Everyone remembers Dr. Mario, Nintendo's halfhearted attempt in the early 1990s to cash in on the puzzle game craze started by Tetris. Less remembered, but infinitely more appreciated, is Tetris Attack, another puzzle game that Nintendo released a few years after Dr. Mario, which, interestingly enough, didn't play anything like Tetris. You might remember it from its most recent incarnation, Pokémon Puzzle League. Long story short, Nintendo has packaged Dr. Mario and Puzzle League (minus the Pokémon) together on a single Game Boy Advance cartridge, and, despite the bare-bones presentation, the basic gameplay in both games remains intact and relevant. For puzzle fans, that makes this cartridge a must-have.
Dr. Mario, though cutesy and familiar, isn't the reason you should rush out right now and grab this two-in-one pack. Dropping colored pills on like-colored viruses is good, simple fun, but the limited chain-reaction possibilities restrict the game's overall thrill value. Its easygoing nature isn't necessarily a negative, however, since Dr. Mario seems to have been designed purposely to be the kind of puzzle game you play when you need to relax for a few minutes here and there. This version of Dr. Mario includes two new CPU versus modes, which give it a bit more staying power than earlier incarnations.
Far and away, the main draw here is Puzzle League, a panel-shifting puzzle game that seems easy at first but rapidly sucks you in with its many subtle intricacies. Although we in the West know of this game under various titles, its Japanese title has always been Panel de Pon. That's actually the most appropriate title, given what you do in the game. You have to deal with a constantly rising tower of panels. Panels can be swapped sideways two at a time. The trick is to match three or more like-colored panels vertically or horizontally so that those panels disappear. Any panels situated above them will fall, perhaps leading to chain reactions that will remove additional panels and lead to major bonus multipliers. There aren't any new play modes to Puzzle League, but there are a great deal of adjustable settings. You can now configure nitpicky details, such as how quickly the stack rises or the speed that blocks disappear, to your liking.
Not that Puzzle League is hurting for play modes. It offers six different single-player modes, each presenting a different take on the basic concept. You can play until you drop in the marathon mode or race against the clock in the timed mode. The garbage mode adds a twist to the traditional marathon setup by dropping garbage strips onto the stack at regular intervals (which you first need to transform into normal panels by making matching lines out of adjacent panels). There's a line mode, which challenges you to clear away a preset number of lines, as well as a puzzle mode, where you try to clear away premade layouts within a set number of moves. Last, and perhaps best, is the CPU versus mode, which lets you trade cleared panels with a CPU opponent in a last-man-standing-style match.
Removing the Pokémon from Puzzle League wasn't necessarily a bad thing to do, but it was a poor decision to not include any sort of character-based mode. One of the nicer features of Pokémon Puzzle League was its challenge mode, which led you through a series of increasingly difficult matches against different opponents, each having its own style of play. The CPU versus mode in this version is a pale imitation of that wonderful challenge mode. You can adjust the CPU's skill level and speed, but it's not quite the same as delivering the smackdown to Pidgey, Clefairy, Hitmontop, and the other pocket monsters.
You also shouldn't expect to be blown away by the graphics and audio in either game. These are puzzle games, after all. Both games employ plain menus and colorful, yet simplistic graphics. The pills in Dr. Mario and the panel tiles in Puzzle League are well defined and stand out clearly against their respective backgrounds, which is ultimately the most important thing. Even so, Nintendo could have done more to jazz up the overall presentation. Dr. Mario uses the same background, pill sprites, and virus sprites across all play modes. Puzzle League lets you choose different background images and change the background color scheme, but the selection is limited, and you can change them only from the main menu. That means if you put in an hour-long marathon session, you'll be staring at the same graphics for the entire hour. Puzzle League is at least more visually active than Dr. Mario, with chain reactions bringing about tiny fireworks-like explosions. Less can be said about the audio--not because it's bad, but because there isn't much to it. Each game has a handful of catchy tunes that you can choose from, as well as a small assortment of sound effects that fit the action without making much of an impression.
Nintendo's code warriors put significantly more effort into making sure that the cartridge takes advantage of all of the GBA's built-in hardware capabilities. High-score lists are recorded for every play mode in both games and are automatically saved to the cartridge for posterity. Both games support sleep mode, which lets you pause your current session and put the system into a low power state until you wish to resume. Puzzle League also keeps track of your progress in its line and puzzle modes so that you don't have to clear dozens of levels in a single sitting. In terms of link options, both games offer game sharing and multiplayer play. If your friends don't have their own cartridge, you can upload a single-player demo version of either game to their system. Full-fledged multiplayer play requires each player to have a cartridge. It's worth the effort, since competing against other live players and sending junk pieces back and forth between the screens is immensely fun and a different experience entirely from the "play until you drop" mentality of the single-player modes. Puzzle League, in particular, is wonderfully suited for multiplayer play, thanks to the fast pace and constant chain-reaction possibilities.
If you're a puzzle game fanatic, you won't go wrong adding Dr. Mario/Puzzle League to your collection. Sure, the overall presentation is lacking energy, but the gameplay in both games, particularly Puzzle League, is compelling enough to keep you coming back time and time again.