Polarium is one of those games that's going to be overlooked by the masses because we've moved past the simple games of yore.
Number of players: 1-2 s
ESRB rating: Everyone
US release date: 2007-07
As unique of a machine as the Nintendo DS is, there aren't too many games that actually utilize its dual/touchscreen design. Off the top of my head, I'd have to say Zoo Keeper and Feel the Magic XY/XX are the only ones, and even then Zoo Keeper can still be played with the D-pad and Feel the Magic sometimes feels like an unresponsive/glorified tech demo. Most other games, such as Super Mario 64 DS and Tiger Woods, use the stylus as an analog stick, thus making gameplay somewhat cumbersome.
Polarium on the other hand actually takes advantage of the handheld's "touching is good" motto and runs with it to create one of the most original puzzle games since Tetris. Now that's not meant to compare the two games, because, as I said in my review of Zoo Keeper, "I loathe comparing one game to another, mostly because it more often than not spells doom for the title that is being compared to the older of the two." While in that piece I put the game that was being reviewed over the game it was being compared to (RE: Bejeweled), the same could not be said for Polarium and Tetris. So instead of placing Polarium in the shadow of Alexey Pajitnov's classic falling blocks game, I'll refrain from comparing the two. In fact, the only similarities are that they're both puzzlers on handhelds that involve blocks. And while that's enough for some to draw the "obvious" comparison, it isn't for this critic.
The gist of the game is that you need to use the stylus to turn tiles from black to white (or vice versa) to create monochrome horizontal lines that will then be eliminated from play. Doing so sounds easy and it is at first, but the further you progress in Puzzle mode, the more stress it puts on your brain. The reason for this, quite simply, is because in said mode all tiles must be eliminated in one stroke. Meaning, you can't erase this line and then the next and the next until all the blocks have been washed from the screen. No. Much like a maze, players must find the perfect, single-lined path through the field so as to complete their objective. Crossing over the line you've already drawn is not an option, so you may find the need to backtrack in order to correct an error or eliminate a roadblock you placed in your own path.
And while Puzzle mode is where I spent the most time, it didn't take all that long to clear the 100 fields. That's not to say the game lacks a challenge -- on the contrary, really -- it's just that it lacks enough puzzles to keep the experience rolling past the five hour mark. To counter this the developers wisely added the option to create your own puzzles. Better still is the option to trade them from one DS to another. So even after you've grown weary of the 100 factory installed puzzles and solved them all for the tenth time, one can wirelessly swap these homemade puzzles with a buddy (or stranger for that matter).
But let's say you're like me and you don't know anyone else with a DS and/or you don't bring it outside on the off chance of finding someone with one so as to trade user-created puzzles -- what are you to do? There are two options, actually.
First would be to look online for other Polarium gamers. Puzzles need not be exchanged wirelessly. In fact, they can be traded by sharing complex, 30-digit passwords. While I've yet to find a web/fan site offering password exchanges, it's only a matter of time before they pop up.
Your other option is to create and solve up to 100 of your own puzzles. Once beaten, erase 'em and create 100 more. With the playing field ranging anywhere from 2x2 to 8x8, the possibilities (while not endless) are vast enough to extend the gaming experience far beyond its otherwise limited constraints.
The other mode -- Challenge mode -- is both easier and harder than the other. It's easier in that lines need not be eliminated with one swoop of the stylus. In fact, single blocks can be picked off one at a time if you wish. However, you are playing against a clock, thus making it harder. So much like Puzzle mode, you'll find yourself deftly zipping the stylus across the screen in an attempt to flip blocks from one color to another so as to clear as many of them at once. However, the longer you take in doing this, the greater your chance of the clock running out. So a balance must be struck between conservation and elimination -- which is not an easy task, especially as the timer begins to speed up in later levels.
Graphically, Polarium is rather lacking, but that's not necessarily a turnoff. The simple black, white and grey color scheme was an artistic choice on the part of the developers, and I applaud their efforts because, as it is with the PSP title Lumines, too many flashy colors and lights and backgrounds can actually distract from the chore at hand. And when I'm playing a puzzle game, I want a simple design.
At the end of the day, Polarium is sadly one of those games that's going to be overlooked by the masses because, as a whole, we've moved past the simple games of yore. Whereas the GameBoy version of Tetris is a 2-D black and white classic, try releasing it now. Gamers who grew up in the arcades and Atari era would appreciate it for the its throwback style, but anyone born since the release of Tomb Raider and Super Mario 64 (dare I go back even further and say Super Mario World?) would scoff at the design and gameplay. It also doesn't help that Polarium was released on a system that many gamers have yet to attach themselves to, opting to laugh at it instead. This is a real shame, because, while the DS does lack a killer library, there are several gems in the rough that are worth grabbing -- simplistic as they may be.