Puzzler Essentials: Detonator

You can make games about pretty much anything.

Demolishing buildings, for example, is a theme that we’ve seen a few times over the years, most notably in Midway’s classic arcade game Rampage, though you might not think this inherently destructive activity is the best fit for the rather cerebral puzzle game genre.

You would, however, be wrong, as Kadokawa Shoten’s PlayStation 2 puzzler Detonator aptly demonstrates.

Detonator opens with some slow-motion footage of buildings collapsing and the people who make them collapse, accompanied by some rather haunting, mournful music. This sets the tone for the experience pretty nicely; this is not a game where you’re all “YEAH, DEMOLITION, AWESOME” (a sentiment that would inevitably be accompanied by some sort of thrashing cock rock), but instead a rather more contemplative number where you calculate things coolly from a rather detached perspective, then afterwards consider the fact that you’ve just destroyed a thing that once had meaning.

At least, that’s how I chose to interpret the game’s rather melancholy presentation. Whether or not that’s actually the case doesn’t really matter; whatever the reason for the aesthetic choices the developers made, the result is one of the most distinctive and memorable puzzle games I’ve ever played.

Detonator’s gameplay is about efficient area control. In its most basic form, you’re presented with a grid of grey squares representing a section of a building, and you have to turn them all orange by damaging them using your various awkwardly shaped pieces of dynamite.

The twist comes in what the game calls the “sandwich” mechanic, which it does a terrible job of explaining through rather broken English in its tutorial, but essentially means that if you blow up a square that is one tile away from a previously damaged square in a vertical direction, you’ll “fill in” the gap automatically. The main strategy in the game involves determining efficient dynamite placement to take advantage of this system to cover the entire level in as few turns as possible.

The early levels are deceptively simple, but it’s not long before the difficulty ramps up, requiring extremely careful placement of every piece and a whole lot of forward planning. As you progress, you’ll start to spot patterns that can be taken advantage of with specific pieces, and this is crucial to success — particularly if you’re going for a “Perfect” rating on a level, which requires you to complete it using less than the maximum allowed number of moves and squares of dynamite provided.

This would be a solid enough format for a puzzle game by itself, but Detonator keeps things interesting with a number of different game modes, each of which work in a slightly different way. Special mode, for example, provides you with a single unique piece that must be used somewhere in a level, Crack mode features dynamite that can explode diagonally, and Direction mode features dynamite that can cause chain reactions. Each of these modes features five different buildings with several levels each, providing enough puzzles to keep you bashing your head against a wall for a long time.

But then there’s more, too. Challenge mode presents you with a series of up to 99 seemingly simple levels that must be completed against the clock and without making any mistakes. The default high score for this mode is 33 levels cleared; so far I’ve had trouble breaking four. It’s an interesting, slightly more fast-paced twist on the game’s standard formula, though it still by no means reaches the frantic levels of your typical falling-block puzzle games; this is still a rather meditative experience at its core.

There’s also a two-player mode in which both of you compete to clear a series of maps before the other player, with an optional handicap system offered in the form of an “attack” mechanic that forcibly restarts the map your opponent is working on at the time. This is infuriating to be on the receiving end of, but it does at least help keep things a little more competitive when a veteran is playing against someone less experienced with the game.

So that’s how it plays; let’s talk a little more about that aesthetic, because it really is a defining aspect of the game. The melancholic atmosphere set by the video intro continues throughout the game itself, with the puzzle stages accompanied by some chilling ambient music that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Silent Hill game. Meanwhile, the Challenge mode’s relative urgency is reflected by a more dramatic number oddly reminiscent of Final Fantasy Tactics, particularly in terms of the sounds used. And when you successfully complete a set of levels, you get to see the whole building come tumbling down before the fruits of your labours are celebrated with a bit of mournful, slow jazz.

The whole thing is creepy as balls, to be honest, and I absolutely love it. There’s something inherently sad about the demolition of buildings anyway — it’s the destruction of a piece of history, however minor it might be — and the overall aesthetic of Detonator reflects this fact rather beautifully, then builds on it by making its setting a perpetually overcast, apparently abandoned city, raising all sorts of questions for those who like to contemplate narrative context even in works that don’t appear to have one. Why are these buildings being demolished? Where are all the people in this city? Where is this city? And will the sun ever shine again? We’ll probably never know. And that’s fine.

Detonator isn’t a game for everyone. Its methodical, strategic gameplay lacks the universal appeal and inherent accessibility of simpler puzzle games with straightforward colour-matching or line-filling mechanics, and coupled with the rather bleak aesthetic the whole experience has a delightfully dour feeling to it that is quite unlike any other puzzle game out there, even some fifteen years after its original release.

And it’s for this reason — along with the fact that it’s aged beautifully thanks to its abstract presentation and timeless mechanics — that Detonator remains a game worth seeking out and immersing yourself in today. You may well come out of the experience pondering the futility of human existence if all we’re going to do is destroy the things we worked so hard to build, but hey, at least you’ll have exercised your grey matter a bit in the process.

More about Detonator

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