Puzzler Essentials: Cleopatra Fortune

Cleopatra Fortune is an arcade game from 1997, developed as a collaborative effort between Taito and Natsume.

It’s a falling block puzzle of the type that was fashionable throughout the 16- and 32-bit eras in the mid-to-late ’90s. But despite having a touch of Tetris about some of its mechanics, it’s an altogether unique experience. And, moreover, unlike some of the more well-known names in the puzzle genre, particularly in recent years, it’s not one that’s been endlessly cloned, reskinned and recycled.

It is, however, brilliant.

The concept behind Cleopatra Fortune is very simple indeed. You have the obligatory tall and thin well found in most falling block puzzle games, this time consisting of seven columns and 13 rows.

Blocks drop into the well one at a time and come in one of three types: stone blocks, “treasure” pieces (either single-tile gems or two-tile coffins) and mummies, though the latter don’t show up until after you reach level 40, so they’re more a concern of high-level players.

You have two main ways of clearing space in the well: firstly, “treasure” pieces can be removed by completely surrounding them with stone blocks, optionally along with the walls and floor of the well; and secondly, creating a complete line across all seven columns consisting of the same type of block causes the entire line to disappear, Tetris-style. Mummies can only be removed by enclosing in them in the same “chamber” as at least one piece of treasure, so accidentally boxing a mummy in by itself can screw you right over if you’re not careful.

The interesting thing about Cleopatra Fortune is that unlike Tetris, the individual “parts” of single falling block formation act independently, meaning it’s possible to “split” these formations with careful positioning; think how it’s possible to split pairs of Puyos in the Puyo Puyo series. There’s a twist, though; some parts of these formations, such as the treasure coffins and some stone blocks, are two tiles wide or tall. While the entire two-tile block disappears if incorporated into a line or enclosed treasure chamber, it doesn’t split when you first drop it, meaning you’ll need to put them down carefully to ensure you don’t waste space.

That’s all there is to the game; as you progress, the shapes of the block formations become more awkward and irregular and, should you make it far enough, the mummies get introduced. Interestingly, the game speed doesn’t simply accelerate with each advance in level as in many other arcade puzzle games; rather, you’ll find the game quickly accelerating to high speeds with simple pieces before dropping back to a more manageable tempo as more complex formations are introduced.

In this way, the game effectively teaches you how to play as you go, and indeed it forgoes the usual explicit tutorial when starting a game, unlike many of its contemporaries — though it does have one as part of the attract mode. It’s a good way of doing things that helps ease everyone of all ability levels into the game; those who already rate their skills, meanwhile, are able to directly start at level 20 or 40 rather than playing all the way from the beginning each time.

Cleopatra Fortune is delightfully presented; as with most Japanese puzzle games of the era, it takes a simple, abstract mechanical formula and dresses it up with an audio-visual aesthetic that is absolutely packed with personality. Your play sessions are accompanied by an infuriatingly catchy tune by Zuntata’s Shuichiro Nakazawa that will be stuck in your head for years, and the game’s Cleopatra-esque mascot Patoraco (who also puts in a guest appearance in Puchi Carat as a secret character) happily dances along as you play, occasionally offering you a bit of motivation with some exaggerated squees of delight when you perform a particularly impressive combo, whether it’s intentional or not.

Weirdly, there’s arguably not really a “definitive” version of Cleopatra Fortune in the West. The arcade original is definitely solid — and can be played on PlayStation 2, original Xbox and PC as part of the Taito Legends 2 compilation — but it lacks the extra modes and animated story sequences of the home ports.

Said home ports vary wildly in quality, with the PS1 version — not coincidentally the easiest and cheapest to get hold of today — being the most significantly inferior. While this version does feature an excellent puzzle mode that challenges you to use the game’s core mechanics to solve short-form puzzles, everything else is… not good, with redrawn, lower-resolution graphics, sluggish controls and, worst of all, remade music. The PS1 version maintains the catchy melody of Nakazawa’s original tune, but it lacks its sensual murmuring samples, and its feeble MIDI instruments simply don’t sound anywhere near as satisfying to listen to. The PAL ports of the game in particular also featured bugs that frequently cause the music not to play at all, which is disappointing.

The Saturn version fared much better, as it was a more direct port from the arcade version rather than a somewhat cack-handed attempt to recreate it from scratch. It features Nakazawa’s original music along with the original graphics as well as the “Mystery” puzzle mode from the PlayStation version… but, as these things inevitably tend to go, it was only released in Japan and consequently is a little tougher and more expensive to get hold of today.

There was also a Japan-only Dreamcast port in 2001, which featured higher resolution graphics but inexplicably removed the iconic music from the early stages of the game in favour of a mix of old and new tracks as you progressed through the levels.

In the same year as the Dreamcast port, there was also a new arcade release; an enhanced version called Cleopatra Fortune Plus that ran on Sega’s Dreamcast-like NAOMI hardware. This new version put a stronger focus on Patoraco, with a large well-animated portrait in the background of the playfield as well as her chibi sprite to one side of the screen, and also incorporated a simple power-up system to add some variety to the gameplay. Disappointingly, this version never saw a home release; the Dreamcast port was simply a nice-looking version of the original game.

Cleopatra Fortune is well worth your time to play, but which version to opt for is a matter of both taste and how much money and effort you’re willing to invest in attempting to do so.

The PS1 version, quite frankly, sucks balls, so avoid that unless you’re really trying to complete your puzzle game collection. It is cheap, though.

The easiest way to jump in is with Taito Legends on PS2, Xbox or PC, which will allow you to play the arcade version as originally intended, with soundtrack fully intact.

The most comprehensive version of the game is the 1997 Saturn conversion, but this is probably also the most expensive way to play the game.

The Dreamcast version, meanwhile has nice visuals, for sure, but the loss of that music is a high price to play — plus as a low print-run import it, like the Saturn version, is pricey and rare.

And as for the NAOMI-based Plus release… well, then you’re getting into the murky legal waters of emulation as well as risking an “imperfect” experience.

Whichever way works best for you, though, if you’re a fan of puzzlers, you absolutely should play Cleopatra Fortune. It’s a wonderfully addictive, challenging and delightfully presented puzzle game that holds up brilliantly today — and, as a somewhat forgotten title from yesteryear, it deserves a whole lot more love.

More about Cleopatra Fortune

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