit has produced critically-acclaimed work as an artist and writer for Nerve, Babble, Pitchfork, The Onion and the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art, among others. He founded The Pop Aesthetic during the coldest months of his life in 2010.