Fighting Entropy One More Time
If anybody ever visited an island to study puzzle game designers in their wild habitat, the resulting eye witness account would be dismissed as the incoherent ramblings of a madman. For puzzle game designers are a beast feasting on the fiendish delight of constantly thwarting the efforts of the player. Furthermore, they manage to force people into a frenzy in which they can't stop bringing order to the chaos around them. Parents in the whole world laugh at the notion of such a creature allegedly existing.
Looking at the addictiveness of Critter Crunch, moms worldwide might ask themselves a few tough questions though. Is it the lack of trophy support in the household? Is it me not barfing rainbows ever so often? Should I stop tuning in bad 90ies radio stations and play some carnival music? The old Java cell phone game, turned iPhone game turned PSN game Critter Crunch, certainly raises a few questions.
At its core, Critter Crunch is an evolution of Magical Drop for the NeoGeo. The player, at the bottom of the screen, has to deal with a garbled mess of multicolored marbles, neatly arranged in lines, by sorting them before they come crashing down. Critter Crunch expands on that idea, by changing the rules of matching three of the same color to feeding smaller critters to larger ones. Naturally, whenever a piece is removed all adjacient pieces of the same type and color are removed as well. Over the course of many levels, those simple rules are escalated with special critters for reasons of added complexity and difficulty.
Three basic modes of play exist. In survival mode, the player simply has to rack up a certain score. A new line of Critters appears every few seconds and there is no time to really contemplate too many moves. Just feed small critters to the larger ones so they blow up. Exploding Critters turn into crystals the player has to collect within a small timeframe in order to fill up a bar. Once the bar is filled, the level is won. In Puzzle mode, the player has to remove all the pieces from the board with only X amount of turns at his disposal. Finally, there is Challenge mode, which will end if the player has met certain criteria such as blowing up an amount of critters, or pulling off a number of predefined combos.
But don't be fooled by Critter Crunch's exterior made for three year olds. This game is as brutal as few Puzzle games ever got. Each mode can get infuriatingly frustrating. All is nice in the beginning. The game introduces positive critters dropping items awarding the player special powers and variations of exploding critters helping to remove pieces from the board more quickly. Later, there will be critters unwilling to eat others and blockers, doing nothing more than to completely restrict access to a whole line. Sometimes the player will see the starting screen and simply know that this random spawn cannot be overcome in the 10 seconds the game alloted for the task. Around level 40 one can easily try a level 20 times and never have the slightest of chance, only to have crazy luck on the 21st attempt.
Critter Crunch is certainly not handing out easy gold trophies. On the contrary, towards the end most people might find success depending on too many lucky breaks. Puzzle mode tries to be the opposite while being just as nail-biting at times. Having to obliterate the craziest screen in three turns sometimes looks impossible. The limited turns, however, will make this exercise easier. If the player only has three turns, there is only so much guesswork to be done.
Challenge mode is a mixture of puzzle and survival. Sometimes challenge mode refuses to spawn new lines, thus turning itself into a very relaxed puzzle with a victory condition other than "blow up everything". At other times, challenge mode demands wonders within short periods of time. Again, the random spawning of new critters might ruin all your chances in some challenges. If something does not spawn ten times within 60 seconds, the player cannot trigger the victory condition ten times to win the round.
Regular single player consists of the player traveling across an island, taking on five quests at a time, of which he has to complete three to advance to the next stage. Usually the five quests consist of three survival levels, a puzzle and a challenge. If a level is failed it can be retried indefinitely, although for some reason there is a two second loading screen before each retry.
The same randomness infuriating single players, does work rather well in the multiplayer mode. Especially in versus mode, available locally and over the Internet, the game never turns too sour for the looser. There is always the randomization to blame and games can turn upside down in seconds. Naturally, every opponent would have had you on his next move and one can seldomly outright dismiss such claims. At times competitive Critter Crunch can be a war of attrition in which desperately hanging on wins the game more than anything else. Ever so often your side of the board will look very dire, when suddenly serendipity strikes in your favor, utterly annihilating your opponent. Be ready to always claim that anything was on purpose, of course.
In the end it is hard not to like Critter Crunch. For a $7 game it offers many hours of fun both in single and multi player modes. Members of the completionist tribe shall be warned though, this game can make you angry at times. Many levels have cut-throat difficulty people will shake their angry fist at while hitting the restart button over and over. Art and music of the game certainly do their best to make every 'connoisseur de puzzle game' look like a total imbecile. Such things should not deter any puzzle game fan from the purchase. Rainbow barfing protagonist aside, deep down inside Critter Crunch is a very hardcore puzzle game. It might start off nice and friendly, but it can make self-proclaimed Pro-Gamers curl up and cry. If you do, and you will, Critter Crunch has this devious quality taunting you to come back more often than you probably should.
The game receives 4.5 stars. Single player on its own would have gotten a full point deducted. Mainly, due to random critter spawns being able to beat the most skillful player to a pulp. But ironically the thing ruining single player to a degree is giving multiplayer just what it needs. A player might need luck to bring his full potential to a fight, but in exchange the matches are close and nerve wracking at times. Bottom line is you should try Critter Crunch even if the presentation is a mismatch to your fully tattooed and pierced lifestyle of Satanic worship.