Okay, ladies and gentlemen, it’s Esoteric Puzzler Time at JGR once again, and this time, we’re not reviewing a puzzle game where you dam up lakes or stack hats or rearrange rows of baked goods, oh no. This time, we’re going to look at a puzzle game. No, not like Tetris. A puzzle game. No, not like Dr. Mario, a puzzle game. Like, a game about actual, factual jigsaw puzzles. A PUZZLE game. Yes, today, we’re covering the game of competitive spatial reasoning, 1994’s Pieces, for Super Nintendo.
For those of you unfamiliar with jigsaw puzzles, which depressingly seems more likely than I’d care to admit, they are pictures that have been chopped up into oddly shaped pieces, and have to be put back together, and ironically enough, were basically buried with the advent of video games, making this a sort of “if you can’t beat them, join them” experiment. That being said, you may be asking yourself what would the point be of a jigsaw puzzle video game?
Well, the folks over at Atlus decided to inject a bit of competitive spirit into the world of jigsaw puzzling (puzzlery?), by making it a head-to-head battle of wits. The main singleplayer mode, in fact, is a series of first-to-3 showdowns against increasingly skilled and decidedly wacky opponents. You battle in split-screen mode, and you both have to tackle the same three puzzles, selected from a pool of about sixty or so across eight categories, from Scenes of the World to Sports to Airplanes. There’s technically three different difficulty levels, but they only choose how far up the ladder you start. You’re limited to grabbing one of three pieces at the top of the screen and trying to pop them in place, which can be frustrating when you’re given three interior pieces to start with, but it beats the alternative of having 30+ pieces cluttering the screen and having to sort through them all.
But what really raises the stakes here is the inclusion of powerups, which can both help your cause as well as sabotage your adversary. As you put the pieces in their correct place, a power bar at the bottom of the screen fills up, and when it’s full, you unlock a new power, shown on the left side of the screen. Much like a game like Gradius, you’d be well advised to stockpile them so you can build up to the most useful powers; the ones that help you range from weak sauce like a hotter/colder system while you move a piece around the board to an autocomplete of sorts that will move a piece to its correct spot just by selecting it, even all the way to an actual helper that works alongside you, so you can whip through puzzles at double speed. On the other hand, you can cripple your opponents with attacks that reverse their controls, cut their cursor speed to a herky-jerky start and stop mode, or go for the gold and activate a broom that wipes out half of your opponent’s progress, no matter how far along they are.
Getting familiar with the various powerups is a must, as while your first couple of matches are against tomato cans that take forever to make decisions and frequently botch moves when they finally act, that doesn’t last forever, and down the stretch, your opponents are just plain smarter and faster than you and only through judicious use of special powers can you gain the upper hand. Surprisingly, even the rather milquetoast activity of putting a puzzle together can be some frantic fun, especially when you hit that sweeper power at juuuuust the right time and manage to pull out a big comeback on the final puzzle.
Since this game is about putting pictures together, it’s mission critical that it has strong visuals, and indeed, Pieces does. The puzzles are well-detailed, making good use of the Super Nintendo’s rather large palette of colors, and contrasting them fairly well, so there’ll be no squinting to figure out if that green piece is supposed to be grass or part of a dinosaur. The outlines of pieces on the blank board are also sharp enough for a quick shape comparison to see if a piece you’re holding will fit in the spot you think it should go. Also, the designers had a bit of fun with the character design for your CPU adversaries, as you’ll be taking on challengers like a crab made out of porcelain bowls, a motorcycle riding pig (a hog on a hog?), Optimus Prime, and final boss Psyduck, and after beating the last match, you’re treated to a scene of all of them piled into a UFO. Awesome.
There are a couple other modes as well for those who tire of whomping Tinkerbell at the game of jigsaw. There’s a 2-player mode similar to the standard CPU battle, as well as “All Play” mode, which is somehow both competitive yet…not…you and up to three others can team up to solve the various puzzles in one of the eight categories, with a choice of four different modes that dictate time limit and the appearance of fake pieces. There are no powerups, and although score is being kept and there’s a little ceremony congratulating the “winner” afterwards, it feels more like a team effort instead of an actual competition, and there are even bonus rounds that are basically games of Spot the Difference after the third and sixth puzzles.
Obviously, there are some issues, here, chiefly that the game is kinda limited by how many puzzles there are, and over the course of the singleplayer mode, you’ll basically run through a hefty chunk of them in that one sitting, and there’s nothing done to change things up like mirror imaging them or changing the shapes of the pieces. Also, despite the fact that you can play All Play mode solo, you do get the impression that it was meant for at least two players, especially on Type C, where you have only three minutes and have to deal with fake pieces; it becomes borderline impossible to beat the later, larger puzzles singlehandedly. And for me, at least, I had a couple issues with the game snapping my cursor to the wrong spot and deciding I’d made a mistake, usually when trying to work quickly against the computer, although this is one of the handful of games that supports the Super NES Mouse, so there is an alternative if you find using the standard controller clunky for this purpose.
All in all, Pieces is a neat little concept executed about as well as you could’ve hoped for. I would’ve liked to see more puzzles included, or possibly a make-your-own design feature, maybe with a Mario Paint-style interface, but 64 is still nothing to sneeze at, especially for a Super Nintendo game from 1994. It’s not a must-play title, but it is very good as some light, whimsical fun, and although it doesn’t have the longest shelf life, it’s quite enjoyable while it lasts, and I’d definitely say it’s worth trying if you like puzzle games or jigsaw puzzles in general, and for more information about jigsaw puzzles, please visit your local thrift store or Uncle Dave’s closet.
Unique concept, notably the powerup dynamic, looks and sounds really good, bonus points for featuring 4-player options and Super NES Mouse support.
Limited number of puzzles means you’ll start seeing repeats sooner rather than later, no way to change CPU difficulty level, just picking a different spot on the ladder to start.