What do Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo, Puzzle Bobble 2X and the Game Boy version of Qix have in common? Well, they all solved a problem, to a greater or lesser extent, and that problem was colours that look like other colours… To my eyes at least! What they also have in common is that since these problems were solved, in their own way they’ve all gone from games I’ve ignored for decades to games I absolutely adore! But now I have a new problem – which one of them am I going to dive into first? Of course, you already know the answer to that, but let me explain all the same…
Let’s start with Qix, a 1981 line-drawing arcade game by Taito which I’ve covered in reviews of both the Taito Milestones compilation on Nintendo Switch and the Taito Egret Mini II cabinet. I’ve always so nearly really liked this, but my red-black colourblindness – the most dominant of my colour problems – has always rendered your little cursor thing almost impossible to see, while the little guys that patrol the lines you draw to fill the specified percentage of the screen to beat the level are totally impossible! Such a great, simple concept that sounds like so much fun if you can actually see what’s going on. Which you can on the Game Boy version because it’s got no choice but to go all-in with beautiful green monochrome! I had no idea it even existed until well into 2022 but since I found out I’ve played it to death while sitting in the car, hanging around for my son’s closed-doors academy football training for two hours at a time, three nights a week. Not to mention before the hour and a half before matches… And it’s brilliant! Can’t believe I’ve been missing out on this for almost as long, in relative terms, as I have the original, but it’s not like it’s gone out of its way to fix my problem. It just exists because that’s the best the Game Boy’s got!
Conversely, I’d never previously played Bubble Bobble spin-off Puzzle Bobble 2, or its 2X variety, also on the Taito Egret II Mini, because one look told me I couldn’t tell the difference between the yellow and the green and probably the purple and the blue too in the chaos of trying to beat a computer or real-life opponent by matching coloured bubbles! No choice when I’d embarked upon reviewing every one of the forty games on that thing though, and it was then that I noticed the little symbols on each bubble… Now, exclusively matching the bubble’s symbols rather than colours makes it way more stressful than originally intended, especially on the Taito Egret II Mini’s mini screen; I’ve also realised its scoring system is fundamentally flawed, where going big is totally reliant on blind luck getting you a decent starting layout each round to fire and match and pop, as opposed to any great skill or the satisfaction of winning a drawn out back and forth against an opponent. But all that said, I can’t leave it alone! This thing is addictive as hell, despite my colourblindness and its own best efforts, and somewhat bizarrely I’ve properly started to love it!
And now we come to Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo, another game I could tell from any screenshot alone that I wouldn’t ever dream of trying to play, which turned out to be perfectly justified when it arrived on the wonderful Capcom Fighting Collection for Nintendo Switch for me but also elsewhere too! There I was, having my usual dabble with everything on a compilation before becoming obsessed with the third Darkstalkers game, Vampire Savior: The Lord of Vampire, and I finally got to this, the only non-fighting game on there, left until last because of the above, and once again, against all the odds, I found myself quite enjoying it – providing it was docked and I was really close to the biggest telly in the house! That only lasted a while though – you can’t get good when you can’t tell the difference between half the colours, and I soon lost interest; after all, distinguishing colours isn’t exactly a problem in any Darkstalkers game!
We’ll definitely return to Darkstalkers shortly, as well as what then changed with that compilation, but let me quickly mention my colourblindness… It’s hardly debilitating – you look like an idiot from time to time when you’re asking a shop-assistant to confirm if something is black, and I reckon it’s at least the partial source of my motion-sickness in games of a certain style, such as Doom from 2016. Hardly the end of the world though. I remember my Mum was always correcting greens and browns, but I guess I was seven or eight when her new faux-leather green (or brown!) trench-coat triggered a trip to the doctor, and for my middle younger brother too! There were no fancy names given to us, like deuteranomaly, which you sometimes see in the more forward-thinking accessibility options in some games now, and to this day I don’t know my exact problem, but I predominantly say it’s red-black because that’s the main issue, where my eyes either don’t see certain red colour waves, or they just register them as black, meaning I don’t see red on black or vice-versa. But there’s definitely a big dollop of green and brown in the problem mix too… Give me a circle of colours with a number to identify in the middle and I’m going to struggle regardless!
No sympathy required though, but what is very, very welcome is not only to get any kind of update from the likes of Capcom, months after they’ve launched a collection of old games, but when one of those games is fundamentally updated more than twenty-five years after the event to be more inclusive of the dodgy of eye! If I remember right, the Capcom Fighting Collection arrived at the end of June 2022, and then this update appeared out of nowhere at the end of September. It included the usual load of bug fixes and tweaks to online play, but also several added features, mostly built into its training modes, such as hit box displays, or gem level options in Super Gem Fighter, or the ability to practice some of Darkstalkers’ more esoteric moves! And, of course, we got the new “Gem Colors” option added to Puzzle Fighter, where you can choose between the original palette of gem colors and up to 6 different alternate palettes – a veritable something for everyone, and not to mention a literal total game changer after such a long time!
Right, now we’ve established how I’m recently qualified to talk about Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo with a bit more authority, we should talk about the game! It’s Japan, it’s 1996, and Compile / Sega’s colour-matching puzzler Puyo Puyo 2 (another one I can’t see) has been doing mad business in the arcades – the biggest thing since Street Fighter II, no less! Wanting a piece of that sweet versus action, Capcom came up with the cunning plan to combine the best of all worlds, first riffing off the name Super Street Fighter II Turbo (or Super Street Fighter II X in Japan), then a bit of the series’ presentation, and finally its characters (with a helping of Darkstalkers too), ending up with what was the first puzzle-fighter despite having the number II in its name! Anyway, Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo (or Super Puzzle Fighter II X in Japan) released to immediate success in the summer of 1996, then made its way to America for the end of the year and Europe in July 1997. Home ports on the PlayStation and Saturn followed, then later there were local releases on the Dreamcast and Game Boy Advance too, and while we won’t go into most of those in any more detail here, I might put my eyes through that GBA version a bit later, just out of curiosity!
Before we get into the gameplay, I reckon I’ve said Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo enough times by now to switch to Capcom’s official abbreviation for the game, Spuzzle (or Spuzzle X in Japan). That said, now I’ve written it I’m not so keen on writing it again, so let’s see! I should also mention that I’m going to focus on the single player modes here – never got a game when I tried online, and this new Switch version doesn’t seem to support local multiplayer, which is a shame because I guess this is where a lot of the fun is at. Solo it is then, but before you get started, there’s a choice of difficulties, where beginner offers three stages of puzzle fighting to work your way through, then normal and hard both offer eight. We’ll come back to characters in a sec, but once you’ve selected the beautiful Morrigan from Darkstalkers, it will pick your first opponent at random and drop you into the play-field. In the middle of the screen you’ll find your deformed, chibi style fighters facing off against each other, backed by a representation of the kind of backdrops you’d find in their original games, and either side of those are the six-by-twelve play areas that the tiles, or gems, are dropping down into, with the characters in the middle battling away to reflect what’s going on there – it’s just a shame you can’t focus on everything happening in the middle while you play because the love and attention that’s gone into them is amazing!
To win that battle and move on to the next opponent on the next stage, you’re going to be stacking and breaking your own gems to send Counter Gems over to the other side, which will stack on top of their gems for the number of drops (usually five) written on them when they land before they turn into regular gems, and if you can get them to stack to the top of their “gem column” (third from the right) before they do the same to you then you win! Gems drop from the top of the screen in pairs, and for normal gems you’ll be trying to match colours so you can combine them vertically and horizontally. If you can get four or more combined in a square or rectangular shape, it creates a Power Gem, and the bigger the Power Gem, the more Counter Gems are going to be chucked over the fence when you eventually break it! And to break it, you’ll need a Crash Gem, which appear occasionally as part of the pair at the top of the screen and need to be dropped next to other gems of the same colour to break them and any others they’re attached to. If you manage to link a few of those together you’re also going to be multiplying the number of Counter Gems produced, and that will be shown on a Counter Gem indicator at the top of the screen after you’ve had a warning that they’re on the way! Finally, every twenty-five gems that drop will create a Rainbow Gem, and dropping that onto another gem will cause all gems of the same colour on the screen to break – just don’t let it hit the bottom or it will just disappear with a whimper!
Coming back to the fight going on in the middle of the screen that’s representing the gem-dropping chaos on either side that I’ve just made sound far more complicated than it is, it plays out like a regular fighting game, with moves based on the characters’ regular game move-sets being deployed depending on how many Counter Gems are being generated, so you might have a taunt or a vanilla punch for a couple appearing, but conversely you can also easily find yourself on the wrong-end of a finishing move that can cruelly change the direction of a match at the precise moment you think you’re about to get further than ever before! But it works both ways, of course, and whichever side you’re on it’s a real thrill to see the different characters doing their thing in the corner of your eye to mirror your actions! Which is a good place to talk characters. As mentioned before, you’ve got a choice of eight playable characters at the outset, with four from Street Fighter and four from Darkstalkers, then there’s another six hidden characters, some of which I think just appear at random but don’t do a lot, while some appear at random as an opponent, and some are unlockable through a lot of impenetrable button presses on the arcade version, which, if you delve into the settings in the Capcom Fighting Collection, can be replaced by an easy select method. We’ll have a look at them shortly…
I’m going to start, though, on the Darkstalkers side because that’s my favourite fighting series and any opportunity for it to get the spotlight ahead of Street Fighter always needs to be taken! And I always start with Morrigan, the series stalwart succubus with a tendency for catching fire then losing her clothes, which typically aren’t especially extensive to begin with! Another favourite and original game character is the ex-nun human-cat Felicia, then we move to the second Darkstalkers game for Donovan the vampire hunter and Hsien-Ko, a very oriental vampire huntress. Her twin (who is also part of her hat if you look closely!), Mei-Ling, is one of the passive hidden characters, as are Donovan’s strange little companion Anita and Morrigan’s bat. Over on the Street Fighter side… Okay, I should confess I know nothing about Street Fighter at this point except Street Fighter II (including all variants thereof) is definitely the game I own for the most platforms that, to this day, I’ve never played on any of them! And on that bombshell, there’s original main protagonist and martial artist Ryu, his playboy mate Ken Masters, then Chun-Li, the Interpol agent from Street Fighter II and finally Sakura, who seems to be Ryu’s stalker and comes from Street Fighter Alpha 2!
The unlockable playable hidden characters include Akuma, the arch enemy of Ryu and Ken who’s also this game’s boss, and Dan, who’s Sakura’s teacher from some other take on Street Fighter. And the last of our unlockables is Devilot, who can also appear at random (albeit very rarely) to challenge you. Devilot is actually an imposter from another game on the Capcom Fighting Collection, Cyberbots, and she’s come all the way from 2099 – where that’s set – to challenge the best fighter other than Akuma! She’s also a good example to use for that convoluted way of unlocking these things on the original arcade version… First you want to highlight Ryu on the character select screen, then press and hold down the Start button. Now move down to Morrigan and carefully press the down button thirteen times, keeping it depressed for the last one. You should now be holding Start and down, and you need to keep doing that until the countdown timer reaches ten, at which point you need to press any other button once! For comparison, with this compilation’s easy select enabled, you just move the cursor to Morrigan and press down, and likewise for the previous console versions I think you just held down Start. Phew!
There is, of course, a very good reason why this did so well in the arcades at the time, and, indeed, why Candy Crush continues to crush the same base-formula on mobile decades and decades later… Do dropping and matching tiles right and you’ll keep feeding in the coins or paying to kill a timer or whatever happens nowadays. And Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo does it so right! The beginner mode is definitely worth it for a confidence boost when you’re starting out, and you can brute force your way through that without much bother – it’s a simple game at heart, and therein lies the addictiveness, although a bit of a Street Fighter lick of paint never did anything any harm either! However, it’s the normal mode (or hard, I guess, if you’re super-human) where the game really comes alive, and where you’ll come alive to its nuances and strategies too as you struggle to put it down. The Crash Gem is genius and differentiates this way more than a big-boobed succubus… Did I really just say that? I take it back. It doesn’t’ at all! Anyway, it does set it apart from other tile-matchers, allowing all kinds of risk-reward strategies for focussing on huge blocks of gems holding devastating combos and finishers, or huge chains of similar colours while you squirrel away some lower-grade matches just in case you need a quick counter. And then there’s the possibilities of going even higher risk with all the Counter Gems thrown at you and letting them turn into normal ones in a few moves, especially later in a round when the opponent is playing exactly the same high stakes game with the mass of Normal Gems and Counter Gems in play by then.
That single mechanic gives so much scope for strategy that you won’t see in similar games, where strategy obviously exists but is generally more short-term in nature, relatively speaking. And there’s certainly nothing else like it for the exhilaration of those massive reversals you can pull off when you go big just as a massive game-ending Counter Gem warning goes off – can only imagine the thrill of that devastating blow against a human opponent! The computer opponents do a pretty good job though – things get hard, even in normal mode, around halfway through the eight stages, but as indicated before, this is where the fun really begins too! Different characters will have their own Counter Gem behaviour and seem to be slightly differently balanced in some other respects, but in the main all AI seems pretty fair as far as I can tell regardless of the random opponent thrown at you next, and it’s really good – challenging but not infallible, and as capable of the same strategies, with all those inherent risks and rewards as you are.
I wouldn’t go out of my way to look for super deformation or chibi-style in my art, but it’s always interesting to see it applied to something you’re invested in – Morrigan from Darkstalkers, for example! It all fits the vibe perfectly here though, to the point that I can’t imagine anything else working in that little fighting arena in the middle of the screen. Perversions aside, in my opinion that applies more to the Darkstalkers characters on the whole than the Street Fighter ones; they’re just more interesting, with their gaudy, decadent, gothic backgrounds that cleverly spread into the two gem pits without being intrusive, and their alternate costumes and, er, pets and the like! But they’re all stacked with character in their own right, perfectly authentic and recognisable, and constantly doing something, whether looking bored or disappointed, taunting their opponent or pulling off some effect-laden special move, which obviously doesn’t quite reach Darkstalkers standards but, again, makes you wish you could watch what’s going on there rather than the actual play area when things are getting fruity! And whatever your colour preference, there’s not an area of the screen that isn’t constantly in your face, and with those eight-plus unique characters and environments, not to mention that chaos of the gem formations, the colours are constantly changing too, like some kung-fu cartoon disco. These games might be all about the gameplay, but being such a looker, and such a familiar one too, does it crank it up a notch further!
As well as a very cool gallery for each of the games included in the Capcom Fighting Collection, its Museum bonus content has a jukebox with the soundtrack for every game, and strangely that’s where I had to go to be able comment on Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo’s music because I really hadn’t been anything more than aware of it in the background in the many hours I’ve now spent playing the game! Nothing wrong with any of it (except Sakura’s annoyingly saccharin stage theme!) but nothing especially memorable to me either. It’s all funky, synthy electronic pop, and serves its purpose just fine, but that’s it in my opinion. Which I’m not sure is an opinion shared by many other enthusiasts but there we go! Sound effects are great though, with crunching gem collisions and a suitably glass-shattering effect for the Crash Gems hitting their target, and throw in the relentless (Japanese) voice samples and sound effects lifted from the original games as far as I can tell, as well as variations in music tempo when things are getting more frantic, and you probably couldn’t ask for more of the audio design for a puzzle game!
As promised, I did have a crack at the Game Boy Advance version, care of my PocketGo, but, as fully expected, it’s a no-go unfortunately. The yellows and the greens just look even more identical to me on that small screen than on a big one. What I can see looks pretty faithful though – maybe a bit watered down (or washed-out to be precise) on visuals and sound, but if it’s a game you are physically able to play on there then I reckon it might be the best puzzler on any Game Boy since Tetris, especially with its extra Street Puzzle mode that challenges you with some extra-tough battles in return for unlocks like extra outfits, audio clips and those hidden characters we were introduced to earlier. And amazingly there’s also local multiplayer, on the same GBA, with one person on the direction pad and left shoulder, and the other on the action buttons and the right, and you can even balance out skill levels with individual difficulty settings! I’m genuinely gutted I can’t get the most (or pretty much anything) out of this one because I love my GBA and it would be a hell of a way to play if I could.
From what I understand the other console versions offer similar fun, with extra modes and fantastic multiplayer options, but you’ll forgive me if I don’t put myself through any more of that… I don’t need to be reminded the grass is literally greener on the other side, even if I can’t tell the difference! And that’s why I’m also not going to splash out the £6.75 needed to try out 2009’s Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo HD Remix for Xbox 360 and PS3 – just like the original, screenshots on the Xbox store confirm that no amount of redrawing and remastering and running through bilinear filters is going to help! It did bring a few new game modes though, including a connect-three variant and a pre-generated rotating block version as well as that Street Puzzle mode from the old home console conversions. I’ll quickly mention the short-lived sequel, Puzzle Fighter, too, which came to mobile at the end of 2017 with a ton of characters from all over Capcom’s greatest hits but was apparently lazy in pretty much all other respects, was more interested in making you grind (or pay, not doubt) than enjoy yourself, and then was pulled six months later! Thank goodness for 2022’s Capcom Fighting Collection to restore its legacy then, but you can also pick it up standalone or in a bundle as part of Capcom Arcade 2nd Stadium, which followed shortly behind, although buyer beware if you already bought the fighting one because there’s way too many repeats in the other considering such a short space of time between them.
I was worried I wouldn’t have much to say about a tile-matcher… Who’d have believed it!!! And who’d have believed that Capcom would pull out all the stops and make Spuzz… Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo accessible to what must be such a small minority of people playing it now, so many years after the fact. Absolutely better late than never though, and, as always, I’m over the moon to be discovering new all-time favourites whenever it happens! Probably a bit too late at this point to be unseating Tetris as my top puzzler ever, but I reckon Dr. Mario and Mario’s Picross should be looking over their shoulders, and we’ve barely scratched the surface on Qix and Puzzle Bobble 2X yet… What a time to be colourblind!