Masato Maegawa and Puzzle Games (1998)

Masato Maegawa and Puzzle Games (1998)

This 1998 article from Game Hihyou sees Treasure president, programmer, and puzzle aficionado Masato Maegawa outlining his history with puzzles (video or otherwise) and expounding upon the broad categories by which puzzle videogames should be categorized and evaluated. Maegawa's fascination goes a long way in explaining the brutal rigidity of “puzzle’em’ups” like Ikaruga and Radiant Silvergun.

Today we broach the subject of puzzle games and my own personal theory on the genre. Now in order to explain what makes puzzles so intriguing, I’d first like to introduce a simple brain-teaser I encountered at some point during my childhood. Firstly, copy the diagram from the picture below and place 44 1 yen pieces (or something similar) in the circles.

The rules for moving our pieces (or 1 yen coins) are as follows: you must jump over a single piece and move to an empty space. The piece you jumped over is then removed from the board. In other words, if your first move is to take piece 1 and move it to the circle marked A in the picture, then you remove piece 2 from the board. The puzzle is complete when you’ve removed all but one of the pieces.

While it might not appear difficult, it does require a significant amount of strategy, and on trying it for yourself you’ll soon discover that solving it isn’t trivial. But as you work through you’ll start to develop a strategy to lead you to the solution. You can define a puzzle as a mystery that requires thought and reasoning to solve, and it’s this process of ‘thought’ which makes them so interesting.

Puzzles before Video Games.

Obviously, when it comes to video games I adore the puzzle genre, but I’ve loved puzzles since my early childhood even before the emergence of complex puzzle games. I was fascinated by all kinds of different puzzles, so I’m going to begin by talking a little bit about a handful of them.

Jigsaw Puzzles

Looking back, it’s my time with jigsaw puzzles that remains the clearest in my memory. I completed several which numbered over 5000 pieces (and this was during a time when it was extremely difficult to find larger puzzles), but even that wasn’t enough for me so I flipped a 5000 piece puzzle upside down and completed it like that. During my time at Konami, they’d often give me puzzles produced by the company to test out before they went on sale.

While for some people no amount of explanation will make them understand the allure of jigsaws or see them as anything other than a way to pass the time, for me there’s joy in the simple act of completing them one piece at a time. When working on a larger puzzle you spend all that time knowing that when you fit that final piece there’s an indescribable sense of satisfaction and accomplishment waiting for you. That single moment is a distillation of everything that makes jigsaw puzzles great.

Masato Maegawa (1998)

15 Puzzle

I know many of you reading this will have encountered the 15 puzzle at some point. You often see them at festival booths and more recently they’ve been hidden in all kinds of things including games. The puzzle features a 4×4 frame and 15 numbered pieces which must be slid into order one at a time. The secret to this puzzle is learning how to swap two pieces in the fewest moves possible. Once you’ve mastered that, this puzzle shouldn’t represent too much of a challenge. However, while it may appear easy, this puzzle still requires thought and punishes those who are too reckless. There’s a simple elegance to it that I think makes it really outstanding.

Pla Puzzle

It’s possible that many of you won’t have heard of this particular puzzle, but they produced more than ten different variations such as squares, triangles, hexagons and circles. Each shape is made up of a number of different pieces and the idea is to simply fit them back into the case. Now there isn’t one single solution as there are multiple different ways to assemble the pieces—more than a million for the larger puzzles. Even with the smaller puzzles, though, I spent many hours with a notebook trying to figure out the solutions.

I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who, on seeing Tetris for the first time, thought ‘Oh it’s just a Pla-puzzle’. In fact, I love playing Tetris for all the reasons I love Pla-puzzle and I get the same joy from playing it as I did from these puzzles in my youth. Talking about this has really made me want to make a Pla-puzzle game. There is absolutely no way it would ever sell, but it wouldn’t be difficult to make, so perhaps I’ll make it as a personal project on my computer at home.

Several different Pla-Puzzles, first introduced to the market by magic & logic puzzle distributor Tenyo in August 1966 and still sold to this day, including internationally under the name “Beat the Computer”. Even seemingly basic pla-puzzles can have hundreds of solutions.

Rubik's Cube

The famous Rubik’s cube made a real impact on its release. Now you can solve it using mathematical equations, but at the time that wasn’t the case. I used to show off by solving it as fast as I could as I walked. There’s more than just the original colored type, there are also cubes with pictures on each side. The fact that you have to match the orientation of the center square makes these roughly twice as difficult. I also spent some time with the 4×4 revenge and 5×5 professional cubes released later. Compared to the standard 3×3 version they represented a significant jump in difficulty (although this also made them far more enjoyable…).

Much like the 15 puzzle, the Rubik’s cube requires you to formulate a strategy, but the fact that it’s a 3D object means you’re able to introduce three-dimensional movement that just isn’t possible in more traditional 2D puzzles. Even more surprising is the ingenious construction of the cube itself. If you take it apart you’ll be amazed by its brilliance. While I’m sure it was a huge challenge, clearly the inventor had the most fun solving the puzzle of its internal structure.

The Classification of Puzzles

You’ll have to forgive me—I’m afraid once I start talking about puzzles it’s difficult to stop me, so this introduction was longer than I planned. Now we enter the world of puzzle video games. If I was going to separate the different types of puzzle games I’d go with pure puzzles, stage-based puzzles, and competitive puzzles. Incidentally, all of the non-video game puzzles I just described would fit into the pure puzzle category as they are all about devising a strategy and the joy of finding the solution, nothing more and nothing less. However, when it comes to video games there are actually very few pure puzzle games. Here stage based puzzles and competitive puzzles are King.

“Pure Stage” Puzzle Games.

Now within the staged-based puzzles genre, there are in fact two sub-genres: the “pure stage” based puzzles and the “action stage” based puzzles. Without a doubt, the primary example of a pure stage based puzzle game is Sokoban. I’m the kind of person who once I’m hooked on a game can’t rest until I’ve seen it through to the end, so naturally, I’ve cleared every stage of the original. The main thing I remember about the experience is the exceptional map design on the final stage.

As you would expect, the preceding stages gradually become larger and more complex, but if you persevere you’ll finally arrive at the final stage. Contrary to your expectations it appears to be rather small and simple, but getting over your initial disappointment, you try and clear it only to discover that it’s far more difficult than it appears. In reality, it’s had a huge amount of thought put into it and requires all your wits to solve.

It was on seeing this map that I was reminded what a fantastic game Sokoban is. For those of you who have never played the game, I highly recommend it, even if you only attempt the final stage.

Sokoban’s Stage 20, as seen on PC88; this stage was archetypal of the design seen in later sokoban games and variants of this stage have appeared in virtually every sokoban game since, official or unofficial.

A little while ago I had the honor of being a judge at the Enix game contest. Although nobody paid it much attention there was a puzzle game that was very similar to Sokoban and I can’t stop thinking about it. Line up pieces horizontally and they’d stick together, vertically and they’d break apart. The goal was to move all the pieces to their designated position.

I’m doing a poor job of explaining it here, but the magic of puzzle games is that you can take a simple idea like this and create something hugely compelling. At the same time, a game like Sokoban would be extremely difficult to recreate as a traditional puzzle. Thinking about it in this way you realize that the development of video games has had a huge impact on puzzles and increased the scope of what is possible.

“Action Stage” Puzzle Games

Moving onto the action stage based puzzles. This was my favorite genre back when I shunned the Famicom and preferred to play on the PC8001 and PC8801. You’ve probably heard of some of the more famous examples of the genre like Flappy and Lode Runner. By adding action elements to the puzzle, they’ve created a perfect combination where it’s almost difficult to tell whether it’s the puzzle or the timing based action elements that are at the forefront. It’s fun to devise a plan of attack: ‘perhaps I should make my move here’ and ‘no, that timing is too slow, I won’t make it. I’ll have to think of another way’. It’s a delicate balance as leaning too heavily on the puzzle element would make the action redundant, but too much action and the puzzle element loses depth.

My beloved Lemmings fits right into this genre as do games like Door Door which are normally labelled as action games. While many of these games are old, the core gameplay is interesting enough that they are very playable even today.

When we arrived at games like Castle, then it became possible to link the stages together as separate rooms and combine the puzzle elements to create an overarching story. I’d like to take this opportunity to say that Castle is, in fact, one of my very favorite puzzle games.

I think titles like Klax also fit into this genre, although here the action element of the game is too dominant and the puzzle element lacks depth. But the game is still quite enjoyable and can be addictive if you’re in the right mindset.

Competitive Puzzle Games

Most competitive puzzle games offer a single player option and can be enjoyed by yourself, but they really shine in versus mode. My personal favorites would be Tetris, Doctor Mario and Puyo Puyo. Of those three, it’s my belief that Puyo Puyo is the most expertly crafted. Many think it’s simply a Tetris clone, and even in the game’s manual it says ‘This game is completely unoriginal’, but that is incorrect.

The chain system and the addition of garbage puyos give the game a tremendous depth when compared to titles which simply employ mechanics such as raising the floor to handicap the player. They have removed as much of the random element as possible. The garbage puyos will always fall into rows 1, 4, 3, 6, 2 and 5 in that order which allows you to strategize and counter with your own chain combos. Puyo Puyo Sun introduced the sun puyos which further enhanced the game, and ideas such as offsetting and all clears only added to the formula. For me, Puyo Puyo is the greatest example of a competitive puzzle game.

Recent Puzzle Games

Unfortunately, many recent puzzle games lack any real depth and the random element is too strong. In puzzle games, it’s important to minimize the random element as much as possible. Try to incorporate them to make the game more competitive or more exciting, and the puzzle element will suffer as a result. As I said when we began, the enjoyment and satisfaction of a puzzle is in the thought and consideration required to find a solution, and thus a puzzle game which allows you to stumble upon it by pure chance is not a puzzle game in the truest sense.

As someone who got into games through my love of puzzles, I see puzzle elements in many genres such as fighting games, RPGs and simulation games. Defending against attacks in a fighting game is simply a puzzle where you must string together the correct skills in real time. The dungeons in an RPG are often maze-like which is, of course, a different kind of puzzle and I don’t feel like I even need to point out that war simulation games are just huge tactical puzzles.

If I was to give an example from one of our own games, then the recently released Saturn shooter ‘Radiant Silvergun’ contains a significant puzzle element. Chaining together red, yellow and blue enemies or memorizing attack patterns in order to clear the stage all require thought and strategy which any true puzzle needs. Perhaps you could even claim that the very label “game” originally meant an amusement containing puzzle elements.

Radiant Silvergun and Ikaruga, two Treasure games with an undeniably heavy puzzle elements, for better or worse.

Translated by Peter Barnard

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