Petal Crash: Like the Game Boy Colour Never Left

One of the things I miss the most about eras of gaming gone by is the way that different platforms had their own distinct capabilities — and, by extension, their own distinctive look and feel for their software.

On the flip side, one of the things I enjoy the most about gaming today is the fact that a lot of developers are very keen to pay tribute and homage to these platforms of the past while incorporating modern design philosophies. In many ways, this idea of “enhanced retro” gives us the best of both worlds — the comfort of a classic platform’s familiar aesthetic, coupled with all the things developers and players alike have learned over the course of gaming’s history.

A great example of this at work is Petal Crash, a new puzzle game from Friend & Fairy, published by Freedom Planet developer Galaxy Trail. Let’s take a closer look!

Petal Crash is a puzzler in the classic late ’90s mould, in that it is simple to learn but tricky to master, and its solid mechanics are backed up by a lovely, colourful aesthetic featuring catchy, chirpy music and a host of likeable characters.

Even the narrative concept feels like an homage to classic puzzlers like Puchi Carat and its ilk in that it’s all about each member of the cast of characters trying to acquire the magical doohickeys that each of the other members of the cast hold. And of course, the only way to prove one’s worthiness to one’s rivals in situations like this is a good old-fashioned match of (insert game name here). In this case, the doohickeys in question are sacred flowers that, when gathered together in the ruins of a magical garden, have the power to grant any single wish. And the game that seemingly decides everything in this world is, as you may have surmised, Petal Crash.

The basic mechanics of Petal Crash are simple to understand. You view a playfield from a top-down perspective, and move a cursor around. Positioning a cursor over a coloured block and using one of the three available control schemes to indicate a direction slides the block in said direction until it hits another block or the wall. If the moving block collides with another block of the same colour, that’s a Crash, and both blocks (and any of the same colour attached orthogonally to them) will be destroyed.

So far so straightforward. Where things get interesting is in the fact that causing a Crash sends out shockwaves from all the blocks that are destroyed. These move in all four orthogonal directions and will push any block that was adjacent to the ones that were just destroyed outwards. This, as you might expect, can cause chain reactions if you set things up properly, and understanding this is key to mastering Petal Crash over the long term.

On top of all this, every so often, coloured spawners appear on the field and gradually fill their respective meters with each passing turn. Once they’re full, they’ll spawn a new block of the indicated colour — though this spawn process can be delayed (but not stopped!) by putting a block over them. In this way, you’ll never run out of blocks to make use of — and indeed, there’s even a “fast forward” button to immediately cause all the spawners to create their blocks if your play are is starting to look a bit bare.

These basic play mechanics are then layered atop several different ways to play, including both solo play, player vs computer and player vs player variants, meaning that there’s plenty for you to do even if you tend to prefer score attack puzzlers as opposed to the more fashionable versus-style games from over the years.

In story mode, you pick one of the game’s cast to play as. They then battle their way through all the other cast members in an attempt to gather the sacred blooms and have their wish granted. You pick a difficulty level to start at, and this gradually escalates as you progress through the game; the easiest levels are great for getting started with, and by the time you bump it up to the medium-hard levels you’ll find yourself encountering authentically challenging ’90s style puzzle game opponents!

The core versus mechanic works a little differently from many other puzzlers. Rather than attempting to inconvenience your opponent so much that they fill up their screen, you’re instead trying to score three “hits” on them. This is achieved through a tug-of-war-style meter at the bottom of the screen, on which a marker moves towards your opponent any time you score a Crash, and towards you when your opponent does likewise. Should the marker reach either end of the meter, the loser will lose one of their three “hearts” and the meter will reset. First to lose all their hearts loses the match as a whole.

That’s not all though; the longer a round goes on, the shorter the meter gets. It gradually contracts from both ends, gradually taking less and less deviation from the centre point for one site or another to score victory — but it resets back to its full length on a successful hit.

This system is very friendly to new players, because it’s not reliant on scoring huge chains or setting up large simultaneous Crashes. Instead, on the easiest levels you can simply work on quickly manipulating the board to get as many Crashes as possible as quickly as possible and still win. But after a while, you’ll want to step your game up a bit and take things to the next level.

Like most competitive puzzle games, Petal Crash features a “garbage block” mechanic. In this case, you can send garbage blocks to your opponent by creating chain reactions. The more chain reactions in a row, the more garbage goes your opponent’s way. And the only way for your opponent to get rid of garbage is to make a Crash directly adjacent to it. However, if you’re about to be on the receiving end of a pile of garbage, you can reduce the incoming threat by making some chains of your own — and even turn the attack back on your opponent if yours are better than theirs!

The combination of these systems strikes a good balance between remaining accessible to new players and providing a satisfying challenge to puzzle game veterans who are skilled at looking multiple moves ahead. While the harder difficulties do get severely challenging quite quickly, it never quite feels like the notorious difficulty spikes found in some original late ’90s puzzle games, particularly towards the end of their respective story modes.

The writing in the story mode itself is worthy of note in that it is charmingly elaborate in its tone and choice of words. Each character has their own distinctive way of “speaking” through their text and each is absolutely packed with personality; there’s a real feeling that there’s been some actual thought behind the game world as a whole, rather than the characters just being put in as some cheerful eye candy atop the puzzling action.

The writing is apparently the work of one Zack Morrison, who is known elsewhere around the Internet for the superpowered middle-schoolers comic Paranatural — not a webcomic I’ve come across previously, but if you enjoyed Petal Crash’s narrative you might want to explore Zack’s other work!

Outside of the story mode and the narrative-free versus mode, single players can also enjoy the game completely solo in several ways. A Time Triial mode gives you a set amount of time to score as many points as possible, while a Turn Trial mode limits your total number of moves while allowing you as much time as you want to think.

Because these are completely solo modes, you’ll never have to worry about interference from your opponent and can enjoy the game to your heart’s content. It’s a bit of a shame that there’s no endless “marathon” mode to simply play until the board fills up, but given that the game doesn’t really escalate in speed or difficulty while playing solo, this would have been difficult to implement in a meaningful manner, so its omission is understandable. You can, however, adjust the time or turn limits for longer games, and your highest score for each combination of options are recorded separately, which is a nice touch.

On top of these solo modes, there’s also a Puzzle mode, which presents you with a predefined layout of blocks and then challenges you to remove some or all of them using only a limited number of moves. In some levels, your moves are limited to specific directions; in others, you simply have a limited number of moves in any direction. You’ll need to keep an eye on the objectives, too; clearing the screen completely isn’t always the objective.

The game does feature a non-interactive tutorial with some helpful advice for new players and those looking to elevate their skills to the next level, but in practice the Puzzle mode is a much better way to learn the game, because it presents you with practical situations you may well find yourself coming across during either solo play or a versus match. It’s a great way of getting to understand how the “shockwave” mechanics in particular work, since many of the puzzles’ solutions are dependent on you causing suitably spectacular chain reactions with the moves you’ve been provided with. At the other end of the spectrum, there are a number of puzzles that demonstrate how patience can sometimes be a virtue in the world of Petal Crash; I found this particularly striking, given how frantic a lot of modern puzzle games can be at times!

Oh, and you can make your own puzzles, too. Sadly, you can’t share them online or send them to friends or anything, but you can always set up your own fiendish challenges for your housemate, live-in partner or spouse if they’re willing to cooperate with your flights of fancy.

So that’s the game itself; let’s throw a bit of love at that aesthetic now, shall we? Because dear Lord does Petal Crash ever nail the Game Boy Colour look and feel — right down to the fact that when the game first loads it makes a “pop” out of your speakers just like a real Game Boy does when you turn it on. In fact, outside of the fact the game uses a 16:9 aspect ratio rather than the Game Boy’s square screen, you could probably tell someone that this was an emulated Game Boy Colour game and they’d believe you.

The resolution of the pixels looks absolutely perfect — and is consistent throughout the game. This is something that developers making retro-style games often miss; they’ll have lovely pixelated sprite work and pixel art backdrops, then a super-sharp high-definition interface with smooth, antialiased fonts that look completely out of place among the sharp corners of the rest of the visuals. No such issues here.

The music, too, absolutely nails the sound of the Game Boy Colour’s sound chip — though there are a couple of places in a few tracks where there are some wavetable synthesis instrument sounds that bring the Super NES to mind rather than the Game Boy Colour’s pulse waves and noise channel. This sort of enhanced sound isn’t beyond the realm of possibility, however; one of the nice things about cartridge-based systems was the fact that it was possible for additional hardware — such as better sound chips, for example — to be incorporated into the cartridge, meaning standard Game Boy music with the odd fancypants instrument would be possible. The Game Boy’s sound hardware also features a 4-bit wave channel capable of playing samples, so with the appropriate programming it could have put out some nice crunchy digital drum beats without any additional bits and pieces in the cartridge.

Petal Crash is obviously made by a team who loves ’90s puzzlers and the Game Boy Colour, and understands the things that are so appealing about both of these things. It’s a joyful, cheerful, colourful experience from start to finish, and the inclusion of a variety of solo-friendly play modes rather than focusing exclusively on versus play is something that should be applauded.

Friend & Fairy have really knocked it out of the park with this one. Now let’s just wait and see if one of the limited-press houses picks it up for a packaged release, so I can put it on my shelf, eh?

More about Petal Crash

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