I'd been really impressed with the atmosphere and gameplay of The Voxel Agents' gentle puzzle game, The Gardens Between, so I'd downloaded their earlier, free-to-start puzzle game called Puzzle Retreat on my phone and recently fired it up. This is going to be a short "review", because Puzzle Retreat is a very straightforward sliding tiles type of game, which are a dime a dozen (although most are actually free to play or free to start haha). I think the the most recent game I played of this type was a game called Quell Reflect (also on mobile) from a few years ago, and the two have a similar laidback vibe. In this particular game your goal is to slide blocks of ice to fill the board, and a block will slide over already-placed ice blocks until it reaches an empty space. The game is easy to pick up and understand, and the game introduces new elements pretty steadily, such as blocks that spawn multiple blocks, arrows that change the direction of a block, and blocks that act as a "stop" block that prevents other blocks from sliding over them. I played through all of the first set of puzzles and a chunk of the next set (both free), but additional sets of puzzles cost $1 each. I felt like I'd seen all I needed to see, though, so even though it was a generally genial experience, I don't expect to be returning to this one anytime soon.

I enjoy a good rhythm game, and although Sega has put out quite a few over the years I don't seem to have sat down and played through very many of them. (The last one I can think of playing was the Wii-make of Samba de Amigo, which I played more than a decade ago!) I'd heard good things about their 3DS rhythm game Rhythm Thief and the Emperor's Treasure, and I've been playing it off and on. I finally finished it today, and although the game is enjoyable, there's not a whole lot to it. As many reviwers have noted, the game has a very Professor Layton-like presentation, although not as warm and compelling. The story is pretty standard fare, and although there's a decent variety in the types of rhythm games, every mechanic reappears several times so by about less than a third of the game's seven and a half hour's running time you'll have seen pretty much everything the game has to offer.

As with the aforementioned Samba de Amigo, in this game you have a meter that determines what your end rank is, and each stage is divided into three sections, and if you make just one or two mistakes in the final section you can quickly drop from an A down to a C or lower. I was able to pass every stage with at least the lowest rank with minimal effort and retries, which was fine with me, although people looking for more of a challenge would have to wait until they beat the whole game once, after which a hard mode for each stage unlocks. The game features a couple of extras, like single-card download multiplayer, and you can always go back and replay any stage to chase after a higher rank. Post game apparently there are also three bonus chapters, each with their own bonus stage. You earn each of the first two by finding all of a certain type of collectable within the game, and the last one unlocks when you get an A rank in all of the normal stages.

Overall this was an enjoyable game, particularly for fans of rhythm games. The references to previous Sega rhythm games (including Space Channel 5 and Samba de Amigo) were fun, and although this isn't an essential game in the 3DS's library, it does fill a particular niche and any rhythm game fans looking for something to play should enjoy it.

Although Animal Crossing: New Horizons took the world by storm last year when it released just as the world was shutting down due to COVID, I held off on getting it for a long time because I had played the 3DS game a ton, and it just didn't seem like the new iteration had that many new features. (I've also been playing the Animal Crossing mobile game daily since its release almost four years ago, although it doesn't really compare to the regular games.)

Anyway, the price of New Horizons had dropped a bit so I went ahead and picked up a copy, and after playing it for weeks now, as I suspected, to me it's essentially the same experience as the 3DS game. The main differences are that this game's progression at the beginning is much slower and important events are more spaced out, and although that made the experience feel a little different starting off, soon enough it became the usual grind of trying to 100% the museum's collections and working to earn bells to buy house and town upgrades. The other main addition to this iteration is crafting, where you collect resources in order to make special furniture. Collecting special furniture to decorate my house and town are not my main draws to playing the Animal Crossing games in general, so other than crafting essential tools when needed, I didn't spend much time with this.

I realize that although I blogged about the original Animal Crossing game on 3DS, I'd never posted any follow-up comments to its huge "Welcome amiibo" free expansion. If that expansion hadn't happened on 3DS, features that it introduced there such as missions, increased storage, and the interior decorating tools from Happy Home Designer, and that are included in the Switch game, would have made a much bigger impact (not to mention a huge bonus that wasn't included here, which was a full Animal Crossing-themed version of Panel de Pon, which could have been a standalone release). As it is, as an Animal Crossing vet there wasn't much in this Switch version that felt really fresh to me. The game launched with some features noticeably missing, some of which have been added in (such as swimming), and it's sort of obvious that there's still at least one more update waiting in the wings as Brewster's coffeehouse is conspicuous in its absence. I'll probably continue to chip away at the game bit by bit and it may be that the game reveals depths that I'm just not seeing yet, but from what I've read and seen about the game that doesn't seem likely. It would be interesting to see if Nintendo pulls another "Welcome amiibo"-like expansion that add in another big set of new features, but I don't see that happening anytime soon. We'll just have to wait and see.

I'm a long-time fan of both the Tetris and Puyo Puyo series. Tetris is the more-familiar and easier series for me, and I've been gradually chipping away at the mountain of Tetris games out there, the hitherto most recent of which was Tetris 99 which I blogged about in April of 2019. Admittedly, I haven't played nearly as much Puyo Puyo, but I did blog about my playthrough of the Japan-only release Puyo Puyo Tsuu on Wii near the end of last year.

This brings me to Puyo Puyo Tetris, one of the Switch's launch titles, and a game that I picked up pretty early on. I had actually played through a decent chunk of the story mode while on a long flight, but then put it aside for no particular reason. I was happy enough to pick it up again and blow through the rest of the story mode, and I enjoyed how that mode forces you to work your way through all the variations of Puyo Puyo and Tetris that the developers came up with. Alex from NintendoLife disliked the story part of the story mode, but I found the over-the-top antics of the quirky cast to be entertaining and enjoyable (the highlight being the muscle fish man). It was also fun to hear a lot of familiar voices, as the game is fully voice acted and features a ton of actors who have also worked on the Fire Emblem Heroes game.

As for the game modes, you could, of course, just play Tetris or Puyo Puyo on its own, but the game introduces pretty much every permutation of the two you could think of. You can play Tetris while your opponent plays Puyo Puyo, or vice versa. You can both play head-to-head Tetris and at regular intervals the board switches to Puyo Puyo, and so forth. There's a weird fusion mode that is mostly Puyo Puyo focused, but drops huge Tetris blocks that add a layer of strategy as they can rearrange your Puyos, and as another wrinkle, you can also play either of the two game types in a "party" mode that adds in items with helpful effects. There are also miscellaneous a mode that focuses on making chains (much more worthwhile in Puyo Puyo mode than Tetris mode), and for pretty much all of these modes you can play in a solo mode (timed or marathon), vs. the CPU, vs. online, or vs. local.

Phew! Although I said I played through the story mode, that isn't quite true, as I only beat the main story, which consists of seven chapters. There are an extra three episode-like chapters that unlock at that point (I think they were originally DLC in the original Japanese release of the game), but they're not related to the main story. For every stage in the story mode there are three targets where you can aim to earn up to three stars, and although getting all three stars in the first few chapters were easy enough, it would definitely take a lot more effort to perfect every challenge. For me personally I've still been playing Tetris 99 semi-regularly whenever they introduce a new skin, so this on top of my long history with the series made the Tetris stages pretty easy for me. My PP skills, in contrast, were pretty lacking, though, and it took time for me to remember how to even do three chains consistently, ha. Anyway, overall I enjoyed my time with the game, and although I don't really consider it an essential version of either game, it's also kind of a nice two-for-one modern experience of both. I really don't see the point of a sequel, but Puyo Puyo Tetris 2 was released at the end of last year and apparently introduces character-specific skills. I can't say that I'm rushing to play that game, but I'll keep it on my radar and I'm sure I'll get to it eventually after I've caught up a little on some of the older games in both series.

The bombshell announcement of Metroid Dread, the next Metroid game at this past E3 reminded me that I'd never finished the previous Metroid series release, Metroid: Samus Returns, on 3DS. Samus Returns was released four years ago (yikes!) and is a remake of Samus's second adventure, Metroid II on Game Boy. I'd enjoyed the step forward that Metroid II provided to the series, but when discussing Samus Returns you really have to compare it to Metroid: Zero Mission, the GBA remake of the very first Metroid game ever. I was really impressed with Metroid: Zero Mission, which took many of the items introduced in later installments and seamlessly retrofitted them into the original.

Samus Returns goes a step further and also incorporates four completely new abilities (called "Aeion" abilities) that are based on a separate energy reserve, as well as a melee counter. I thought the melee counter was going to be finicky and annoying, but it turned out to be easy to pick up and execute, and leads to some fun animations when used against bosses. I haven't done a side by side comparison, but it feels like Samus Returns reworks the original Metroid II maps much more extensively than the original. The original Metroid II was extremely linear and there was no reason or convenient way to go back to earlier areas. Samus Returns still has you focused on eliminating the Metroids within one area at a time, but in more modern-day Metroid fashion it gives you a lot of incentive to revisit previous areas because your ability to open previously blocked off paths grows with your increased abilities and it offers plenty of warp points as well as an indication of your percentage completed for each area.

The game is co-developed by MercurySteam, who previous to this game had produced what seems to have been a well-received Castlevania game, and they're also behind the upcoming Metroid Dread. Everything runs super smoothly and the game is pretty well paced, although the boss fights are almost all crammed towards the end and each often takes a bit longer to get through than they should. Defeating Metroids can get a little repetitive despite their different forms, but this is offset by slight differences in the rooms they appear in and your growing sense of powerfulness as your equipment improves. These are minor complaints, however, and in general the game is everything you'd expect from a Metroid game in terms of the puzzle-solving, action, design, and atmosphere. The four Aeion abilities give you a bit of flexibility in how you approach the game, and apparently the Amiibo provide some nice but pretty unnecessary perks.

It seems like every other indie game is a Metroidvania these days, so I've been quite burned out on them, but Samus Returns is a case of a remake done right and was really enjoyable, so much that I've had to add it to my list of greatest games of all time. My streak of great games has continued this year, surprisingly, although I don't have anything in particular lined up for the near future, so the rest of the year will probably be a bit less noteworthy. We'll see!