Poker Smash Xbox Live Review

Ever since Tetris, it’s fair to say that simple puzzle games never age and slowly but surely developers are turning anything they can find into some kind of shape based brain buster. This time it’s cards – specifically Poker – that gets the treatment and this concept alone will probably open up a million card based variants, each based on a card game. This is the first game by newly formed Void Star Creations, formed from ex-Oddworld programmers Drew Card and Ryan Ellis.

Poker Smash is a “rising block game” where you have to clear blocks by arranging them in legal Poker hands. The game board is essentially formed of 5 columns, each of which has 12 blocks (card spaces). Over time, these fill with five cards, one row at a time. As you progress the screen will fill faster and faster. Left ano stick moves the cursor, and right ano stick moves the blocks left or right. The blocks themselves are based on the 4 typical card suits and are made up of either a 10, J, K, Q or Ace and they are cleared whenever a Poker suit is made. Suits can be arranged either horizontally or vertically. The suits are those typical of Poker so anyone should be able to get ‘straight’ into the game. And for anyone who doesn’t know what the basic suits are: 3, 4, or 5 in a row, a straight (10, J, Q, K, A), a flush (any 4 of same suit), full house (3 cards or one rank and 2 of another rank), and a royal flush (10, J, Q, K, A in all same suit).

Movement of the blocks can only be made horizontally so you’d think vertical hands would be easier to make but the trade off is that you usually have to risk getting the columns high to make anything worthwhile. To make horizontal hands requires you two either destroy at least 3 cards and to create a gap and then fill that gap with the relevant card, or use one of the game’s helping “hands” that is a bomb. The bomb can be placed anywhere on the board and is limited to 5 at any one time. More can be earned by scoring. Place a bomb and the overall card movement will freeze until it explodes and destroys the piece. In doing so the column and all cards above will collapse into the gap made. Scoring is based on our ever faithful friend – the chain. In the time you create a hand, the game freezes and gives you time to create more hands (creating other hands in this time is NOT chaining but does help clear the board), but more importantly it gives you time to move pieces into place to create further chains and so on. Like many puzzle games, you have to learn to read ahead and see what potential for chaining are available at any one time. Anther helper is what I call “time gas” which can used to slow the game down so you can manoeuvre blocks into position in real-time. Its best use is create chain potentials and it refills over time. There are various modes of play including a puzzle mode where you have to clear all the blocks, and an offline/online split screen multiplayer where 2-5 players receive chips which flow from player to player depending on the hand created. Lose all chips and your out leaving the other players to fight it out. One other nice feature is the movement of the cards over gaps. Cards won’t fall if you move them quick so you can literally jump across gaps which helps immensely. Oh and there’s also one other nice innovation – the game will throw “challenge hands” at you. Complete these and you’ll get some potentially massive scores, but be warned you may ruin your combo in trying to nail one. It’s a nice addition to the oft-used combo mechanic and a further brain taxer to mess up your board – remember though, this techniqiue can be used with another combo, especially if you employ that “slow down gas”.

Graphically the game is rather basic and functional, but features a myriad of special FX mainly consisting of fireworks but that’s no bad thing as fireworks are a sign of destruction and destruction always works when it looks nice. It can also be played by colour or shade blind gamers as the cards are very easy to read featuring colour, suit and letter denoting their worth (only the J’s and 10’s look similar but this never poses a problem). Often its nice the game play slows down as the screen can become awash with neon particles from the explosions bouncing everywhere, not to mention further screen shaking when you start to multicombo. There are also 10 themes, each with their own background and music. You can also use money earned to buy the various themes to play as they are if you want to just play one variant.

Sonically the game is competent featuring typical ‘themed’ puzzle music, which changes for every genre, although to be honest I didn’t think to much of it. More importantly the sound of the chips and card movement is great and certainly serves to provide some extra solidity to the graphics. Not much else to say here I’m afraid – its highly functional and serves the game well, but in no way mind-blowing.

As it stands, this is a very enjoyable puzzle romp, and whilst the likes of Bejeweled and Super Puzzle Fighter exist, this serves to be a nice little add-on to the XBLA arcade series. Its well presented, albeit simple but thoroughly addictive. Its not time based either so there’s no need to rush and if you think that 5 bombs and 1/3 a screen’s worth of “slow down gas” constitutes loads, you’ll soon change your mind. Well worth 800 points in my humble opinion.

….Suit you!

8 out of 10