This week's Xbox Live Arcade release is Poker Smash, a very cool game with the worst possible name. That's not to say that the name doesn't reflect exactly what's going on in Poker Smash. But it's pretty likely that people will see the word "poker" and immediately think "I already have the poker game that was free, I don't need another one" and move on.
Poker Smash is not a poker game. It takes the roles of poker hand ranks and applies it to the well-based puzzle game. Then it slaps on some good, evolved control mechanics. It's a high-quality puzzle game that you should look at.
Rows of blocks with card ranks (10 through Ace) rise up from the bottom of the well, slowly at first. You use the left stick to move your cursor around, and the right stick lets you slide cards left and right. You can use the triggers to speed up or slow down the rising cards, though your slow-motion ability drains out if you use too much of it. You can also drop bombs on cards, causing them to pop and, if you're using them properly, setting up fat chain reactions. Bombs also come in a limited supply.
The goal is to make poker hands, starting at three-of-a-kind and moving up to all sorts of straights, flushes, full houses, and so on. The nine flush, which kicks off if you can somehow manage to line up nine cards of the same suit, seems to be the game's most rewarding (and most difficult) prize.
The gameplay is broken out a few different ways, including a timed mode, a puzzle mode, and an online mode for up to five people. Online, the dealer button gets passed around amongst the players. When you're the dealer, you can send garbage lines over to your opponents by setting off chain reactions. Also, the online game tries to work in a bankroll, so when you make hands, you gain chips, and you lose chips when other players make hands. It's another neat push-pull concept that changes things up a bit by giving you another way to lose.
The graphics and sound are OK. The game rotates through music and visual themes in the same way Lumines does, though there are only 11 themes to work through. Also, a lot of the music is pretty hokey. They fit the theme, but every time I listen to the song about poker, I sort of want to just stop playing right there. A custom playlist option lets you cut out themes/songs that annoy you, but you have to unlock the themes first by purchasing them (with in-game earnings) in an online store.
So you've probably already skipped over Poker Smash, but double back and check out the demo. It's one of the better 800 point ($10) releases on Xbox Live Arcade.