Puzzler Essentials: Baku Baku Animal

Today’s puzzle game of choice is one that there is, unfortunately, no real easy way to get hold of legally any more, but it holds extremely fond memories for me regardless.

The game in question is Sega’s Baku Baku Animal, which I first came into contact with back in 1997 when I was doing my Year 10 work experience at PC Zone magazine in London. This was an era when Sega was just starting to experiment with PC ports of its popular arcade games, with varying results.

Baku Baku Animal was one of this initial batch and, like the CD-ROM version of Puzzle Bobble (featuring full Redbook audio!), which had also come into the office around the same time, managed to bring much of the office to a standstill for quite a while, even dragging the most hardcore Quake-heads away from their daily deathmatches for a while.

Despite its positive reception in the PC Zone offices back in 1997, Baku Baku Animal (or just Baku Baku as it was known in some regions) is not a particularly well-known puzzle game, nor one that tends to get brought up that often when waxing nostalgic about the struggling genre.

Part of the reason for this is that it’s a relatively simple game with not a lot of substance to it besides its main game mode. The other is likely due to the fact that, being a Sega game from the mid ’90s, it was released on a bafflingly obtuse lineup of platforms, including Windows 95 PCs, the 32-bit PlayStation rival Saturn, and the Saturn’s 8-bit predecessors from two hardware generations prior: the handheld Game Gear and the TV-dependent Master System. For some inexplicable reason, Sega opted not to port the game to the 16-bit Mega Drive, where it would almost certainly have been right at home.

Odd release schedule aside, Baku Baku Animal was known to those who played it as a game that was simple and straightforward to pick up, but dangerously addictive once you started. The quintessential puzzle game, in other words.

Baku Baku Animal is a puzzle game primarily geared around versus play, and as such it’s only possible to play it against either a computer- or human-controlled opponent. The basic gameplay involves dropping pairs of rotatable coloured blocks into the playfield, each of which is marked with either a foodstuff or an animal head.

Animal heads will eat any connected blocks of the correct foodstuff when dropped onto them, and this is the only means of clearing space. Monkeys eat bananas, rabbits eat carrots, dogs eat bones, pandas eat bamboo. Despite the way of things in the real world, the dogs do not also eat the rabbits, however close you put them to one another.

Attacking your opponent is a simple case of clearing as many food items as possible at once, because the more you eat, the more random blocks you drop on the other player. These aren’t “garbage” blocks as in Tetris or Puyo Puyo (or indeed Puyo Puyo Tetris) but just randomly placed normal blocks that nonetheless have the potential to ruin a carefully laid out combo.

Effective play in Baku Baku Animal comes from pacing yourself effectively, determining whether or not now is the right time to set all your animals off eating, or if you should try and build up an even bigger combo first. The latter option will undoubtedly have a more significant impact on your opponent’s play area, but while you’re setting things up you run the risk of your counterpart dropping enough random pieces on you to prevent you taking advantage of all your hard work.

That’s about all there is to it, really; the game gradually accelerates the longer a match goes on, making it more and more challenging to accurately position blocks, but as with any good puzzle game, sufficient practice will have you seeing block layouts in your sleep, sliding things into just the right place to set off an immensely satisfying combination of animal heads guzzling down their favourite foods.

Baku Baku Animal’s presentation is absolutely representative of mid-’90s arcade games. It’s colourful and shiny and has some lovely animations, but it also feels the need to make use of pre-rendered sprites for both the animal heads and the giant lion head that devours the loser’s play area when a match is over. For those who don’t remember, mid-’90s pre-rendered sprites did not look all that great, tending to have an unnatural shininess to them; at the time, they allowed for more complex models than real-time polygon engines (and graphics hardware) of the time could feasibly handle, but it wasn’t long into the next generation of console hardware that they were made to look incredibly dated.

Looking back at them now in the 21st century, they really haven’t aged all that well, though it’s hard to deny that the game certainly has a lot of personality to its visual appearance — and that visual appearance is most certainly distinctive and immediately recognisable.

But who, honestly, plays a puzzle game for the graphics? It’s all about the addictive gameplay, and Baku Baku Animal immediately strikes an effective balance between simple, immediately understandable mechanics and plenty of tactical decisions to make in the heat of “battle”. It’s straightforward and accessible and doesn’t require anywhere near as much “learning” as something like Puyo Puyo, and as such is a perfect game to play with younger players — or just to chill out with for a little while.

The sad thing is, despite the game’s quality, it hasn’t seen a rerelease since the mid-’90s. There was a port to mobile phones in 2002, but the smartphone era has made that obsolete. There was also an attempt to create a spiritual successor in the form of the rather shamelessly named Baku Baku Revival by Portuguese developer Grandes Planos, but their Kickstarter campaign was cancelled after raising just 847 Swiss Francs (out of a CHF 40,000 goal) and the official website for the game — rather pleasingly still featuring rather questionable-looking pre-rendered artwork, albeit somewhat modernised — hasn’t been updated since 2015.

The only way to play Baku Baku Animal today, then, is to either track down a copy of one of the console ports or the PC version — and good luck getting a Windows 95 game to run reliably on modern systems — or… well, I’m sure you can use your imagination to figure out a way to play the arcade original!

However you go about doing it, though, Baku Baku Animal is a good time, particularly with a friend, and is long overdue a rerelease on modern systems. Are you listening, Sega? Segaaaaa?!

More about Baku Baku Animal

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