[Arcade Obscurities is a bi-weekly column by Solvalou.com's Arttu Ylärakkola, probing some of the most interesting and obscure arcade games yet to be covered in the geek gaming press, thanks to Arttu's JAMMA board collection, and our insatiable quest for knowledge. The first column deals with Namco's 1999 puzzle game 'Aqua Rush'.]

Rushing Aquatic Puzzles

Google for Aqua Rush, and the first result you'll get is a marketing site for bottled water. However, Aqua Rush is also a little-known Japan-only arcade game, one product of Namco's massive arcade history - no wonder if you haven't heard about it.

Basically what we have here is an underwater themed puzzle game: air bubbles rise from the bottom of the screen inside a rectangular playing area. When the bubbles collide with static bubbles on top of the screen, they combine. If a bubble is wide enough to cover the whole width of the playing field, that part of the bubble bursts and disappears - yes, exactly like making a line in Tetris. No need to completely clear the screen, as only one red-hued row in the bubble needs to be removed in order to proceed to the next level.

In Aqua Rush, the piece you control starts as a 3-bubble-wide rectangle. Instead of rotating it, you have 3 buttons with which you can use to grow the piece as much as you like by adding one bubble on top of the leftmost, middle or rightmost bubble. Since the only things you can do are to move the piece horizontally and expand it, many of the game's levels consist of figuring out how to effectively fill vertical spaces.

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This means making combos is relatively easy: just figure out how to expand your piece so that after the first bubble line bursts, the leftovers of your piece fit on the next vertical gap and so on. As nothing is ever rotated, gameplay is more streamlined than what is found in usual block fitting games.

Bubbly Combo Crackdown

This one-dimensionality of the game forces limits on how distinct puzzles can be created and makes the presented problems not very mentally taxing, but neither isn't really a problem as what matters more in this case is the basic ingredient of a fun puzzle game: high amount of stupendously long combos - and Aqua Rush is full of them. The way the graphics are implemented enhances the explosiveness of the combos, as the bubbles are big enough to make the level not to fit to the screen but instead the playfield scrolls vertically when lines are made.

Another gameplay mechanic which adds to the sense of speed and urgency is that often a level requires you to fill extremely long vertical gaps which is solved not by thinking, but by furiously mashing the buttons in attempt to resize your block correctly. And the bigger your block is, the more lines you can take out simultaneously. This is essential, as play is graded on how quickly a level is completed.

Easy, But Beautiful?

All the above works as well as possible, but unfortunately the fast-paced gameplay is not very finely tuned: I completed two of the three different difficulty levels on my first go. Two player vs mode is also available, but it does not work very well: huge chains equal quick unfair deaths. So is Aqua Rush a deservedly forgettable game?

No!

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It's all about the presentation! The game is dead serious about itself, and for me, its style hits all the right spots. Instead of dancing yellow cartoon kittens, there are swarms of realistic polygonal fishes swimming in the background, screens of 3D explosion rings when points are scored and perfectly fitting soundscape (click the link for an MP3).

Conclusion

Aqua Rush was released as late as 1999 and runs on Namco's System 12 hardware, which is basically a souped-up version of the PlayStation console. What we have here is a 2D puzzle game running on the same hardware which was used for titles like Soul Calibur and Tekken Tag Tournament.

The above may sound heretical to the cultivated retrogamer, but with Aqua Rush the non-gameplay related components really make a difference. It's a prime example of Namco's unique style which surfaces in its games once in a while. Like, for example, Xevious 3D/G - in my opinion the best retro remake when it comes to style - Aqua Rush has everything right.

So what's the conclusion? Manic shooters put you "in the zone" with their intensity. While being a simplistic puzzle game, instead of being boring, Aqua Rush puts you in the zone with its presentation. It's a worthy achievement, methinks.