Review: Dr. Mario & Puzzle League (Game Boy Advance)

In this review, we rotate our way through a multi-game game. This time, the puzzle game we’re playing is Dr. Mario & Puzzle League as released on the Game Boy Advance.

This game was released in 2005 and features 2 games: Dr. Mario and Puzzle League. Previously, we did play the NE version of Dr. Mario and thought it was a pretty good game. The Puzzle League series is also a game we are familiar with having played both Tetris Attack on the SNES and Pokemon Puzzle League on the N64. Both games received wildly different scores.

First up is Dr. Mario. It’s basically the same game as we’ve played on the regular NES. It features the classic mode which pits you against the viruses in the bottle. To win the game, you must clear all of the viruses in the bottle. To clear out a virus, you must line up at least three spaces worth of pill of the same color to clear out all four. Creating a line of four of the same color will clear out excess pill slots in the bottle as well. Each consecutive level is progressively harder, but the game will always give you at least three additional spaces along the top to allow you to clear out viruses vertically. Still, horizontally clearing viruses is an excellent strategy if you can swing it. You can also get combo’s if a falling pill part falls on another line of the same color. If you complete a level, you get a chance to challenge the next level. Another thing to keep in mind is the fact that the longer you take in a given level, the faster the pills will fall. If you hear the occasional seemingly random sound effect, that is what it means. How fast the pills will fall initially depends on what you set it as in the menu before playing.

There are other modes available to you in this game. One mode is vs. mode. If you can link up your Game Boy up with another, you can square off against another person. Otherwise, there is simply a vs. CPU mode. In these battle modes, you race to clear out all of the viruses first. A player loses if the opponent clears out all of the viruses first or if they allow the pills to clog up the entrance. The first player to three victories wins. To spice things up, there’s the use of garbage. If you clear out a particularly long chain or execute a combo, you’ll be able to send garbage to your opponent. For simple moves, two pieces will randomly fall in your opponents bottle. The more elaborate the move is, the more pieces of garbage falls on your opponent. For going up against the CPU, you can set the difficulty as easy, medium, or hard. For fair an even matches, I found medium can put up a fight against you. Of course, this all depends on skill.

There is another mode available in this game: Flash. Flash seems to operate very similarly to Tetris 2 where your goal is not necessarily to clear out all of the viruses, but rather, clear out the couple of flashing viruses inserted randomly in the playing field. First player to clear out the flashing viruses wins. A mode that definitely is more about strategy than anything else.

The other game available in this multi-pack is Puzzle League. This is the game where you swap tiles around until you get three or more like-tiles to line up. Lining up 3 or more will clear them from the board and increase your score. The tiles will gradually be fed up from the bottom. If the tiles reach the top, it’s game over. Execute a chain of four or more or execute a combo, and you can stop the pieces from moving for a short period of time. The better the chain or combo, the more time you have to stop the tiles.

This game features a number of modes. First, there’s the marathon mode where you set the difficulty from the beginning and the game keeps going until you die.

Another mode is line mode. This is the same as marathon, however, if you successfully remove (or move) all of the tiles to below the dotted line, you win. As you may have noticed by the level system, there is a sort of world and level system much like the original Super Mario Bros. Indeed, there is a sort of world/level system where if you are on level 2-3, you are basically on world 2, level 3. For every five levels, you square off a “boss”. Disappointingly, the boss is nothing more than a damage meter that you attack with chains and combos. Drain the meter and you complete the “boss” stage.

An additional mode is garbage mode. This is basically a simulated vs. mode only without an opponent. You can set the garbage level and play. Garbage mode operates much like marathon, only random pieces of garbage falls onto the playing field. The longer you play, the more garbage you get in spurts. You lose when the garbage is finally too much.

In addition, there’s a timed mode. You set the game speed and you have 2:00 to get as high of a score as possible. Now, you’d think the game speed is simply referring to how fast the tiles move into the playing field. This isn’t so. The game speed is actually referring to how fast the tiles turn in each move and how fast they are cleared off of the field once you form a line or chain. A slow speed may help you form combos more effectively as you have an increase in reflex time, but the time still moves just as fast. Generally, a slower game speed is more beneficial for garbage mode than timed mode. A faste speed might actually be more beneficial in the timed mode.

Finally, in the single player mode, there’s puzzle mode. Puzzle mode is, in fact, timed, but beyond that, the pressure to move quickly isn’t there. Instead, the focus is more on the limited number of moves you have to clear out all of the tiles. The earlier levels are definitely no-brainers, but the later levels are quite the head-scratchers. If you get stuck, you can hit select for a hint. The hint shows you the first move you need to take to solve the puzzle. If you hit select again, then the game will show you the second move (and so on). While that seems like cheating, your time will be hurting because for every hint you receive, you are assessed a 5 minute penalty. Ouch.

Along with these single player modes are multiplayer modes. you can either go against another player or a computer.

The first mode is garbage mode which is actually your standard vs. mode play. Complete chains or combos to send large blocks of garbage to your opponent. Complete a line of concrete exclamation marks and you send concrete garbage over which can make things even more difficult for your opponent. The player that has garbage/tiles reach the top first loses.

Another mode is the vs. line mode. No garbage, but your goal is to reach the line first much like the single player line mode. First person to cross the line with every tile wins.

Finally, there is a vs. timed mode. Again, much like the regular timed mode, you have 2 minutes to get as many points as possible. The player with the most points after 2 minutes wins (or if a player screws up and dies before the 2 minutes are up, then the opponent wins by default).

One thing that is worthy of note about the vs. CPU mode is the fact that the CPU’s playing field is reduced in size and mostly greyed out. You can get a sense of what the computer player is doing by seeing the tiles flash whenever the player creates a line, chain, or combo. You can also see where the garbage is at as well. Beyond that, it’s difficult to see what is going on as far as your opponent is concerned. On the one hand, it’s much more distraction free, but on the other hand, it eliminates a few possible strategies you can build.

Both games feature a vertical mode. you can play single player modes by flipping the Game Boy Advance sideways and play a sort of “easy-see” version of both games.

One thing I found with Dr. Mario is that I thought the gameplay was a little limited with the number of modes that were offered. Yes, what was there was a solid play, but there was very little offered that helped break Dr. Mario out into something more expansive than what was originally offered on the NES. Still, the difficulty curve was great and the gameplay was great, but once you get past the regular mode and the vs. mode, this game is a bit light on features.

As for the Puzzle League game, I thought, so far as gameplay is concerned, the features nicely expanded on what I already knew about this series. this was mostly seen through bringing a lot of the 1 player mode games into the two player setting. A lot of what you see in this version is actually largely taken from Tetris Attack more than Pokemon Puzzle League. Good thing because the former was excellent and the latter was bad. One criticism I have of this game, though, is that this game leaves a lot to be desired in terms of personality, though. It’s basically Tetris Attack, but without the personality, the interesting characters, and storyline.

Graphically, Dr. Mario is rather bland. While it is nice to see Mario much more animated than in the NES version, this is about one of the only real major graphical improvements this game features. There is the occasional animated background in the menus, but all you get in the game itself is the same old checkered background in the game field itself. So, a very plain game graphically speaking.

Meanwhile, Puzzle League features a variety of interesting backgrounds. This would have been a shining example of how to keep a puzzle game varied, but the backgrounds are buried in the options menu. You have to manually change them. If you don’t, then you get stuck with the same default background throughout your entire gameplay. There is no option that we found to randomly get the game to change the background. A major let down. The blocks are nicely animated, but that’s about it. If this game showed off its graphical inventory more effectively, I would have said this game is great graphically. Unfortunately, that is not the case.

The audio of Dr. Mario was OK, but you have to manually change between the handful of different tracks between each play. This does make the music a bit more boring and repetitive. Also, while this game features mostly music from the original NES version, I can’t help but think that the music was somewhat tamed down from the original. So, the music was slightly more bland. The exception was the intro theme which does take some sting out of the original theme’s resonance.

Puzzle League, in the mean time, has a small library of music. Again, like the backgrounds, they are buried in the options menu. Between play, you have to actually manually go into the options and manually change the music. There’s no randomization option which makes these tracks far more hidden then they should have been. Having heard the music, they did take a couple of classic tracks from the original Tetris Attack and imported them into this version. A shame they were so hidden. The sound effects were decent though.

Overall, I would say both games are worth checking out. Dr. Mario does contain a lot of what made the classic such a hit. It’s a shame it never really fixed the games shortcomings even after all these years later. As for Puzzle League, this is probably the highlight of the two. It brought a few more interesting ideas into the multi-player. It’s unfortunate that a couple of the features (namely the background and music) was buried in the options. Had I not investigated, I would have thought this game only had a menu track, a game track, and a danger track. This made play get a little stale. While this game does take a lot of what made this game so great, it has a distinct lack of personality that was featured in the original Tetris Attack. This is especially noticeable in the line mode where the bosses are nothing more than a health bar that you drain. Still worth playing in spite of its flaws.


Furthest point in game:

Dr. Mario:
Classic Mode: Level 29 (Low speed) – 186,300 points.
Vs. CPU: Defeated Medium difficulty CPU on level 10 at low speed.
Flash: Defeated Medium difficulty CPU on level 5
Vertical mode: Level 10 (Low Speed) – 21,300 points (voluntarily quit getting a good idea of what play is like)

Puzzle League:

Marathon: Survived for 6:52 on Fast Level 50: 12,890
Line: Beat Level 6-3: 48,337 points
Garbage: Survived to Level 47 (Time 32:06) – 36,342 points (slow speed)
Puzzle: Made it to stage 5-03 before burning through an hour.

Vs. CPU Garbage: Defeated Level 13 CPU (hardest match lasted over 4 minutes)
Vs. CPI Timed: Defeated Level 13 CPU
Vs. CPU Line: Defeated Level 17 CPU

General gameplay:
Dr. Mario: 19/25
Tetris Attack: 23/25

Average: 21/25

Replay value:
Dr. Mario: 6/10
Tetris Attack: 9/10

Average: 7.5/10

Dr. Mario: 4/10
Tetris Attack 6/10

Average: 5/10

Dr. Mario: 2/5
Tetris Attack: 2/5

Average: 2/5

Dr. Mario Rating: 62%
Puzzle League Rating: 80%

Overall rating: 71%

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Google+.

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