Many people are familiar with prolific game designers—Kojima, Miyamoto, Molyneux, and so on. But how often do you hear about people that made contributions in hardware? I admit, even as something of a gaming fanatic, I hadn’t ever really heard of Gunpei Yokoi. I’d played Nintendo’s Game and Watch games as a kid. Of course there was the Game Boy. Though it made much less of a splash, I’d even heard of the Wonderswan. In 1997, 2 years before the Wonderswan was released, the man behind these systems, Yokoi died in a car wreck. The first game released for the Wonderswan was a puzzle game, titled “Gunpey” in his honor. Now, much as it did with Every Extend Extra, Q Entertainment, the studio behind Lumines, has decided to remake Gunpey.
The premise of Gunpey, as it is with any puzzle game worth it’s salt, is disarmingly simple. The player is tasked with vertically moving icons representing different line orientations on a forward-moving grid, in order to make a complete horizontal line across the screen. This line is then removed from gameplay, after giving the player a brief window of time in which to chain additional line segments onto it. The mechanics of the game eventually present themselves to you in an “Aha!” moment, during which your proficiency at the game progresses by leaps and bounds. Unfortunately, the system isn’t quite as elegant as, say, Tetris, and you get a sense the luck factors in more than it should. Pretty much any piece can be positioned in its vertical column to become a potential linker, for lack of a better term. There doesn’t ever seem to really be any doubt about how to proceed in terms of making a line from one side of the screen to the other. The problem is that sometimes, columns will remain empty for agonizingly long periods of time, during which you’re waiting for anything to show up, not just the one piece that would make a difference.
Setting aside the gameplay, as puzzle games really only warrant a cursory discussion of the mechanics, the thing that’s so interesting about Gunpey is the difference in the way it’s presented on two different platforms. To my knowledge, Q has never before launched a game on multiple platforms. Further, in this the day and age of multiplatform games being the norm, with people on either side of the fence quibbling over fairly minor technical differences from platform to platform, Q has genuinely made Gunpey a completely different experience on the PSP and Nintendo DS.
I primarily played the PSP version of Gunpey at first. As with almost any music/puzzle hybrid that Q Entertainment seems to put out these days, particularly on a system that has sufficient horsepower, the PSP version is hypnotic. It almost seems to pulse in your hands as you’re playing it. As a synaesthetic experience, it is yet another solid entry from Q. As a game, however, the control makes for a frustrating experience. Using the D-pad to vertically move pieces is fairly difficult, because you can only move a selected piece one square at a time. On several occasions, I lost not because I didn’t know what to do quickly enough, but because I couldn’t wrestle with the interface fast enough to put my plan into action. I was convinced that there was an interesting game there, however, and so, even though this review was initially concerned only with the PSP version, I decided to seek out the Nintendo DS version as well.
Firing it up, I was taken aback at first by the difference in presentation. While PSP Gunpey has the standard Q touches mentioned above, with no characters or story to speak of, on the DS, it’s essentially been packaged as a kids’ game, even more bubbly and cartoony than a previous DS offering by Q Entertainment, Meteos. The problem is that Q fares much better when it creates games that serve as fusions of spare yet futuristic design elements and primal, beat driven rhythms than it tries anything else. As such, the aesthetics of DS Gunpey are actually somewhat irritating. What the DS does bring to the table, however, is a control scheme that could never hope to be accomplished on the PSP. Finally, I was able to select which piece I wanted to move simply by touching and dragging it, as opposed to navigating to it with the PSP’s D-pad and awkwardly moving it one square at a time.
Surely the differences in technical abilities between the PSP and DS had a hand in the different design aesthetics of the 2 versions. Still, the DS has shown that it is capable of interesting presentation when it comes to colors and music. Last year’s innovative Elektroplankton release comes to mind. I likely would have been more pleased with the game on the DS if its design elements were spare in that way. However, even stripped to its barest elements, Gunpey still isn’t exceptional. It won’t set a new standard for puzzle games, and I’d be surprised if we saw a sequel. It is still fun for a while, however, and which version you prefer will certainly depend on whether you value design elements more than control schemes, or the other way around.