In the beginning there was Tetris, and it was good. Actually, it was one of the best games ever. But soon every developer under the sun began to improve on the blocks-falling-from-the-sky puzzle formula, and two of Nintendo's earliest efforts in this vein are now available as a combo cartridge for the unflappable Game Boy Advance. We've gotten some hands-on time with Dr. Mario & Puzzle League to get our old-school puzzle on, and so far this seems like a perfectly serviceable repackaging of two great puzzle-action games, in an easy-to-carry format.
Dr. Mario is probably the more recognizable of the two games, since it was Nintendo's first big puzzle effort on the NES after Tetris broke. Plus, you know, it's Mario. The idea is that some gross viruses have gotten loose, and since Mario apparently managed to obtain a medical degree during his time off from saving the Mushroom Kingdom, he's the only one that can stop the nasties from wreaking havoc on everybody. You'll be presented with a test tube full of the critters, and Mario will toss in two-colored pills that you can stack on top of the viruses. When you line up four colors in a row, those four blocks will disappear, so you have to keep stacking until all the viruses have been neutralized.
This latest rendition of Dr. Mario on the GBA has some extra options. You can also play a versus game against the CPU, and the flash mode makes you neutralize specific flashing viruses that are harder to get to than usual. Of course, two-player support is provided as well; you can play a full-on competitive game against a friend if both of you own the game, and there's also limited single-cart download play. Thanks to the DS and PSP, it feels a little antiquated to have to hardwire two handheld systems together to play multiplayer, but it's still nice that the game has such an essential feature. Finally, we're happy to report that Dr. Mario's extremely memorable tunes have made the transition basically intact. All those old classics are here, such as "Fever" and "Chill"--and though they've been arranged a little differently, the tunes themselves are unmistakable.
Then there's Puzzle League, which may sound unfamiliar to you--but if you're into puzzle games, odds are you've already been exposed to this simple but addictive puzzler under another name, like Panel de Pon or Tetris Attack, in the last 10 years. You start with a stack of blocks that each has a different symbol, like hearts and stars; lining up three of the same blocks horizontally or vertically will clear those blocks out. You have to move fast to arrange combos, because the whole stack is constantly moving upward. Nintendo's put out several iterations of this game in the past with character themes like Pokemon and Yoshi, so it's a little disappointing to see this version with no loveable faces at all. But at least the gameplay is perfectly solid, with additional modes like marathon, garbage (which throws garbage blocks in to the mix), and puzzle, which challenges you to finish a stage in a set number of moves. Like Dr. Mario, Puzzle League also offers multiplayer via a link cable, either with two cartridges or via single-cart download play.
Nintendo hasn't exactly reinvented the wheel with Dr. Mario & Puzzle League, but these seem to be two perfectly workable reiterations of two puzzle games that are excellent in their own right. The game ought to give any GBA owner with a serious puzzle jones just one more reason to keep that Micro, SP, or DS close at hand. Dr. Mario & Puzzle League is due out in just a couple of weeks, and we'll bring you a full review of the game soon.