Panel de Pon, Nintendo’s reverse falling block puzzle game, is one of the finest products of the genre. Though the original Japanese game had a bit of an underwhelming lineup of characters, as they looked like generic Sailor Moon knockoffs. So, whenever bringing the game outside of Japan, Nintendo has given Panel de Pon (AKA the “Puzzle League” series) a number of facelifts using their more established (and more charming) characters. The SNES received Tetris Attack, which implemented characters, graphics and music from Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island. And when Nintendo decided to release a Nintendo 64 version of the game in 2000, they chose Pokémon to fill the role. Pokémon was still white hot and at the height of its powers in 2000, so it was a fitting way to bring Panel de Pon to the N64. Thus, Pokémon Puzzle League was born! Interestingly, Nintendo chose to use characters, artwork and music specifically from the Pokémon anime, making Puzzle League one of the few Pokémon games to actually be based on the TV show.
The gameplay of the series is as it’s always been. Working as something of an inverted Tetris, the blocks don’t fall from the top of the screen but rise from the bottom. The blocks come in different colors (here representing different Pokémon types, with red being fire, blue being water, and so on), and players can swap two blocks horizontally to try to match them up with three or more blocks of the same color (either horizontally, vertically, or both) to clear the blocks. By chaining together combos, players can send ‘garbage blocks’ to each other, which create an additional obstacle that needs to be removed by matching more blocks adjacent to the garbage blocks. Should the blocks pile up to the top of the screen, it’s game over.
Like the best falling block puzzle games, the gameplay is really easy to explain, but difficult to master and incredibly fun. Pokémon Puzzle League even features additional modes that weren’t present in previous releases. Most notably, there’s a 3D version of the gameplay that takes advantage of the N64’s hardware.
In the 3D mode, the usual flat grid where the gameplay takes place is replaced with a cylinder, with players shuffling through the cylinder to give the gameplay something of a 360-degree perspective. It’s an interesting take on the series’ formula, though I do admit the gameplay of Pokémon Puzzle League is better suited on the 2D playing field, as the cylinder makes it hard to keep track of where things are, thus making it more difficult to strategize your moves.
Other, more traditional modes are present, such as a story mode (which sees Ash Ketchum battling through the original Gym Leaders, his friends and Team Rocket to become the Puzzle League Champion) or an ‘Endless Mode’ where players see how long they can keep the board from filling up as the blocks gradually start rising faster, trying to beat their high score along the way. And of course, there are multiplayer options, with players being able to choose one of fifteen different Pokémon Trainer characters, each one boasting three different Pokémon (which change the background graphics and soundbites, but have no effect on the gameplay itself. That may seem superfluous, but it’s a nice touch as it adds some extra Pokémon flair by being able to select different Pokémon with your trainer). Ash, of course, has Pikachu, Bulbasaur and Squirtle at his disposal.
Besides the characters from the Pokémon TV series, Pokémon Puzzle League also features instrumental remixes of songs from said series (specifically the album 2.B.A Master). I have to say this is an amazing addition to the game, as the dub of the Pokémon anime really went all out in the production of its songs back in the day (cheesy though the songs may be). While I normally try to avoid the “back in my day, everything was better” mentality of my generation, one thing I have to admit really was better back in my day were cartoon theme songs. These days, an American studio wouldn’t put that kind of effort into their own homegrown animated series, much less the dub of an anime. But in the late 90s, the sky was the limit! The music is a reminder that, back then, Pokémon basically ruled the world. My point being, it’s great to hear those early Pokémon songs in some capacity in an actual Pokémon game.
The core gameplay introduced in Panel de Pon remains some of the most fun and addictive in the entire falling block puzzle genre, and with the added Pokémon characters and music, it makes Pokémon Puzzle League a really easy game to revisit and get engrossed in. I do have to admit, I still find the Yoshi-centric makeover of Tetris Attack makes that game the definitive entry in the series, but Pokémon Puzzle League is probably a close second place, and a worthy successor. Seeing as the Tetris Attack version may not see a re-release (Nintendo didn’t go through the proper steps to use the Tetris name, creating a bit of a conundrum), Pokémon Puzzle League is probably the most accessible way for westerners to experience one of Nintendo’s unsung classics.
Plus, any game that features remixes of Viridian City and Double Trouble is an easy win.