Review: Polarium (Nintendo DS)

Game: Polarium
System: Nintendo DS
Genre: Puzzle
Developer: Mitchell
Publisher: Nintendo
Released: 4/18/05

At this point in the newly created “handheld console war”, I see the Nintendo DS and the Sony PSP as…just about even. Putting system performance aside, both handhelds are about the same in terms of games that are worth playing. (I count 4-5 apiece.) The one problem I see is that Nintendo really shouldn’t have let Sony get so close. The DS has been out four months longer than the PSP, and on DAY ONE of the PSP launch, Sony immediately catches up. One would think Nintendo would have offered a killer app by now to counter, especially since Sony has something quite close with Ridge Racer.

Of course Sony had the help of one of the most unlikely titles to grace the system: Lumines. Before I heard about this game, I was not going to purchase a PSP. Then I experienced it for myself. I owned a PSP by the end of the day. For you see, it’s a “Tetris”. Meaning its a simple game that is SO addictive, and SO challenging, that its worth buying the unit to play it on. From out of nowhere, Sony got it’s “Tetris” to promote in the form of Lumines. And it was quite a victory over the DS, as Nintendo hadn’t quite received its “Tetris” yet.

But now, it seems Nintendo has officially put up its “Tetris” for the world to view in the form of Polarium. Like Lumines, the game runs on a simple concept. But is it as addicting? Or is it even worth playing? Lets see…


MODES

There are three main modes to take part in: Challenge, Puzzle, and Versus. Challenge is your traditional puzzle-game mode where an endless stream of blocks falls from the sky, and you need to clear them all out before they fill the screen. (Er…both of them.) Then you have Puzzle Mode, where you are given 100 different stock situations where you need to clear the entire screen of blocks. And of course there’s Versus, where you must clear blocks faster than your opponent can.

Outside of some extra odds and ends included within these modes, that’s all you’re getting. Three simple gameplay modes for you try and match wits with. It reminds me of the days of yore when super-expensive games cam with only one or two modes to mess around with. And while this type a set-up is all a game like this really needs, some (or many) might lose interest quickly here.

Modes: 6/10


GRAPHICS

Two words come to mind here, and you’ll be seeing these words a lot throughout this review: barebones.

Let’s be honest here. The game does not look pretty. It doesn’t even look colorful. Black and white are the most predominant colors (that really aren’t even COLORS) you’ll come in contact with, along with a fair amount of gray. Occasionally, you’ll see bits of red, blue, green, orange, etc. when traversing menu screens or watching text fly by either of the two screens. But that’s what you’re going to get. Black & white.

Plus, since everything is centered around blocks in this game, EVERYTHIING about it looks “blocky”. The text in the menus, the in-game board, the score displays…everything has a square, jagged look to it. Even when you enter your initials for high scoring purposes, you’re forced to draw a blocky symbol on grid with the stylus. There are hardly any rounded off corners to find on this cart. While it fits the theme, its still not that pleasing to look at.

Graphics: 3/10


SOUND

Once again, barebones. In fact, this is probably one of the worst sounding games I’ve ever played. (Not THE worst, but still really, really bad.) There are about three different music tracks included, all of them sounding like mediocre (AT BEST) surreal trance melodies. The tunes serve as more of a main game distraction than background noise, and usually have me turning the sound down on my DS every time I play this. The sound effects don’t help much either, as all are generic as hell. It isn’t often I hate the sound of a game this much, but nothing up until now has ever disgusted me to such a degree.

Sound: 1.5/10


CONTROLS/GAMEPLAY

Like many puzzle games that came before it, Polarium has you clearing the screen of blocks. The method of HOW is an interesting twist. At any given time, you are given rows of black boxes and white boxes. By using the stylus, you can flip over the blocks to their opposite. You’ll need to create an entire horizontal row of the same color for the blocks to disappear. You can change one block at a time (which takes forever), or you can draw a line through the grid and change multiple blocks at the same time. This allows multiple rows to disappear, and increase your chances of gaining bonus points.

An interesting thing about the grid-like playing area is that there is an extra set of “gray” around the black/white blocks. This allows you to trace OUTSIDE the puzzle and come back in. This is a great way to extend the line drawn and not worry about changing blocks you don’t want changed. It’s also the only way to solve the majority of puzzles included in the cartridge.

The Challenge Mode is the main game mode here. You must clear 1,000 lines of blocks in order to beat it. Every 100 “lines” is based on a different theme, or different line patterns. The only problem I see is that once you reach the second “stage”, it gets incredibly boring. And if you manage to hit the third stage, it becomes almost impossible to keep up. And every time you fail, you get to start off from the VERY BEGINNING, and work your way up through the same damn patterns that take forever to clear to begin with. I’ve never been more frustrated with a mode set up like this. Luckily there’s a “Practice” setting, where you can choose any set of levels you’ve previously gotten to and practice clearing them without dying. But even so, this isn’t one of the best endless-like modes I’ve played.

Then we have the Puzzle Mode, where as stated above, you are given a bunch of stock puzzles to clear. What you need to do is make all the blocks go away with one stroke of the stylus. At first the puzzles are very easy to complete, but of course get infinitely harder the more you play. Luckily there are two different “help” features. One will display the last course you took on the top of the screen, allowing you to better plan your next attempt. After a few tries on the puzzle, the game will point out where you should start. If you STILL can’t figure it out, the game will give you the end point as well. The only problem I have here is after every attempt you make on a puzzle, the game will shift all the blocks to the opposite. Black becomes white, and white becomes black. This REALLY does a number on the eyes, and can throw you off a bit.

Now the interesting thing is that while Challenge provides infinite levels of frustration, Puzzle can provide infinite levels of satisfaction. Of the puzzles I’ve managed to solve on my own, many of them are INCREDIBLY tricky. They really required me to use my brain, and sometimes made go for 40+ minutes on individual puzzles. But when I managed to solve them, I felt massive rushes of great joy. These things are like logic puzzles, and are perfect for those who are fans of brainteasers. This is definitely the “thinking man’s mode”, and it caters to a type of gamer that we don’t normally see.

Also, you have the option of creating your OWN puzzles with the Edit feature. You can make it as big or as small as you desire, and you can share your creations with all your friends with a password that appears when you finish. An interesting aspect is that the game will NOT let you create a puzzle that can’t be solved. You’ll know when you’ve hit that roadblock when the game won’t allow you to edit a particular block. I really like that feature.

Luckily the stylus controls, like most DS games, are done very well. The icons move just as the stylus does, and very rarely will it ever make mistakes that aren’t caused by you. And even if you do make a mistake, you can tap on any point in the line before the end to delete the progress you’ve made after it.

It seems weird, though. On the one hand, we have a mode that’s been poorly implemented and not fun to play. On the other hand, we have a mode that’s quite fun and mentally challenging to go through. Like two different poles…

Hey! Polarium! I just got it!

Controls/Gameplay: 6/10


REPLAY VALUE

The one mode I see people coming back to would be the Puzzle Mode. Solving each individual puzzle is quite engaging, and gives you a great sense of accomplishment. And for every ten puzzles you beat, a new ten puzzles will appear just like that. (You’ll also unlock more saves for your own puzzles.) But the Challenge Mode will go ignored by most, if only for its frustrating set-up. Which leaves the puzzles only, but that can only last a set amount of time as well. You solve all 100? That’s it. Outside of obtaining new puzzles from friends via passwords, you’ll probably end up returning this.

Replay Value: 5/10


BALANCE

Thankfully this game gives you a tutorial as soon as you turn it on for you to get a feel for the game. You get seven lessons that teach you the basics, and then you are on your own from there.

But the jump from “easy” to “impossible” is almost instantaneous. Its VERY noticeable in the Challenge Mode, as after the first 200 lines, the game becomes insanely difficult. The puzzles in Puzzle Mode also takes a huge jump in difficulty after a while, although not as much as Challenge. The curve is pretty steep.

Balance: 5/10


ORIGINALITY

While the concept of clearing blocks off a screen isn’t something revolutionary, the implementation of it is somewhat different. The barebones concept is also something we don’t usually see in this day and age in gaming. However, when put into practice, the game just seems like a bland, bland offering. It’s challenging, but just…bland.

Originality: 5/10


ADDICTIVENESS

By now you’ve read a ton of things that are simply unappealing about this game. Bland graphics, horrid sound, uneven balance, etc, etc, etc.

Now explain to me why I can’t put this game down.

There’s no earthly reason why I should be playing this game right now. There are times when I’m so frustrated with it that I’m highly tempted to throw my DS down in disgust. The Challenge Mode is unrewarding. The puzzles offered can easily be substituted by the logic puzzles found in common supermarket magazines.

Yet…I still play it.

There’s something about this game that makes me hate it, yet love it at the same time. There’s a certain intangible X-factor that I simply cannot explain. I keep picking this game up. It keeps entertaining me for unknown reasons. I go back to the Puzzle Mode for more puzzles to solve. I go back to Challenge Mode for more abuse, even though I tell myself I’ve had enough. I have fun with this game, despite ALL its flaws and shortcomings.

Lets put it this way. I’m currently choosing this game over playing Lumines.

I’M PLAYING THIS GAME OVER LUMINES.

I have no idea why, either.

Addictiveness: 10/10


APPEAL FACTOR

The game itself has been released with very little fanfare. It almost snuck up on us without any warning. I’ve seen no ads for it, either on TV, in print, or on the Internet. The quickest way word is going to spread about this game is word of mouth. And when people spread the word, they are pretty much going to say “Get this game”. Why? Because of that intangible X-factor I mentioned. There’s almost a subconscious “hook” to this game that will keep players coming back.

There’s also an additional feature that allows players with a game pack to send a “demo” of the game to DS owners who don’t via the wi-fi technology. So even without a game, friends who own a DS can try it out for themselves. Pretty ingenious, if you ask me.

Appeal Factor: 7/10


MISCELLANEOUS

For a while, I was confused as to WHY I even liked this game. Sometimes I hate it, yet sometimes I really like it. It was the oddest thing I ever experienced in regards to a single game.

And then it hit me. The title says it all. Polarium.

For it’s gameplay aspect, the game runs on two “poles”: black and white. They are opposites, and you must constantly switch from one to another in order to progress. Yet this title succeeds on the “pole” concept in another way: the emotional aspect. At one extreme, the game is frustrating to the core. It keeps giving you reasons to hate its guts over and over again. On the other extreme, there’s the satisfaction you gain when completing a puzzle. The thrill of being under the clock. The extra special “something” that I just can’t pinpoint in other games.

It’s as if the two sides of my brain are fighting over what final score to give this game. My left, logical side, is raving over all the challenging puzzles. My right, creative side, is bashing its lobes against the front of my skull. The end result? Biiiiiig headache…

Polarium lives up to its name in every sense of the word. Both in gameplay, and in being a true “bi-polar” experience.

Miscellaneous: 7/10


THE SCORES

Modes: 6/10
Graphics: 3/10
Sound: 1.5/10
Controls/Gameplay: 6/10
Replay Value: 5/10
Balance: 5/10
Originality: 5/10
Addictiveness: 10/10
Appeal Factor: 7/10
Miscellaneous: 7/10
Total: 55.5/100
SCORE: 5.5/10 (AVERAGE)