It's tempting to launch into a "fans of the genre" preamble when it comes to Stretchmo, the latest in a series of block-pulling puzzle games for the 3DS. However, that would be selling it short. There's little risk that players who enjoyed Pushmo and Crashmo won't find more of the same appeal waiting for them here. Because it is "free-to-start," Stretchmo is even more approachable than either, making it a suitable starting point whether you have experience with the series or not.
"Free-to-start" is a wonderfully upfront term, but it doesn't suit any other game on the Nintendo 3DS eShop as well as it does Stretchmo. Let me clear something up right away: if you expect from Stretchmo a familiar free-to-play game structure with actions, timers, and assorted currencies that can be exchanged for one another, you will either be very disappointed or very relieved. The same can be said if you come to it after having played Pokemon Rumble World or Pokemon Shuffle, which were both released earlier this year under the same free-to-start banner. You are given access to seven tutorial levels in Stretchmo that explain the game's basic mechanics for free, but unlocking everything else requires a transaction. While you can happily spend hours plucking away at the content in Pokemon Rumble World and Pokemon Shuffle without paying a cent, Stretchmo is more like a supremely limited game demo by comparison--with only a few minutes of play time available, for that matter. You don’t even have access to camera rotation in these early levels, a feature that becomes absolutely crucial in solving the more complicated puzzles that come later on. You can at least rewind, which comes in handy after accidentally (and inevitably) tumbling down from somewhere precarious.
These aren’t necessarily bad things in this free-to-start venture. Stretchmo is much truer to the term "free-to-start" than some of the other games that share the descriptor, but expectations may need to be adjusted accordingly. Stretchmo is best thought of along the lines of the Picross e series--a relatively accessible puzzle game broken up into manageable chunks with even more manageable price tags attached to each one.
Pushmo, Crashmo, and Stretchmo (known in Europe as Pullblox, Fallblox, and Fullblox, respectively) are all about manipulating structures built from various Tetris-like blocks to reach a goal, and each game has changed the rules of this manipulation to stand on its own. As Stretchmo's name implies, the primary way of interacting with blocks is by stretching them from the front, back, or either side. A thoughtfully stretched block path allows you to climb up to the goal, whether it's a flag or a sickeningly cute little baby blob character that's been trapped. In the purchasable level packs, you’re introduced to a variety of gadgets that have various effects when triggered; they may shoot a platform out, stretch a block in every direction, or provide you with a tunnel to get past an otherwise insurmountable obstacle. Most of these gadgets are drawn from previous games, and they add a little mechanical variety to keep things interesting.
As for the level packs, the game encourages you to complete them in order as they increase in difficulty, but because each pack starts with a refresher on some of the most basic Stretchmo strategies, there's no reason for a confident player not to stray. Whether or not you're a veteran of the series, however, you’ll ultimately find twists that appeal to you. For example, while the Mallo's Playtime Plaza level pack is very simple and straightforward, in Corin's Fortress of Fun, the gadgets you encounter primarily release enemies who are used to climb to the goal and that can attack you and send you back to the start of the level. It's much more action-oriented than the other areas of the game, and it provides a good challenge, not to mention a good change of pace.
When you run out of puzzles, you always have the option to create a few levels of their own or scan QR codes to load user-made levels. The downside of this system can be finding those QR codes in the first place--especially if you don't feel like wading through Miiverse comment after Miiverse comment about Stretchmo's pricing to find them. The lack of an online level gallery certainly doesn't help, especially given the fact that the WiiU's Pushmo World had one. It's a firm step backward in a game otherwise full of small (but respectable) steps forward.
Stretchmo is as solid and endearing as the games that have come before it in the series; it's cute, colorful, and the perfect puzzle game to keep on your 3DS for dull commutes. It inherits all the best parts of Pushmo and Crashmo and bundles them up in a package (or rather, a series of packages) that is well suited to anyone, regardless of their series experience. Although it may not offer a groundbreaking change in the series, it distinguishes itself enough to be joyful in its own right.