Publisher: Nintendo / Developer: Intelligent Systems / Price: $6.99 / Played on: Nintendo 3DS / ESRB: Everyone
While the 3DS’s three-dimensional visuals are a neat trick, one of the system’s main problems so far has been the lack of games that make real use of the added dimension of depth. With Pushmo, however, Nintendo has a truly innovative puzzle game that makes great use of all three dimensions in a fun, addictive, and maddening package. Only available in the 3DS’s eShop, this game is the one game you absolutely must download for the 3DS.
The basic goal of Pushmo is simple: climb to the top of the Pushmo-puzzle. To do this, you’ll have to slide blocks in and out of the puzzle, making a sort of makeshift staircase to find your way to each puzzle’s summit. Of course, with this simple premise, the game starts throwing curveballs your way as you progress. Blocks of the same consecutive color are usually of one piece, meaning that the stairs you make will usually be awkwardly shaped or difficult to climb, meaning you’ll have to think creatively about the order in which you pull blocks, backtrack to push blocks in, pull blocks by sliding along the side, make sure you have enough of a platform to pull the next set of blocks—and that’s all without discussing the manholes (think Super Mario pipes) and buttons, which add new gameplay wrinkles halfway through the game to create new puzzle possibilities.
The game’s difficulty slopes up at a gentle pace, starting out with tutorials and making sure you know exactly what you can and can’t do as you play. Puzzles are rated on a scale of one through four stars, and by the time you hit the four-star puzzles, you might be ready to jump off a Pushmo yourself. Often victory is as simple as pulling a block out one more level deep, or backtracking in a way you hadn’t yet considered. Despite the frustrations of the tougher puzzles, though, there’s always a solution—you just haven’t found it yet.
The style of block pulling and climbing is definitely reminiscent of the basic mechanic of another memorable puzzle game from this year, Catherine, only without all the anthropomorphic sheep and demon-women. But while that mechanical similarity is strong, Pushmo’s puzzles emphasize trial-and-error and simply finding solutions—there’s no real danger of death here, meaning that while you’re thinking, you can relax and really let your mind work on the task at hand. The ingenuity of the physical gameplay vocabulary of Pushmo-puzzles and blocks is really cerebral, and, though I hesitate to make the comparison, I couldn’t help but think of the way the Portal franchise forced me to look at the world with a new perspective, totally on that game’s terms. The path to success here is similarly clear: you have to “think with Pushmos.”
Of course, when you’re done solving puzzles (or when you decide you’re not good enough to beat the four-star Pushmos), you can always try your hand at making your own puzzles. Amazingly, there’s a full-fledged level creator included in the package, and puzzles you create can be saved and shared with anyone you want via QR codes. It’s dead simple to look online for a cool puzzle (like one resembling a pixilated Kirby or even R2D2, for example) and scan it right from the computer screen with the 3DS’s front camera to zap it into your console. And making puzzles is made all the easier with the use of the 3DS stylus. Creating and trading new user-generated levels is basically like getting a whole new game anytime you like, and the creativity displayed by the online Pushmo community is pretty staggering considering how short a time this game’s been out.
The plot, if you could call it that, is paper thin in Pushmo. You play the role of Mallo, a rotund, silent guy-thing in a Sumo wrestler diaper who’s on a quest to rescue trapped children from the tops of Pushmo-puzzles in Pushmo Park. Some bratty kid has been hitting each puzzle’s reset button, leaving the children stuck inside, necessitating your puzzle-solving skills. It’s not much, but it is there, and I give the game credit for at least attempting a motivating factor to keep you coming back for more brain-flexing. If nothing else, the story doesn’t take away from the game at all.
The controls for Pushmo are pretty easy to get right away: hold B to grip a block and pull or push the analog or d-pad in the direction you want to go. Pushing A jumps, and holding L rewinds time so you can go back to a spot from which you may have inadvertently fallen or jumped, or to correct mistakes you think you may have just made. As for how Mallo himself controls, he’s a fat little blobby guy who can only jump the span of about one block’s length or height. While his limited capabilities are annoying when you feel like you should be able to make a jump from one platform to another, his short-range is obviously by design. You have to solve the puzzles to make up for his shortcomings as a jumper.
The puzzles themselves are usually very clear, and the game’s graphics are cartoony and simple. In fact, Pushmo may be one of the only games that really is legitimately better in 3D, since creating or eliminating depth is such an integral part of its design. So much of the time the path to success is mastering the idea of depth, and it’s just not quite the same when viewed in two dimensions.
Of course, there are a few niggling problems. For one, you can’t control the camera, except by hitting R, which pulls out and gives you a broad, flattened view of the whole puzzle. While this can be good for understanding the puzzle as a whole, sometimes it’s hard to know what kinds of blocks might be hiding in the nooks and crannies that other blocks have obscured. It’d be nice if you could tilt the camera downward ever so slightly to help you know just what you’re dealing with at the moment.
The game sports only a few different tracks—probably about four in total—but they’re all well-orchestrated, bouncy, and fun. The songs blend orchestral-sounding instruments along with chiptune-styled synthesized notes all mixed together, much in the style of Super Mario Galaxy’s epic video game score. Of course, the songs themselves are far from epic—they’re more like what you might here in the opening scenes of a movie about a cartoon squirrel who’s about to find some new nuts or something. But the quality of the songs themselves is surprisingly good considering the small package of the game. I just wish that there had been a few more songs to hear as I’d worked my way through Pushmo Park.
In the early days of the 3DS, all we’ve had available in the way of downloadable three-dimensional software were ugly 8-bit remakes and that dumb-looking golf game. With Pushmo, not only do 3DS owners have a solid game that shows off the system’s visual capabilities, but we’ve also got a truly fantastic title that’s really at its best on this particular console. I can’t imagine Pushmo being quite as successful in terms of melding form and function on any other system, and the ways in which it succeeds on the 3DS are huge. And with such a low price tag, I can’t imagine any legitimate reason for you not to download this title short of simply never being around a Wi-Fi signal somehow. Do yourself a favor and buy this game.