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Game On: The understated charm of puzzle games

UPDATED: Thu., Jan. 28, 2021

Cyan Inc. in Mead gave its classic puzzler “Myst” the virtual-reality treatment in late 2020, available exclusively for the Oculus Quest headset.  (Cyan Inc.)
Cyan Inc. in Mead gave its classic puzzler “Myst” the virtual-reality treatment in late 2020, available exclusively for the Oculus Quest headset. (Cyan Inc.)
By Riordan Zentler For The Spokesman-Review

One thing that keeps me playing video games day in and day out is the sheer variety of titles available. There are trends – games were predominantly platformers in the late 1980s and early ’90s, and shooters have dominated the market since “Halo: Combat Evolved” burst onto the scene in 2002 – but the medium’s wide variety of genres means almost any individual can carve out a niche.

Perhaps the most accessible yet understated genre is puzzle games. They’ve rarely been mainstream successes because they tend to lack pomp, exemplifying engaging and addicting gameplay instead of obsessing over distractions like storylines or cutting-edge graphics. The original “Tetris” had no flashy graphics or extra game modes, but the core gameplay was so intoxicating, it quickly became the bestselling game of all time.

“Tetris” is so simplistic that it works on certain graphing calculators, and it holds a Guinness World Record for being the most-ported video game title, available for no less than 65 platforms. Today, “Tetris” still stands as the third bestselling video game, a testament to its timeless design.

Growing up, I became acquainted with a variety of puzzle games largely because of my mother’s affinity toward them. She likes video games, but she’ll be the first person to tell you she doesn’t have the best hand-eye coordination. Most puzzle games aren’t too demanding on that front, so she gravitated toward the likes of “Puyo Puyo,” “Lemmings,” “Columns” and “Zoop.”

“Zoop” was a concerted attempt to dethrone “Tetris” by Viacom News Media. Yes, a major news conglomerate attempted to capitalize upon the video game market in the mid-’90s. Because Viacom CBS operates many broadcast TV stations, they marketed “Zoop” as “America’s largest killer of time!” via TV ads leading up to its release in 1995. It launched across a plethora of platforms, but they seriously overestimated peoples’ interest in their attempted “Tetris” killer.

Since supply far outweighed demand, “Zoop” has since become notorious for being an exceedingly common bargain bin purchase at retro game stores across the country. It’s actually a fast-paced puzzler with a seriously catchy soundtrack, so if you are waxing nostalgic and chance upon a copy for a Super Nintendo or Sega Genesis you may have lying around, I’d recommend giving it a try since cartridges usually sell for a measly $2-$5.

Although I said most puzzlers lack flair, there are notable exceptions. The first two to come to mind were actually both developed in Washington state – there’s “Portal,” a mind-bending spinoff to Valve’s “Half-Life” series, and “Myst,” a 1993 computer game created by Spokane County’s local gaming visionaries at Cyan Inc. in Mead. It used pre-rendered graphics to create an immersive pseudo-3D world full of complex riddles and problem solving.

Using the first-person perspective, it was easy to get lost in the otherworldly setting of “Myst,” which is dripping with atmosphere and raw creativity. With simple controls and immersive experiences at the forefront, it became apparent in recent years that “Myst” was a perfect fit for virtual reality, which finally happened on Dec. 10 starting with the Oculus Quest headset. I’ve been badly wanting to play it, but presently I have no access to VR equipment.

Aside from the long-overdue VR treatment of “Myst,” other recent and noteworthy developments in the puzzler genre include “Tetris 99,” a competitive online adaptation of the classic tasking players with outlasting 99 other gamers across the globe, and “Puyo Puyo Tetris,” a shockingly brilliant mashup of two legendary falling block games. There are also recent spiritual successors to “Myst” available in the form of “The Talos Principle” and “The Witness.”

If all that sounds too daunting, there’s always the option of dipping your toes in the “match three” subgenre. “Candy Crush” and “Bejeweled” are quite popular and readily available for just about every mobile device imaginable. They’re a simple, good way to pass idle time, and if you enjoy such titles, I’d highly suggest immersing yourself further into the puzzle genre.

Riordan Zentler can be reached at riordanzentler@gmail.com

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