One thing that the PlayStation Portable doesn't have a lot of yet is the little gems that make handhelds handy to have. Those puzzle games with funny names and weird-looking art on the covers, those racing games from unpronounceable European studios, those action games with licensed you could care less for but action that still bowls you over ... it often is the little things that count with a little game system. With the widening of the PSP pricing structure making smaller games reasonable, that's something that should start to change. You won't hear about many of these games, but if you keep your eye out and stow a few extra bucks in your pocket when you head out for the latest big blockbuster, there are always surprises to find in the bargain bin.
Case in point is a game you've never heard of for PSP called Ultimate Block Party. Publisher Crave didn't announce the game before its release or list it on its official site, and we at IGN never even knew it was coming out until we saw it on shelves (never mind that there's a quote from IGN on the box -- this caught us totally by surprise.) Astute import watchers may recognize this game from its original Japanese / Korean release, when it was known as Kollon, but even then, few have played it and few expected it to come to America. This game may sound like it's one of those rush-job games dumped into the market for Christmas. But give it a chance, and you may find yourself playing Ultimate Block Party much more than whatever you went to the game shop for in the first place.
The beauty of Ultimate Block Party is that it's a typically easy puzzle game to pick up and play, but the depth of techniques allow masters to go batty with chains and combos. Essentially, gameplay is in the Tetris tradition of a well of blocks rising to the top of the screen. Instead of blocks dropping from the sky, they push up from the bottom. Clearing blocks is extremely easy, because a set of same-color blocks (at least four) only need to be touching to start a combo.
However, moving blocks around in the well can be tricky, as you have a square spinner to move blocks, so you'll always be moving whole sets of blocks with every twist. It's up to you to figure out how to move as many as four blocks at a time while still setting up the combos and chains that earn you big points and slams. There are two types of scores in the game. One is simple links, called PoPs, where you link four or more blocks together. The second is the combo Chain, where stacked blocks fall when you clear away a PoP and create a new link. A PoP will wait a while before it clears, so you can spin more blocks to add to the link or place blocks underneath to set up a combo.
So far, sort of simple -- so long as you can figure out how to move blocks with the bigger spinner, you're on your way. But then, things get tricky. And I mean really tricky. Ultimate Block Party is choc-full of special bonuses for chains and combos, and as soon as you or your opponent starts doing well, the game goes nuclear. There are almost too many rules and bonuses to this game. For one, every color of PoPs has its own special effect in VS (single and multiplayer). Every color! Red makes your square bigger than four blocks, orange hides the color of blocks in the square, yellow walls off a row of blocks, blue drops big blocks on your opponent, purple makes connected blocks turn into one big, useless slab of color ... and then, the green blocks come out, and those are really brutal. The more blocks you link in a PoP, the harder and longer the effect hurts. Usually, you're just trying to make just anything happen, but if you really want to hurt your foe, you've got to keep your colors straight. And that's not all. Creating Chains will bring up Magic Blocks, which can turn whole rows of blocks to one color or splinter out and hit everything close by.
It can be a lot to keep track of, but a really good player can not only devastate you, he can instill you with awe for his skill. Master the row Magic Block, for example, and you can hit another row block (they spin in four directions with your square) and take out another row in the process. There's also a clever risk/reward system in that you can push the well up at any time, giving you more blocks to work with and more chances for combos, but also bringing you dangerously closer to the top. Balance favors experienced players over the newbies even with a few handicapping options, but you don't have to know everything about what every color does to play -- it helps, for sure, but any PoP is progress. Our only issue with the design is that the blocks are color-coded, but have no faces corresponding to the effect they have -- in some game modes, it doesn't matter, but it might be easier to play if you didn't have to memorize every color in the game to be great at it.
For gameplay modes, Ultimate Block Party has just about everything you'd expect. The heart of the game is the Multi Mode (which sounds like multiplayer, but that's really just part of it.) Here, you can play in Campaign Mode (which has an odd little story about little blonde Kollon and her battles with neighborhood puzzle-players), Arcade mode (which is nearly the same as Campaign, strangely), VS. CPU (which lets you face off with any of the game's opponents for as many rounds as you like), and wireless multiplayer. That WiFi mode (ad-hoc for two) is brand new to the US version of this game -- Japan just got single-player -- and while you may unfortunately not run into too many other gamers who own Ultimate Block Party, it's great to see that added. Single player has a regular unlimited well for playing for the ultimate score, as well as a Tutorial for all of the game's complicated rules as well as a Training mode for practice. There are eight characters to play as, all cute in that anime-style way (and thankfully, nobody has been "Americanized"), and each with special skills in the opponent AI to do things such as make big combos just when you've counted him out or put together impossible-seeming PoPs by playing carefully.
The pace of Ultimate Block Party is amazing, with you wildly working to try and extend PoPs once they start. There is something, however, keeping this game from being up in the heights with games like Tetris. For one, the unlimited Single mode is uneventful, because color links don't matter when you're the only player playing. VS against the computer is good fun, but it can't last forever like some puzzlers can -- at some point, somebody has to win. A few extra modes or options might have extended the fun. We're also have some mixed about the production values. On one hand, it's cute and blindingly colorful, with some very odd moments in the short Story mode sequences that could only come from the Far East. On the other hand, the US version is goofed up by mistakes translating the buttons (they left the Circle button as the chooser for most menus, and when you hit X as it says to make a choice, it often backs out of the menu.) There could also have been some cool unlockables to keep you going. The addition of multiplayer is great, but you'll wish it was online so you could actually find somebody who has it. The control would have been simple enough for share-the-screen play like in Ape Escape Academy, but this game doesn't have that, and the wireless play only allows two to link up. Also, the ranking and stats functions don't auto-save, so you'll lose your highest scores if you forget to save. (And what's with the insanely-high scores pre-loaded on the scoreboard? How is anybody to know if they beat their own best score when it's almost impossible to make the board?) Loadtimes, however, are nice and fast, and except for that button flub, the US version is better than the import game.
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