Puzzle games have changed remarkably little over the years. Targeting the widest possible spectrum of users and machines, puzzle games skew towards the lowest common denominator in terms of control complexity and system requirements. The result has been a marked lack of innovation in the genre - most of today's puzzle games bear more than a passing resemblance to titles released five or even ten years ago.
In the absence of flashy graphics, immersive sound, or breakthrough technology, the only distinguishing factor between one puzzle game and another is gameplay. That's good news for gaming purists, but bad news for puzzle game designers, as it puts their new creations up against the best games in the genre, even if they were released years ago. This is why you'll almost never read a review of a puzzle game that doesn't mention Tetris - although released in the mid-80s it's still the standard by which all new puzzle games are judged.
Needless to say, Tetris is a difficult game to match - even if you're Alexey Pajitnov, Tetris' original designer. Not that he hasn't tried: Pajitnov has designed or endorsed dozens of games subsequent to Tetris, but none of them have even come close to matching the appeal or success of that seminal work.
And now he's at it again. Following the end of an association with MicroProse, Pajitnov has returned to the scene via Microsoft's Puzzle Collection. The disc includes ten all-new puzzle games, some of which were designed by Pajitnov, although it's never made clear exactly which ones. This may just be an oversight. Then again, it may not be. Based on the quality of the games on the disc, it would be a surprise if anyone, let alone Pajitnov, would be in a hurry to take credit for them.
Not everything in the collection is bad. Rat Poker, which challenges you to create "hands" of rats by catching them using manually activated traps, is highly original and reasonably entertaining. Another bright spot is Lineup, a turn-based game that requires you to manipulate variously shaped objects in order to create vertical or horizontal lines (imagine Tetris in quicksand, and you've got the idea). Mixed Genetics, which asks you to breed triplet sets of mutant creatures in order to create a pure breed, plays better than it sounds, and is quite fun once you get the hang of it.
But beyond that, it's a slippery slope straight into puzzle hell. Of the remaining seven games, four (Spring Weekend, Finty Fush, Charmer, and Jewel Chase) are decidedly mediocre, with marginal appeal and limited replay value - frankly, they seem more appropriate for a shareware CD-ROM than a retail product from the world's most powerful software company. As for the remaining three games (Fringer, Color Collision, and Muddled Casino), suffice it to say that the first is extremely tedious, the second isn't even a puzzle game, and the third is muddled, indeed.
To top it all off, whether good, bad, or mediocre, none of The Puzzle Collection games includes a two-player mode (either competitive or cooperative). For those who enjoy two-player matches - whether in Tetris, Baku Baku, or Bust-a-Move 2 - this is a major omission.
Bottom line? If Microsoft and Pajitnov want to make us forget about Tetris, they're going to have to do a lot better than this.