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April 29, 2005

Nintendo DS puzzler Polarium challenges both dexterity and brains

In its first six months of release, the Nintendo DS has shown remarkable versatility. While the PSP handles game graphics and, to a lesser extent, multimedia well, the DS interface has proved to be far more intuitive and innovative for handheld games. We've seen Mario 64 DS pull off analog control, Yoshi Touch & Go incorporate user-created, indirect movement, and Metroid Prime Hunters mimic a computer first-person shooter's mouse-and-keyboard control. Coupled with the embedded communication software and more conventional GBA capabilities, the system offers, as its biggest strength, a wide variety of user interactivity.

That repertoire expands with Nintendo's newest release Polarium, a mind-bending puzzler that challenges both your brains and your dexterity. The game is built around a fairly simple black/white concept , with lines being cleared from the screen when a horizontal line is all of the same color. Players use the stylus to drag continuous lines around the grid, clicking the last space of the path to flip all white tiles to black and black to white.

Polarium offers two distinct game modes that challenge two entirely different skills. In "Challenge," the developers created a Tetris-like mode where blocks of lines fall from the top screen until the player allows both screens to be filled. Though you'll be challenged to figure out efficient paths, Challenge really tests your ability to draw lines quickly and precisely (no diagonals!), favoring pattern memorization when things get really fast. This type of game absolutely could not have been pulled off with the traditional d-pad/buttons combo that would have required a tempo half the current pace.

"Puzzle" mode, on the other hand, gives you as much time as you need to clear the grid with a single stroke. The developers have created 100 puzzles, of which all of them from 35 on will at least make you pause to contemplate a game plan. Though the game's "polarity" mechanic may seem too simple, this mode requires discovery of nuances, such as realizing that the entire grid doesn't have to end up as the same color. Some later ones are rewarding enough that it's not worth detailing.

The latter mode has almost infinite replay value because of the incredible puzzle-sharing capability. Players can create their own puzzles—easy to do with the stylus—and the game requires that it be solved before being saved. Those custom creations can be sent wirelessly to another DS in one of two ways: 1) Within multiplayer range, players can exchange puzzles with the simple touch of a button, or 2) the game can generate a password that will produce the same puzzle on someone else's system. The latter has spawned extensive catalogs of mind-benders that can be found all over the internet. Talk about making a game a permanent fixture.

The multiplayer challenge mode is thrilling as well, allowing players to compete in a series of fast-paced matches. The game actually has players turn their systems sideways so that the game can use a screen to display your opponent's view as well as yours, all while maintaining Polarium's vertical orientation. That mechanic raises the question of why Wario Ware: Touched! didn't make multiplayer available through a similar option.

The graphics and sound for this game are both impressive in their own rights, though they will likely displease some who don't appreciate the style. The developer decided to go with a retro, blocky look that will remind you of eight-bit games and the rectangular NES controller. It may look basic, but in action, the game runs without a hitch and pulls off some clever graphical tricks. On the music front, the two main themes are take-it-or-leave-it. I enjoyed the techno tracks because they were both catchy, unintrusive, and appropriate for the repetitious nature of puzzle games. On the other hand, they are neither memorable nor for everyone, so listen at your own risk.

Overall, I have little other than praise for Polarium, as it shows how much a touch screen can add to a puzzle game rather than just substitute for more traditional schemes. Though the Puzzle mode could have been, much less intuitively, pulled off without the stylus, Challenge mode lives-and-dies with its chaotic requirement of dexterity. The only control suggestion I have would be using the microphone for a cancel function. Yoshi showed how the microphone could be used as a secondary function (blowing clouds off the screen), and errors made in Challenge would have been much less costly if one could just say "clear."

It is also worth saying that at times the mode is too fast-paced and difficult, often leaving players stuck at a certain set of pieces or speed for a long time. I know I'm not in the minority when I say that the ability to choose speed and tile sets would have made the mode much more accessible and enticing, even if it compromised the meaningfulness of high scores. That being said, I have put more time into this mode than any other because of its thrilling pace.

More than anything, though, I'm floored by the wireless capabilities, which also include the ability to send a demo version to a Polarium-less DS. GameCube release Animal Crossing showed that sending gifts over the internet with passwords could keep a game alive for years by putting interactivity first. I similarly expect Polarium to be a long-term fixture so long as the puzzles keep coming.

Rating: B+