["Beyond Tetris" is a new column from Tony "Tablesaw" Delgado about puzzle games that transcend mere abstract action and instead plunge deep into the heart of problem-solving. This second installment looks at a puzzle game that just hit American shelves, Polarium Advance.]

This month, while most gamers are focused on the generation gap, North America will finally see a brilliant puzzle game. Polarium Advance has been brought to America by Atlus, several months after a European release and over a year since the game was first released in Japan as Tsuukin Hitofude. It is a puzzle game spawned in the ashes of a "puzzle" game, and it should be celebrated by all right-thinking lovers of mental challenges.

Behind Tetris

Polarium's Challenge ModePerhaps you can tell from the title of my column (and from the italicized, square-bracketed introduction to this article, and perhaps even from the obtuse opening paragraph of this article) that I have a bone to pick with Tetris. I agree that it's a fine game, a fun game, a successful game, but it's not really a puzzle game. That is, it's not a game about solving puzzles with careful thought; it's a game of quick reflexes and abstract strategy. But despite my personal semantic quibbles, Tetris defined the "puzzle game" genre, and consequently inspired legions of potential successors.

One such aspirant was Polarium, from the Japanese developer Mitchell. It had simple graphics. It featured falling blocks that had to be cleared in lines. It was even released at the launch of a Nintendo handheld system, the DS. And Polarium was designed to showcase the DS's brand-spanking innovative touchscreen—to clear lines, you had to draw a path over the lines that appeared on the screen.

But the problem with Polarium's "Challenge Mode" was that it was terrible—not merely from a puzzling standpoint, but from a gaming standpoint. The lines that had to be cleared fell in huge screen-clogging chunks, and simple mistakes with the stylus were extremely difficult to correct. Instead of evoking Tetris's exhilarating addiction, Polarium only inspired frustration.

Lucky for Mitchell, they had included a "Puzzle Mode" with Polarium. This was undoubtedly inspired by the similar mode from another top-tier puzzle game, Tetris Attack (or Panel de Pon or Pokemon Puzzle League, etc.). Puzzle Mode was small at only 100 levels (Tetris Attack had 120), but it was definitely a better fit for the line-drawing concpets that Mitchell was introducing.

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Beyond Tetris

Polarium's Puzzle ModePolarium's puzzles have such a simple concept that it still surprises me that it hadn't been seen before. You must draw a path from over a field of black and white tiles. When you're done, the game flips the polarity of any tiles on your path; black tiles become white, and white tiles become black. If, after the flipping, a row of tiles are all the same color, they disappear. If all the rows disappear in one stroke, victory is yours.

Theoretically, you could win by making a path that includes all of the tiles of one color or the other. In these simplistic levels, Polarium shows its roots in visit-every-space-once challenges like the centuries-old Knight's Tour (which is recorded as early as the ninth century) and the more recent Full House puzzles of Erich Friedman. But you can't even make it through the tutorial before this strategy falls apart. Polarium is filled with dead-end paths and stranded tiles. To survive, you have to start making decisions: This row is going to be all black, but the next row is going to be all white. Then white again, and then black three times.

Polarium has a lot of decisions to make. In addition to choosing the polarity of each row, you have to figure out on your own where you're going to start and where you're going to end. Sometimes it doesn't matter, but some puzzles can only be solved with the correct start and finish points. Many of the puzzles have several alternate solutions, but the game doesn't bother judging or ranking your puzzle solutions. All of this freedom to makes the puzzles fairly accessible, and all but the ten most difficult of Polarium's puzzles fall in a moderate amount of time.

Beyond Polarium

Hurdles and multi-tiles in Polarium AdvanceFor Polarium Advance (which is for the Gameboy Advance, not the DS), Mitchell abandoned all of the Tetris trappings and focused on pure puzzling. The sequel has 365 puzzles—one for every day of the year—in a wider range of difficulty. The order of the puzzles is semi-random, but they are shuffled to generally increase in difficulty throughout the "year." So there aren't just more puzzles, there are more puzzles that make you stop, think, and possibly take a break and before you finish them. In preparing for this article, I was able to burn through Polarium's Puzzle Mode with few interruptions. Polarium Advance has been fighting me back, hard.

The increased difficulty is made possible, in part, by the three tiles that have been introduced to the mix: hurdles (which cannot be crossed), muliti-tiles (which will become whatever color the row needs to be), and solid tiles (which are rather too complicated to explain in this article). By default, a Polarium puzzle is a rectangle of black and white tiles surrounded by an outer frame that can be made part of your path without consequence. But all three of these new tiles let the designer change the layout. The outer frame can be completely or partially eliminated with hurdles, and instead, free spaces can be made on the inside of the puzzle with multi-tiles. With a wider range of layouts, even medium-difficulty become more interesting.

And to maximize the value of each puzzle, Polarium Advance adds extra conditions to each puzzle. After beating a level in the same do-as-thou-wilt manner as Polarium, you can revisit the puzzle with new objectives: your path must start and end at specific points, and it cannot be longer than a certain number of steps. The designers have gone to great lengths to find unusual paths whenever possible. An easy puzzle can become a bear when you're required to start and end in unhelpful positions. Solving the puzzle once is usually a huge help, but there are still times when the revisit seems like a whole new scenario.

Beyond Polarium Advance

A Polarium (DS) puzzle designed by Daniel Whiteman, from Puzzle PolariDespite being a very simple idea, Polarium hasn't seen very much cloning, especially compared to something like Sokoban. Polarium puzzles seem like they'd fit right into the abstract logic puzzles of publishers like Nikoli, but they still exist only on computers. (This may be due to the plethora of possible solutions so many Polarium puzzles have.) And although both games feature a level editor, the most prominent English repository for these puzzles, Puzzle Polari, has been dormant for some time.

In an interview with Insert Credit, Roy Ozaki, Mitchell's president, said, "We will take care of [Polarium]. Personally, I think [Polarium] has potential." Looking at Polarium Advance, it's hard to argue with either of those statements. Polarium does have great potential, and Mitchell has definitely nurtured it with their latest game. But hopefully, it's now time for puzzlers to take care of Polarium and help bring out its potential.

[Tony Delgado is a member of the National Puzzlers' League, and a solver and creater of puzzles of all sorts. He also works as the copy chief of The Gamer's Quarter.]