Released in 2000, Pokémon Puzzle Challenge is the Game Boy Color release of the Panel de Pon puzzle mechanics that combines the bestselling Pokémon franchise with the addictive gameplay of swapping blocks to create ever longer combos and chains and OH DEAR GOD SOMEBODY HELP I CAN'T STOP PLAYING!
Best time on Intense difficulty: Single-segment 0:16:06 by 'CardsOfTheHeart' on 2013-10-09.
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As much as I would like to say I grew up with Pokemon Puzzle Challenge, I can't. The game that ate my childhood was Pokemon Puzzle League. That was the game that got me into speedrunning. I only picked up this game because a fellow Puzzle League speedrunner, bbforky, held the record at 22 minutes, 42 seconds in real time and it looked beatable.
However, as soon as I picked it up, I knew right away that I wouldn't put it down so easily. Pokemon Puzzle Challenge is one of the better speedgames in the Panel de Pon / Puzzle League series simply because there is no display of your opponent's field. Instead, there is a health bar that depletes as you do combos and chains. Since each opponent has a set amount of health, you can actually calculate to some extent what you need to do to win each stage; there is no such guarantee in Tetris Attack or Pokemon Puzzle League. And I say "to some extent" because, as of now, no one really knows all of the exact figures; the best we can do is approximate based on past experience.
The most effective strategy found so far is to execute two large chains: one chain to knock the foe down to just over 50% health, and another to finish the job. This is due to the most frustrating and disheartening feature of the game: healing. The healing mechanic isn't completely understood, but we can gather the following from everyone's experience with the game. When an enemy Pokemon's health is knocked under 50%, the game starts running a RNG check of some sort. Whether the value checked against is based solely on the opponent or the opponent's health (or both) is uncertain. But when the check succeeds, the foe gets 25% of their health back. TWENTY FIVE PERCENT. In a game where you absolutely must clear more blocks than the size of the playfield to finish a stage, one heal will add another half-of-a-field's worth of blocks to that requirement. The worst part about the healing is that you have to rebuild your chains from the garbage that your opponent drops on the field, which means you're waiting on the garbage blocks to convert to regular blocks, which means you'll be waiting for a LONG time.
That brings up another point about the opponents on Intense difficulty: once you start building your chain to the levels that you need to do significant damage, your opponent will generally drop enough garbage to fill your playfield. Once you start your chains, you can't stop. And you ALWAYS need to make sure you have a means to clear the garbage that comes your way. If you lose your only means of clearing garbage in any sequence--and it's easy to lose it in the blink of an eye--then your chance at a great run is over and done. At that point it's either kill or be killed. It's unlike any of the other pre-GBA Puzzle League games in that regard.
Anyway, back to the healing. The intervals in which these heal checks can succeed seem to vary quite a bit. It can take 30 seconds for the foe to heal. It can take FIVE seconds. The healing can be very random at times. If you're lucky, one heal will cost you 15-30 seconds. If you're unlucky, your opponent may heal again... and again... and again.
Once you start to consider everything that this game does to conspire to kill you, one should feel good about finishing Intense difficulty under 30 minutes real-time. And if you can do it without losing even once, then you should really be on cloud nine.
To get to that point, though, there are a few things you need to keep in mind:
1. KEEP MOVING! You have the ability to move the cursor and switch blocks while other blocks are clearing. This is essential to creating more chains. Hesitation only begets destruction.
2. Raise the stack as much as you possibly can. More blocks = more chains. Also, only the garbage on screen converts into regular blocks one line at a time. The less garbage on screen, the less time you have to wait to make more chains.
3. Chains are the main damage-dealers, but do not disregard combos. Chains do the most damage, but combos do damage faster. In the later stages, your chains will probably fall short as the requirements to execute the intended strategy increase. If you're down to a couple of pixels of health, a 4, 5 or 6 combo may make the difference between a swift end and a heal.
4. You do not have to wait for one set of blocks to clear before the next set of blocks clears in a chain. "Layering" your chains or "staggering" the fall of blocks from different heights is one of the essential techniques needed to build chains quickly and get some crazy fast times in this game.
Also, there are a couple of small-frame timings that can be done to extend your chains that the game will not tell you about:
- If you have two blocks poised to land and clear two sets of blocks at the same time, that would normally result in a combo. However, if you switch one block in one of the stacks to the side and switch it back as the blocks land, the game may consider it a slightly-delayed chain instead. The switch back has to be made within the last two frames before the block lands for it to count as a chain. If you're early, you get a combo. If you're late, you waste those blocks.
- You can also switch a block falling from a clear into a stack of blocks to make a clear and create a chain. The switch has to be made on the very last frame before the falling block hits the level you're trying to switch at--usually at one row above.
Both of these tricks can be very difficult to get used to in real time and even I can't get them at will. Trying them yourself is about the only way you can get good at them. I have had years of practice in Puzzle League games and I still struggle with these timings at times so don't feel too bad if you struggle.
But enough talk, have at you! Let's break down the run itself. I'm going to break this run into two parts because there is a very noticeable difficulty spike once you reach the Elite Four. There is always a sizable time difference in terms of average time between the first eight stages of the Gym Leaders and the last five stages of the Elite Four. Because the healing affects your time so much, I will be keeping a running count of the number of heals I get in the run, as well. I am also going to post my approximate personal best times on each stage to demonstrate the focus and RNG needed to get the absolute best times possible.
--Gym Leader Stages
Stage 1 - Falkner / Pidgey
Remember the strategy I had planned of one big chain at the beginning and one big chain at the end? Yeah, that didn't come to pass because I was caught off guard by the set of star blocks clearing before the first x3 chain. I ended up chipping away at Pidgey gradually and, sure enough, Pidgey got in a heal.
Total Heals So Far: 1
Personal Best: 0:39
Stage 2 - Bugsy / Kakuna
So much for the overall strategy. After messing up the initial chain, I was able to recover with a x7 chain and put Kakuna in a position to avoid healing. The blocks didn't line up for me afterwards, resulting in more chipping away. The x5 chain at the 0:54 mark would've been enough to kill in all likelihood, but I lost track and that cost me a heal. Fortunately I had more chains in store immediately afterwards and only lost 10 seconds because of it.
Total Heals So Far: 2
Personal Best: 0:46
Stage 3 - Whitney / Clefairy
Layering so good that I wasn't expecting it. You can't really lose sight of things for even a second, can you? So again, more chipping away to a favorable position until a x9 brought me within striking distance. Another x4 afterwards sealed the deal and dodged the heal. (...I was not trying to make that rhyme.)
Total Heals So Far: 2
Personal Best: 0:45
Stage 4 - Morty / Gastly
The initial chain started awkwardly at the top, but the x10 chain was still a good start. The two-frame tricks were clicking pretty well afterwards, but the garbage didn't allow me anything past x8. Scramble mode was initiated for the final chain, and though I took too long to stop it in a swift manner, I still managed to avoid the heal.
Total Heals So Far: 2
Personal Best: 0:49
Stage 5 - Jasmine / Steelix
One thing I didn't go into any detail about before because it has little relevance to the speedrun is that some Pokemon have fairly noticeable attack patterns--that is, every Pokemon drops garbage in different ways at different rates. Steelix has probably one of the first attack patterns you will notice. Steelix is... slow, to say the least. (Its base Speed is 30, for crying out loud.) There's a chance that, after your initial chain, you can raise the stack again thanks to the lack of speed with which Steelix attacks. If not after your first chain, you can usually do it after the second.
As for this fight, I messed up going for x10 on the initial chain, but the x8 on the follow-up did wonders as Steelix only dropped a 4 combo in that time, allowing me to raise the stack for one more x5 chain to finish it off.
Total Heals So Far: 2
Personal Best: 0:44
Stage 6 - Chuck / Primeape
Big shoutouts go to unusualcook for noting the unique attack patterns; Primeape's pattern was the first I became aware of thanks to him. Primeape attacks FAST, sometimes dropping a large chain as early as it possibly can. Once you start chaining, you definitely cannot stop for an instant.
I fouled up the initial chain after x6, but quickly recovered with a x7 to get into a favorable position. Disaster nearly struck after the next x7 chain due to letting my stack get too low, but at least I had an out. Unfortunately, Primeape had time to heal before my next x5 chain resolved, forcing me to chip away towards the end before another heal could take place.
Total Heals So Far: 3
Personal Best: 0:54
Stage 7 - Pryce / Seel
This is the one fight in the entire run I want back. I was too slow on the initial chain after x7 and couldn't get anything going for a while. I had to chip away to a decent position, but had too few blocks to get the kill so Seel was able to heal. I had to chip away again down to the end and was fortunate enough to not get healed on again.
Total Heals So Far: 4
Personal Best: 0:45
Stage 8 - Clair / Dragonair
I'm telling you, chipping away is NOT the intended strategy! You can tell because after the x7 chain, Dragonair was well below 50% health--not a place you want to be at with a low stack. I tried to rush the kill with another chain, but I made it too big and Dragonair healed just in time. Fortunately I only needed one more combo to finish afterwards so the heal wasn't as bad as it could have been.
Total Heals So Far: 5
Personal Best: 0:47
Gym Leader Stage Average: 1:08.625
My previous personal best before this run had a 1:04 average in this stretch so I know I can personally cut at least 30 seconds from this section. A perfect run could cut an additional two and a half minutes at least. @_@
--Elite Four Stages
This is where the difficulty spike comes in. The times will generally be higher due to the enormity of the combo/chain requirements in the later stages. Remember how the x10/x11 chains were inflicting near 50% damage on the early stages? In here, those same chains will do 1/3 less damage, making the "two big chains" strategy much, much harder to pull off.
Stage 9 - Will / Jynx
May Jynx's sultry voice be forever etched into your eardrums. Since this is my longest match in the run, you will hear it A LOT. Just warning you. Anyway, more chipping away to a decent position and then WAITING FOREVER on the garbage. The big chain wasn't big enough, though, so scramble mode was initiated. However, the game conspires to end you every chance it gets so Jynx gets a heal. Fortunately, the last chain manages to do the job.
Total Heals So Far: 6
Personal Best: 0:59
Stage 10 - Koga / Crobat
So for only the second time all game long, the intended strategy was executed with some degree of success. Imagine that. x11 for the first chain and x12 for the second chain, and yet it wasn't good enough. That's the Elite Four for ya. At least I had time for one more chain before Crobat could heal.
Total Heals So Far: 6
Personal Best: 1:03
Stage 11 - Bruno / Hitmontop
The first chain was bad. Again. I'm sensing a theme here. It doesn't matter, really. Just get 'em down to 50% to minimize the healing opportunities. The following x13 chain puts Hitmontop into kill range. Then it's just a rush to get in damage.
Total Heals So Far: 6
Personal Best: 1:13
Stage 12 - Karen / Jerkrow--er, I mean, Murkrow
Healing is the worst thing that can happen to you in this game and Murkrow is, by far, the worst offender in this regard. Healing twice in quick succession is not unheard of with this bird. In a game where fights over two minutes are going too long, it's not uncommon to see Murkrow fights go over FIVE MINUTES. It goes without saying that execution is at its most critical here.
I don't think my brain heard me. EXECUTION IS AT ITS MOST CRITICAL HERE. This start was just plain awful; guess we're chipping away again. Then, in an instant replay of the Dragonair fight, a x7 chain puts Murkrow into healing range, leading to the most nerve-wracking 20 seconds I've ever experienced in this game. One x5 chain later and I'm moving blocks into position thinking, "Please don't heal, please don't heal, FOR THE LOVE OF ARCEUS please don't heal."
Then the 11 combo drops. Then Murkrow's health drops. Then the action stops. D-did I just win? Did Murkrow really not heal? I was fully expecting a heal there. Oh well, I'm not gonna complain.
Total Heals So Far: 6 (!)
Personal Best: 1:03
Stage 13 - Lance / Dragonite
The final stage. My RTA was a minute ahead of my personal best at this point. My heart was beating out of my chest because I'd hadn't been at this stage of a run in about six weeks and my patience was wearing thin. All I needed was a decent Dragonite and I would have this. Fortunately, Dragonite doesn't seem to troll as much as Murkrow. He's certainly capable, don't get me wrong, but he doesn't do it near as often.
I managed to put a x11 on the board in the beginning; good start. Then the game decides to not give me any blocks from the garbage to chain off of. Fine, fine, it's the way of PPC; I've seen this script before. I am able to chip away a bit, though, before getting a x7 chain to fall into place.
And just like that, it was over.
Personal Best: 0:57
Elite Four Average: 1:23.4
Considering that my previous personal best run had a 1:40 average, I am REALLY happy with how this turned out. Then again, a perfect run could still cut another two minutes. @_@
Total Time: 16:06
Total Heals: 6
All in all, I am in "like" with this run. It's almost impossible for me to be in "love" with a Pokemon Puzzle Challenge run unless it's near perfection. Sadly, near perfection is a measure to which I could probably never aspire to. I would at least like to get below 15 minutes before personally putting this difficulty to bed. Perhaps someday. Perhaps. By the way, if you were keeping score, the approximate sum of my personal bests amounts to an 11:24.
Thanks to werster for piquing my interest in speedrunning and the Puzzle General crew for being such cool people and making Puzzle League speedruns bearable. Special thanks go to bbforky and unusualcook for being such great PPC runners.
This run has been frustrating to make, to say the least, but Puzzle League games generally get good reactions, so I hope you get at least some entertainment out of it. Thank you for taking interest in my first SDA submission.
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