What Happened to the Puzzle Game?

The game industry has undeniably changed since mobile phone gaming took off in a big way. Different games are being made. Older styles of games have somewhat disappeared. The gaming environment has certainly changed over the last few years. Triple-A games dominate the home-console market, with more and more companies seemingly unwilling to experiment or release smaller games.

These smaller games are still being made, however, but they are usually palmed off as download only or made by smaller, independent studios who can’t afford to release their games physically. As stated above, in the last few years certain styles of games have all but disappeared from store shelves. We have seen the death and now, the rebirth of the 3D platformer thanks to games like Yooka-Laylee. What’s hot and what’s not changes all the time, so it isn’t unusual for certain genres to fall out of fashion, but the humble puzzle game is a different case.

Puzzle games have flirted with popularity, but I’d argue that they’ve never really led the pack. Everyone has played a puzzle game and there are definitely classics of the genre. Names like Tetris and even Angry Birds are known by everybody, but I’m not sure how many people would have ever said that a puzzle game is their favourite. Professor Layton and Brain Training shined the light on the puzzler for a while, but the home console has never really seen this. Dr. Mario was probably the last puzzle game on a home console that was played and enjoyed by everyone.

Growing up, I would have a good quality puzzle game on every console I owned. On the Gamecube I had two – Eggo Mania and Zoocube. These were fun, simple games that were especially good fun in multiplayer. The Boom Blox games on the Wii fulfilled a similar role too. These were puzzle games through and through – you knew where you stood with them. These games just don’t exist in the shops anymore and I think that’s a shame.

Ever since the mobile gaming boom, the puzzle game has found a new home on the App Store (other providers exist). Up until this whole Pokémon Go phenomenon, the biggest games on the phone were puzzlers. Games like Angry Birds, Cut the Rope and Candy Crush were the big boys in that field. Gaming staples like Tetris have also largely found themselves relegated to free versions on smartphones too, with slightly different names to avoid lawsuits as standard.

The puzzle game can also be found across download stores on anything you own too. People don’t want to pay full price for something they can play on their phone for free. The thing is, for me at least, a puzzle game is at its best when played with others. I have spent countless hours playing multiplayer Tetris, Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine and Dr. Mario among others. I just can’t seem to find these games when they’re not in the shops.

Tumblestone wants to be the springboard for the puzzle game’s resurgence. It’s a match-three puzzle game that is quick, brutal and quite fun. In the USA, the game is getting a limited run physical edition, bringing the classic multiplayer puzzle game back onto the shelves. It’s a noble intention, and I commend the developers, but I just don’t really see many people buying the game.

The gameplay in Tumblestone is fine (though infuriating at times), but the art-style is hideous. People do buy games based on the art, and unfortunately I think it will drive people away from the game. The price will put people off a bit too. Paying full price (or close enough) for a puzzle game is something that just doesn’t happen anymore. The last time anybody really did pay full price for puzzle games was with the Professor Layton series. Another game came out recently that gave the puzzle game a brighter future as well as Tumblestone: The Witness.

The Witness was a critical darling. It was an inventive puzzle game, not traditional in any sense. It was full price too, but plenty of people bought it. This is made more surprising by the fact that it was download only. The success of The Witness shows that people are still willing to spend a lot of money on a puzzle game, physical or not. I’d like to think that the game would have picked up even more traction if it had a presence in stores, but it still sold well.

I do believe that both Tumblestone and The Witness show that the console puzzle game can still exist in a world of triple-A mega blockbusters and the mobile phone industry. There is still work to be done if games like Zoocube and Eggo Mania can exist again on store shelves, but the puzzle game will never go anywhere. If that means we are largely stuck with them on our smartphones for the foreseeable future, okay, but I feel like there are glimmers of light at the end of the tunnel – boxed puzzle games are coming back.

Toby Saunders is sometimes opinionated. You’ll find him posting garbage about games, films and his beloved Spurs and Bath City FC on Twitter.