Apparently, if you were in Japan, almost everybody would know what Puzzles and Dragons was. The franchise, which is a largely mobile centric free to play one, is estimated to have been downloaded millions of times and has generated millions of dollars of revenue for developer GungHo Online Entertainment. Presumably in a bid to bring the franchise to the west, and ironically after Nintendo have announced plans to take some of their key properties mobile, Nintendo and GungHo has packaged their original Puzzles and Dragons game with Super Mario Bros. Edition of the game too. If that’s not one of the biggest Trojan horses in gaming, I don’t know what is.
While the two games share mechanics, they’re largely separate entities. Heck, in Japan, both games were released separately and sold separately. Here, in the west, Nintendo have opted to package both Puzzles & Dragons Z with Puzzles & Dragons: Super Mario Bros. Edition together at a rather modest price of AU$49.95. There’s no real easy way to review a title like this so it’s perhaps easier to look at what’s similar about each of the games and then what sets them apart from one another.
Both games are rather similar in their approach. You’ll be put on a rather linear path, you’ll recruit buddies or allies along the way to help you in your battles, and you’ll match gems similar to games like Bejeweled and Candy Crush to actually battle. Matching up symbols in lines of three or more will usually do the trick. What both games do different from traditional Match-3 games is that these gems can be dragged anywhere – from one side of the playing field to the next.
This gives more freedom but comes with a pretty major caveat – that gems next to the one that you place will move positions. It’s incredibly hard to explain how this works, and it’s bound to create some rather awkward times as you attempt to get your head around the fact that it doesn’t really work like your typical Bejewelled or Candy Crush style game. The concepts are fundamentally similar, but overall the strategy behind it all feels different enough – more akin to a sliding puzzle rather than a typical Match-3 game.
There are more layers of strategy to both games, however, and that’s in the elements of the gems that you match up. Every gem has a specific element and every enemy you do battle with has one too. Your team, which you build prior to each “level”, is comprised of creatures of animals that each have their own element too. This gives another layer of depth to the game, where every move counts especially when cleared gems can damage enemies or heal yourself.
When you couple these elemental attributes with abilities that can buff or debuff certain elements in battle as well, there comes an extra level of planning required to perform truly effectively. It’s a surprising amount of complexity for a game with such a simple underlying mechanic but it definitely helps both the games maintain and engage with the player beyond the first few levels. You can of course brute force your way through, but paying attention to abilities and levelling up your allies will help you breeze through it with less frustration.
In Puzzles & Dragons Z, players must collect all different kinds of dragons and use them to battle enemies across different sets of levels. It’s very conventional in terms of its presentation – in fact most of the designs are unapologetically common in most Japanese RPGs. You’ll start off being whisked away to an expert on dragons, be asked to pick a dragon to begin with and then be off your way. It’s a pretty simple and yet unapologetically derivative concept that any Nintendo fan will deride.
The biggest problem with Puzzles & Dragons Z is that the story and the narrative all too often gets in the way of the gameplay throughout the entire experience. The story isn’t that engaging either. While it’s the game that easily built the foundation for the other half of the package it’s included with, it’s easily the Super Mario Bros. Edition that shines brighter.
It’s bizarre too, because honestly there’s not that much different between the two games. They both provide shallow narrative that we’ve seen and heard before. They both revolve around very similar gameplay mechanics. But there’s something comforting about the familiar and arguably iconic aesthetic that the Super Mario Bros. version of the game brings to the table.
It’s a simple swap out too – the overworld from Puzzles and Dragons Z more resembles the typical level layout for a Super Mario Game. The dragons are replaced with classic enemies from the series. Even the gems are changed around – with Red gems becoming Fire Flowers and so on. It’s a purely cosmetic overhaul but one that works surprisingly well for a game of this calibre. And since the Mario series has no pretensions with regards to its story, it never gets itself bogged down with needless exposition or narrative.
It does feel strange that a Goomba and Koopa Troopa would fight against their own in the name of Mario, but it’s probably the only way the developers could get such a match-up to work. In that regard, it definitely makes more sense for dragons to be the recruitable allies in the Puzzles & Dragons Z game rather than in the Super Mario Bros. Edition. In fact, it really wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that the Super Mario Bros. Edition of Puzzles & Dragons is really just a slightly scaled back re-skin.
Visually speaking, both games look reasonably impressive, but it definitely feels like Super Mario Bros. Edition has received less polish than it’s more original and authentic companion. It’s weird – Puzzles & Dragons Z is generic but it feels like a lot more work went into it. Super Mario Bros. Edition, on the other hand, is subject to rather jarring framerate slowdowns. The 3D effect is there, but completely cosmetic and doesn’t add a lot to the game’s presentation. The soundtrack, on the other hand, sounds great, with some classic tunes from the Mario games that most fans will know and love.
While I personally enjoyed the Super Mario Bros. Edition of Puzzles & Dragons, it’s easy to see why players might be drawn to Puzzles & Dragons Z. It’s got more of a bolder presentation to it and it’s more of a “fresh” experience. The Super Mario Edition, on the other hand, is pretty familiar but bound to be more approachable.
Both games are substantial experiences, however, and the addictive but simple Match-3 gameplay easily carries both of them. Puzzles and Dragons Z + New Super Mario Bros Edition (as awkward as that title is) is bound to appeal to any puzzle fan, and including both at such a reasonable price makes it a pretty easy recommendation too.