This'll be easy, I said. How can it not be? The game is too cute to not be easy. Little did I know.
I was playing Pushmo World. The game is the latest instalment in one of Nintendo's lesser-known series, so I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I booted up my Wii U over the weekend. A brief intro video explained that I was a short and squat little blob-shaped guy named Mallo. Shortly after, I was given my first challenge.
My mission? To save a crying child who had managed to get himself (or herself, I'm not really sure...) stuck on top of peculiar structures made out of various combinations of brightly coloured blocks. These are the eponymous Pushmo, and Mallo must ascend them to reach the child in each level.
As I started to do this, my first thought was that the game played like a very weird riff on Tetris. It's another geometric puzzle game, complete with blocks that have a lot in common visually with the iconic tiles from many versions of that classic puzzle game. Only instead of trying to sort the tiles as quickly as possible as the descend towards the bottom of the screen, Pushmo World players are greeted with a complete structure at the beginning of a level. The challenge comes from figuring out how to organise the different tiles so Mallo can actually climb the Pushmo and reach the child.
So, you start with something like this:
As you can see, Mallo is yanking the first block out from its starting position. You solve the puzzle by pulling out the different blocks as if they were drawers in some bizarrely shaped, brightly coloured dresser. As the level progresses, the Pushmo starts to look something like this:
It's hard to explain, almost as hard as it is to play. Here's a trailer:
Intelligent Systems, the studio that made Pushmo World and other popular Nintendo-published games such as the Fire Emblem and Paper Mario series, seems to know that it's confronting players with an off-beat concept here. Otherwise, I'm not sure why they would have made a series of training levels that are almost as robust as the main game.
I headed over to the training grounds shortly after I began to play Pushmo World because I quickly realised I was going to need some extra help. Funnily enough, one of these optional tutorials proved to be the thing that made me fall in love with this game.
It was a small puzzle. A simple-looking one. Deceptively small and simple-looking, which is why I was having such a hard time with it. I just had to figure out how to get Mallo over this one large red block. But that was proving un-get-over-able. After a solid ten or fifteen minutes or pulling my hair, sighing heavily, and pacing around in front of my TV, I walked Mallo over to the blob-shaped character standing calmly at the left side of the Pushmo. She cheerfully offered to show me how to do it.
I hovered between saying "Yes" or "No" for a moment, imagining the mixture of relief and shame that would come with her showing me how to solve it.
NO, my pride said. Are you seriously going to let a training level in a Nintendo game that looks like it was made for kids kick your arse like this?
It took me a while — much longer than I want to admit — but I finally got it. There was a lot of frustration on the way to the top of that Pushmo, and many Pushmos after it once I summed up the patience and courage to step back into the main game.
But man, let me tell you. There's nothing quite like the feeling I got whenever I'd see this screen:
Just seeing those words, watching Mallo toss the jubilant child up and down, gave me an unparalleled sense of achievement — especially when it came after the excruciating tedium of nail-biting, hair-pulling, and swearing that any good puzzle inspires when it's hard to solve.
Many other Nintendo games have a similar presentation as Pushmo World does, at least in the way its levels are structured and laid out for the player. Many Super Mario platformers offer a similar gratifying message at the end of each level. But it feels very different to see something like this at the end of a course in Super Mario 3D World:
That's because the journey to the flagpole is a very different one as well. In a platformer or a shooter, the challenge comes from being able to master a number of different techniques. It requires timing and finesse, skills you acquire over time with practice. In a puzzle game like Pushmo World, the challenge is far more opaque at first glance. The solution is right there, just waiting for you to discover it. The longer you spend on one level, the crazier you become with an overpowering sensation of impotence.
That's the genius of Pushmo World, though: even when it offers to help you like it does in the tutorial levels, it's still taunting you for not being able to put all the pieces of the puzzle together yourself. You can look for a solution in the game or online, but it will never feel as good as discovering it yourself.