It's not often a puzzle game comes along that feels truly fresh and special. The best entries in the genre tend to have simple gameplay that's easy to approach but that can become fiendishly difficult if you're up for a challenge. Pushmo has that and more, making it stand out not just as a great downloadable game for the 3DS eShop, but as one of the most appealing puzzle games on the system.
Pushmo is all about pulling and pushing blocks in order to scale to the top of the large structures they form. Every puzzle (also called a Pushmo) begins as a relatively flat image that cannot be climbed. Your character, Mallo, can walk and jump, but more importantly he can grab hold of the individual blocks that make up a Pushmo. Ideally you pull an individual block out several spaces, jump on top of it, pull the next highest block out a little bit, and so on until you reach the top. However, you won't be pulling small, uniform pixel blocks to make a simple set of stairs over and over again. Blocks tend to be in odd shapes and positions, forcing you to put a lot of thought into what you want to move in or out of the background. You're taught new tricks as you go, such as the ability to push or pull blocks from the sides, but simple abilities don't do you any good for certain challenges, like when you happen to be standing on the same block you desperately want to move into or out of the background. You can rewind your progress a little if you decide you want to undo a specific action like a botched jump, or you can restart the puzzle altogether by hitting a button at the bottom of the stage.
The game does a good job of slowly introducing you to these mechanics, starting you off with very simple puzzles that involve moving only a couple of blocks at a time. Before long you find yourself thinking harder about each solution, taking longer until that "Aha!" moment hits and you feel proud for reaching the end. Things get tougher and tougher across more than 200 puzzles that will challenge even puzzle game veterans. Over time new wrinkles are added to the formula in the form of switches and manholes. When pressed, switches fully pull out all blocks of their respective color, changing the landscape you're standing on and opening up new movement options. Manholes work a little like connected portals, allowing you to jump down or up into a colored opening and spring forth from its twin opening elsewhere in the level, provided neither manhole is obscured.
But even when things get complex, Pushmo is pretty stress-free. There is no timer to make you feel rushed nor any reason to fear failing in some way. Puzzles are about clever thinking and movement, not speed, unlike in some other games that use block pushing as a mechanic. There are two types of Pushmo: murals, which are pieces of artwork that are aesthetically pleasing but not too challenging, and challenges, which live up to their name and place logic over visuals. Both types of puzzles are fun in their own way.
There's not much in the way of characters or dialogue, but the world of Pushmo is still filled with charm and has a laid-back atmosphere. Every level is full of vibrant colors, and Mallo himself is a cute character who animates nicely. It all looks fine in two dimensions, but turning up the 3D slider for some added depth really puts the 3DS's signature feature to good use, especially since depth is part of the gameplay. The visuals combine with cheerful music to keep the puzzle-solving experience pleasurable, even when later levels get difficult. You can progress through much of the game using trial and error, learning from each experience and taking your time. There's nothing in the way of hints if you get stuck on certain puzzles, but the game does give you the option of skipping a level without penalty once it has decided you've been trying it long enough. You can always return to it later when you're more confident.
As if the included puzzles weren't enough, Pushmo opens up even further when you start playing in the Pushmo Studio, which features robust but easy-to-use tools for creating your own puzzles and sharing them with friends. Using the stylus to paint a puzzle in a pixel-art fashion is a breeze, and once you've completed a level yourself to prove it can be conquered, you can create a QR code to make sharing your level easy. Even if you're not interested in making puzzles, this option means there are plenty of levels available online in addition to what's included in the original game, provided you're willing to track them down. Plenty of message board posters and social network users have created their own hubs for custom Pushmo creations, so you shouldn't have to look too far for fresh content. Grabbing new levels via QR codes is an easy and instantaneous process using the 3DS camera, and it would only be made better by a full-fledged online sharing system. It would have been nice if Nintendo had at least created an official Web portal for user-generated content, letting you upload QR codes and vote on favorites.
You do have to progress some in the main game before you can try everything that's out there (you'll solve dozens of puzzles before you can create or even acquire levels with switches or manholes), but that's a small price to pay when the game is so much fun to play. Pushmo offers a wealth of content and smart game design that is often missing from full retail releases, so the fact that it can be downloaded for $6.99 is impressive. It's a carefree, addictive puzzler with great player creation tools that enable you to keep happily pushing and pulling blocks for as long as you please.