‘Puyo Puyo Tetris’ (Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4)
“Puyo Puyo Tetris?” you ask. Let us explain. The 2017 Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4 puzzler combines two beloved, timeless puzzle games into one package. You can play the oddly satisfying mash-up of blobs and blocks on the same grid, but honestly, both games shine brighter individually. With both traditional Tetris and Puyo Pop available to play as originally designed, Puyo Puyo Tetris is double threat. Both games feature drop-down piece mechanics that task players with keeping the screen from overfilling — by eliminating lines in Tetris and groups of blobs in Puyo Pop. Two puzzle games with simplistic but challenging systems, Tetris and Puyo Pop are as entertaining now as they were during their heydays. With Puyo Puyo Tetris, you can switch back and forth between these two masterful puzzlers in seconds. What more could you want?
It’s almost impossible to overstate the brilliance of Portal. Released in 2007 as one of the five games inside Valve’s The Orange Box, Portal was presented as somewhat of a throw-in title, relative to Half Life 2: Episode Two and Team Fortress 2. Now we know: The quirky and innovative first-person puzzle game is arguably the greatest game in this (or any) compilation. Portal‘s protagonist, Chell, enters the Aperture Science facility that serves as a testing center for its creation, the portal gun. A cheeky AI named GLaDOS propels the narrative, offering clues and ominous warnings along the way, all of which are delivered in a darkly humorous manner.
Portal‘s tone and atmosphere is pitch-perfect, but its gameplay is what has made it a lasting triumph. The portal gun shoots blue and orange portals onto surfaces, allowing both objects and Chell to go through one portal and out the other. This relatively rudimentary mechanic seemed so obvious, yet it felt revolutionary. Each section of the game necessitated using the two portals to advance. They start off simple enough. Shoot a blue portal on that wall, place an orange one on top of a high platform, walk through the blue portal and, bam, there’s the exit. But as the game progresses, the physics of the portals proves to be endlessly smart. Portals can help move blocks to complete puzzles, to unlock doors, and dispose of beam-shooting turrets. All the way up to its now-iconic finale, Portal offers a test of wit and ingenuity, to become not only one of the smartest puzzle games ever made, but one of the greatest games of all-time.
‘The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild’ (Nintendo Switch, Wii U)
Arguably the best of Nintendo’s many, many Zelda games, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has some of the best brain teasers we’ve seen in modern games. Zelda games had largely restricted puzzles to dungeons, but Breath of the Wild goes above and beyond, spreading smaller puzzle shrines all around the game’s spacious map. The smaller puzzle rooms also happen to be better for short pick-up-and-play sessions, as opposed to lengthy sessions in the series’ more elaborate dungeons. With 120 shrine puzzles in all, and four divine beasts containing multiple shrine puzzles in a bigger setting, the game’s scope in terms of puzzle mechanics is vast and varied. From physics puzzles, to ones that require you to complete tasks in a specific order, to others that make use of Link’s unique powers, Breath of the Wild has a bit of everything. All of them work well, even the ones that utilize motion controls, despite grumblings to the contrary. In terms of open-world adventure games, no game has done puzzles to the degree of excellence as Breath of the Wild.
‘The Witness’ (PS4, Xbox One, PC, iOS/Android)
The Witness, a first-person puzzle game in the style of PC adventures like Myst, somehow lived up to the hype. The 2016 follow-up to Jonathan Blow‘s Braid took seven years to make, but its lengthy development cycle was more than worth it. The island is divided into 11 sections, each of which contains many series of mazes to solve. The game doesn’t introduce its concepts explicitly. Instead, it uses each panel to teach you something new about the rules of the game. Solving the game’s 600-plus puzzles — hell, even finding them — requires significant head scratching. Many of the puzzles require you to look at your surroundings for context clues — read leaf patterns in the tree above, or listen to birds chirping around you. To solve some of The Witness‘ puzzles, you might wind up pulling out a pen and paper to draw possible solutions, or cut out shapes to see what fits. That’s the beauty of The Witness. It propels you to go to those unprecedented steps to solve the puzzle at hand. When you finally discover the solution, you’ll feel like you can do anything.
‘Threes’ (iOS, Android, Xbox One)
Puzzle games feel right at home on smartphones, and there have been a bevy of great puzzle games on iOS and Android, but one game stands above the rest. Yes, we’re talking about Threes. The 2014 number-based matching game does everything that a good mobile game should. Threes has simple swipe controls, easy-to-pick-up rules, and most rounds are short and sweet. Plus, like all mobile games that manage to captivate for more than a fleeting moment, it’s supremely addictive.
Threes takes place on a four-by-four grid. Nine of the spaces are filled from the start with numbered tiles — an assortment of ones, twos, and threes. Ones and twos can be slid into each other to create threes, a pair of threes can combine to make a six, two sixes form a 12, and so on. Each time you slide, a new tile comes on screen from the side that you made your move on, either up, down, left, or right. As the game continues, the numbers get bigger, meaning that you have to set yourself up properly to not get stuck. If you run out of possible moves, the game ends. The logic that goes into making each move elevates Threes above most puzzlers. As the numbers get larger, every move becomes vitally important. Suffice it to say, Threes is a challenging but rewarding time killer.
Fun fact: It is possible to beat Threes by making a 12,288 block. We only found out once a dedicated Threes player accomplished the remarkable feat … three years after the game launched.
‘Fez’ (PlayStation 4, PC)
Today, the 2012 Xbox 360 indie hit Fez is perhaps as well-known for its controversial creator as its quality. Creator Phil Fish canceled the game’s highly anticipated sequel and left the industry altogether in 2013 after a series of battles with the press. Though its creator’s baggage may haunt it, the pixelated puzzle-platformer was celebrated for its cool art style and ingenious puzzle design.
After spending his life in a 2D world, a disruption alters the world around Gomez, turning the environment into a 3D plane. While the game ostensibly plays as a 2D platformer, the world can be rotated by the player, with each rotation representing one of four 2D planes. The rotation mechanic serves as the primary puzzle aspect of Fez, and it works like a charm. From reaching seemingly inaccessible platforms, to finding hidden cube fragments that are necessary to restore order in the world, to activating switches and setting off bombs to clear new sections, Fez‘s novel mechanic elevated it into the upper echelon of platform games. The indie darling changed the way we look at level design and player perspective.
‘Braid’ (Xbox One, PC)
Before Jonathan Blow brought The Witness into the world, there was Braid, a pivotal title in the advancement of indie games in terms of both critical attention and commercial success. Braid, an Xbox Live Arcade title for Xbox 360, fashioned itself as a platformer in the vein of Super Mario, with protagonist Tim working his way through six worlds on a quest to save a princess from an evil monster.
Braid stood out for its use of time-based mechanics. In the first world, Tim can rewind the passage of time, allowing players to complete side-scrolling levels that, without the mechanic, would be near-impossible endeavors. If the entirety of Braid used the time-based mechanic in that exact way, it would be a great game, but Braid switched up the rules in each world, making it a truly remarkable experience. To solve puzzles and advance in the second world, players must use the time-shifting mechanic to alter the state of movable objects, all the while being faced with objects that cannot be affected by playing with time. In another world, moving right advances time, while moving left reverses time, making player actions all the more important. And in the most interesting world, rewinding time calls Tim’s shadow, which then replicates moves made before time was rewound. Players must use both Tim and his shadow to multitask, as they solve puzzles in tandem to move on.
Braid‘s charming music, colorful visuals, and surprisingly unique story made it a worthwhile experience, but its use of altering time to solve puzzles makes it one of the greatest platforming-puzzlers of all time.
In a world where Tetris already perfected brick-based puzzle games more than 30 years ago, it’s tough for new game with a similar concept to truly offer something new. But that’s exactly what the 2005 PLayStation Portable title Lumines achieved. At first glance, the drop-down puzzler looks like a spin on games like Tetris, with multicolored two-by-two squares falling onto a grid. Your job is to make two-by-two patterns of like-colored tiles. Simple enough, right? Lumines draws you in by combining its Tetris-style block clearing with musical cues — clusters of blocks don’t evaporate instantaneously, the timeline of the catchy music determines the next clearing moment. This lets you build up huge swaths of combos. For instance, if you have six matching tiles when the timeline ends, the center section splits into two, which ultimately clears eight blocks instead of six. Lumines remains engaging through long runs in part because of the different skins. As the music changes, so does the look of the blocks and the stage. This aesthetic twist, along with the emphasis on music, makes for one of the best grid-based puzzlers we’ve played.
‘Picross 3D’ (Nintendo DS)
The Picross series, commonly known as Nonograms, offers a variety of logic puzzles where players have to uncover
a hidden image using corresponding numerical clues to fill in spaces on a grid. When the series took off with Picross DS, though, that game didn’t do anything that emphasized the strengths of solving these puzzles in a video game: HAL Laboratory’s 2010 DS adaptation changed that.
In Picross 3D, each picture is hidden within a rectangular prism comprised of an array of cubes. Instead of simply discovering a flat image based off of numerical clues, the hints now tell how many cubes must remain in each row and column to complete the puzzle. Using the DS stylus, cubes are whittled away by examining more advanced hints. Numbers with circles around them must be split into two groups of cubes, while numbers surrounded by a square are broken into three or more groups of cubes. It’s a more complex version of Picross, a form that shows off why this particular type of logic puzzle is one of the best around.
‘Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward’ (Nintendo 3DS, PlayStation Vita)
The 2012 sequel to the surprise Nintendo DS hit Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors refined the hybrid visual novel/escape room formula, making it one of the best under-the-radar games on both the Nintendo 3DS and PlayStation Vita. Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward concerns nine characters who are kidnapped by an enigmatic individual known as Zero, who forces his prisoners to play the Nonary Game, a sadistic experiment centered on befriending and betraying fellow prisoners in hopes of avoiding execution and being released.
The story itself — the long sections of dialogue and exposition — is an excellent mystery full of twists and turns influenced by player choice. But in between the novel sections, the escape room puzzles offer a tantalizing aside to the narrative. In these sections, you find yourself in a room from a first-person perspective. You can cycle through fixed angles but cannot move freely. To escape, you must interact with objects around you to find your way out. The puzzles sometimes task players with combining objects to create tools to get out, but they also often include brain teasers, and context clues provided by dialogue throughout the narrative. Virtue’s Last Reward excels because it is one of those rare games that organically blends its story with its puzzles.