Itís tempting to call Loopop Cube: Lup * Salad DS the best game for public transport since Guru Logic Champ hit the Game Boy Advance. High praise indeed. The small, colourful, self-contained puzzles lend themselves almost perfectly to ten-minute bursts of play while you travel from A to B. However, as you obliviously speed through B for the eighth time, completely immersed in a puzzle, youíll curse the day the suggestion was ever made.
Salad is a young girl and, ironically, considering her name, a huge fan of cake (no word of a lie). Unfortunately, without knowledge of Japanese thatís about all youíll find out about our heroine. The story is of course the least important part of the game though: nobody buys puzzle games for the plot and in turn puzzle games donít bother with Bioshock levels of storytelling. Aside from the story the game is incredibly playable in Japanese, with the important options easy to work out.
The simplest way to visualise the gameplay would be as Sokoban if it was a platform game, with some Zookeeper thrown in. With a 2D side-on view of a puzzle, the aim is to clear it of coloured blocks by pushing them around with Salad and matching three or more together. Any number of blocks in a horizontal line can be pushed at once, however any blocks atop them will remain stationary and will fall on Salad should she push away the block below. Gravity, eh? Matching at least three of the same colour causes those blocks to disappear and any blocks they were supporting to drop down. While Salad is fairly agile and can jump gaps of one space, or hop up to a block one level higher (or a combination of the two) there are many places she cannot reach without the aid of the coloured blocks she can push around so itís often important to keep them around.
And therein lays the challenge. With each puzzle containing a different array of immovable blocks itís as important to use the blocks you can move to create paths to other blocks as it is to match them up and make them disappear. Easier puzzles are fairly forgiving and have the opportunity for a number of solutions, but once the higher difficulties are encountered any mistake is punished and performing actions in exactly the right order is essential.
An added challenge is provided with the inclusion of a number of special block types, which also keep things interesting. 2x2 blocks appear along with the usual 1x1 blocks and get in the way; bubbling blocks only vanish when a block adjacent to them is matched up and destroyed; some blocks are attached together; others are locked in place and canít be moved, amongst many other types. These special blocks are perfectly designed and even with the tutorials in Japanese, simply looking at them gives a clear idea of the role theyíll play. In the opening sets of puzzles holding the R button will demonstrate the solution which is helpful if you simply canít work out what this strange new block does.
The real beauty of the puzzle design is in how deceptive it can be. Itís impossible to tell at a glance just how tough a puzzle will be: itís only through playing that it can be discovered. Later on, a huge number of puzzles appear to be incredibly simple until near the very end of the attempted solution where a rolling of the eyes at how something so obvious could be missed will signal a path being blocked off, only to have to start again and think harder next time, avoiding the obvious trap you were tricked into. Conversely, some puzzles appear impossible, only for one block to start a chain reaction wiping out every block on the screen. Itís a real triumph of design.
With the puzzles being small and usually quite simple (in appearance, at least) theyíre easy to remember and have a habit of invading your head even when the game is off. Stuck on a puzzle and need a break? Good luck! Having subconsciously memorized the puzzle, solutions swim around inside your head until you simply have to turn the game back on and try them out. It can work, too.
You may even be forced to rely on it sometimes, as some puzzles can be very hard and frustrating Ė but frustrating in the best possible way. Solutions often arenít obvious but each failed attempt at a puzzle provides a new idea of where you went wrong, bringing you slightly closer to the correct answer, and when everything finally falls into place and Salad expresses her delight, thereís a definite feeling of smugness. Well, until the next puzzle takes it away again! Certain puzzles (mostly when faced with a screen stacked full of coloured blocks) can rely a little too much on random trial-and-error but theyíre in the minority.
While youíre solving puzzles in your head no doubt the appropriate tune from that section of puzzles will be playing, too. The game does tend to take over your mind. Each of the songs in the game is cheerful, perfectly suited to the environment and youíll sing along (with a no doubt awful interpretation of the Japanese) as the lyrics play on the touch screen, karaoke style.
This isnít a game that needs to be on the DS for any great reason. All the action takes place on the top screen and while touch screen controls are available, the face buttons control the game wonderfully and thereís no reason not to use them. The game focuses on puzzle solving over platforming so doesnít rely on precise movements or inch perfect jumps. Moving left or right moves Salad the distance of precisely one block, and pressing the jump button simply jumps her over a gap or up a step, with the minimum of fuss. The controls offer no opportunity in themselves to ruin a puzzle, but if an error is made the Y button will always undo the most recent move.
Everything the game tries to do, it does perfectly. The controls are spot-on and the music and graphics are bright and cheerful and exude happiness. The puzzles are well designed and thereís a flawless difficulty curve. An essential purchase for puzzle fans. Oh, and those that use public transport a lot.