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A Real Puzzler: Puchi Puchi just doesn't compute 

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Puzzle games are oddballs. They're the only videogames that lack avatars.

An avatar can be a virtual person (a Mii or Master Chief) or a set of tools (such as a home in The Sims). In puzzle games, players don't enter a gameworld, so they don't need avatars. The puzzles exist in the real world. The falling blocks in Tetris and the colored gems in Bejeweled are really falling blocks and colored gems (albeit pixelated ones). Fiddling with them requires no digital intermediary.

This makes the Nintendo DS the ideal puzzle game machine. With its touch-sensitive screen, players are in direct contact with the graphics. In Puchi Puchi Virus, those graphics take the form of "viruses"-colored hexagons that gradually fill the screen. The player's job is to touch three viruses of the same color, linking them into a triangle. Once the viruses are triangulated, the player can pop the triangle, causing the viruses to disappear.

Like most puzzle games, this simple concept is complicated by a few wrinkles. Any viruses that are trapped within a triangle must be built into triangles of their own, or else they will "congeal," turning a non-interactive gray. But if the congealing viruses are built into triangles, they can be popped along with any triangles they overlap, causing a chain reaction of virus elimination.

It's not an easy system to understand, and Puchi Puchi Virus doesn't adequately explain it. It takes a few dozen rounds to get the hang of the system, during which it often seems like play is proceeding haphazardly. I frequently stopped thinking about what I was doing and just started tapping at random. That scored me as many points as if I had been concentrating-often more. Maybe the real puzzle is trying to figure out exactly how Puchi Puchi Virus works. My answer is that it doesn't.

THE GOOD: The publisher of Puchi Puchi Virus-Nippon Ichi Software (NIS)-is one of videogaming's most adventurous companies. Their games are often worth buying for the curiosity factor and the fact that quite a few of them become collector's items. (This summer's Holy Invasion of Privacy, Badman! sits near the top of my "wanna play" list.) I'm not sure Puchi Puchi Virus will even be remembered by the time gas prices drop again. But there are usually more innovative ideas and interesting experiments in a single NIS game than in a dozen franchise sequels.

THE BAD: While playing Puchi Puchi Virus, I found the game responding as though I had touched viruses that I had not intended to tap. Now, a few finger slips are inevitable. But given the frequency with which Puchi Puchi Virus misread my actions, I'm convinced that the software is flawed. This is a problem that exacerbates the weakness of puzzle games: without an avatar to translate my actions into the game, I'm stuck relying on controls in the real world. If they don't work, I'm out of the game.

THE BOTTOM LINE: An inscrutable puzzler with an inscrutable name and even more inscrutable controls.


Xbox Racist?

That was the rumor floating around the massive E3 industry confab this past week. While Microsoft moved quickly to quell the talk that its new hands free gaming system, dubbed Natal, has difficulty sensing the movement of players with darker skin, chatter persisted on the Internet. The manufacturer reportedly limited access to the gaming system at E3. However, one black reviewer who took the system for a test drive was unable to get the game to respond to his hand movements, according to a report on the gaming site VG Chartz. The game, however, was able to accurately track the movement of his feet, which were clothed in white shoes. If it's true it's going to take more than a pair of white gloves to fix this blunder.


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