Happy! So happy! Mega happy!

Korokoro Puzzle: Happy Panechu! is a GBA puzzle game released exclusively in Japan in 2002 and developed by Mobile 21, perhaps best know for their work on a different title for the same handheld: Gradius Generation (AKA Galaxies/Advance). Unlike the seventy billion other puzzle games released for Nintendo’s portables over the years (exact quantity possibly a little less than that), this one stands out from most of the crowd thanks to its use of a tilt-sensing cartridge. All movement is controlled simply by angling the handheld, no d-pad input required.

Like all the best puzzle games, the rules are simple on paper, and absorbingly enjoyable in practice. There are four different colours of “panechu”—the strangely cute, uh, bipedal face-things shown above—and much of the game is spent trying to get three or more of the same colour to touch, which then makes them disappear. Panechus always move independently of each other: they’re either sliding around by themselves, or disappearing as part of a colour-matched combo.

This is in contrast to the bombs created by these panechu-vanishing events, the smallest of which permanently stick to any other small bomb they’re touching when they stop moving. Four individual bombs in a 2×2 pattern will coalesce into a new single larger bomb (which will automatically un-stick itself from any spare small bombs in the group), which can then join with other large bombs to make even bigger ones (and even bigger ones than that too) that are vastly more powerful and depending on the current mode being played, either generate board-blocking inert blocks on your opponent’s side (Happy Panechu’s equivalent of Puyo Puyo‘s “garbage” puyos), score more points, or do your adversary’s health bar some damage.

These bombs never explode on their own, but must be manually detonated (ideally at the most tactical screen-clearing moment) with a quick press of the B button. This instantly destroys whatever they’re touching, whether that’s blocks or innocent panechus. However the smallest bombs are not “set” (indicated by a glowing outline) until two or more of them are touching, so it’s important to bring them together, even though doing so can make for some incredibly awkward space-swallowing shapes if you’re careless and/or unlucky with your tilts.

The panechus and bombs you tidy away aren’t replaced automatically but must be replenished with a dab (or ten—it’s entirely up to you how many you bring in) of the A button. If any bombs are available (shown in the blue area at the lower-right of the screen) these will appear mixed in with the panechus, otherwise you’ll summon panechus alone, theoretically creating an infinite fill/create/clear loop.

This happily leads to another one of those clever-simple puzzle situations: more panechus is good, because that means more chances to match large amounts of them to create bombs, with larger combos—starting at a surprisingly crisp “Happy!” speech sample before increasing to “So happy!” and then if you’re very good “Mega happy!” (now you know where the title of this article comes from)—generating additional bombs. Having lots of bombs on the screen is great too, because one large explosion is worth far more than three little ones. But more panechus is also bad: the greater the quantity, the harder it is to slide them into places where they can actually match with others. On a similar note more bombs are also bad: those giant bombs can block what would have been successful panechu combos, and little bombs stuck in the wrong shape cause all sorts of sliding issues, serve as a visual reminder of a good chance wasted, and bring you one step closer to that screen-filling, game-ending, “Danger!” state.

The good news is you do get to decide where everything appears on the screen to some extent. Would it be beneficial to have your opponent’s blocks arrive from below? Then tilt your GBA up just before they come in. Need some bombs on the right hand side of the screen? Then tilt the GBA to the left before you press that button.

It’s worth mentioning that in this particular cart the tilt action only results in rigid, “digital”, movement. As far as Happy Panechu is concerned it’s either tilting or not, and exclusively in one of four directions. You can’t gently slide something halfway across the board, or suddenly shake the GBA to disrupt the panechus mid-skid. At first this feels like something of a step back from the excellent Kirby’s Tilt  ‘n’ Tumble—released on the relatively humble Game Boy Color years earlier—a game that features gentle rolls, speedy slides, and dramatic jolts upwards. But even though it’s easy to be “clever” about Happy Panechu’s apparent deficiency and point out the cart isn’t doing anything that couldn’t have been perfectly recreated on a stock GBA d-pad, tilting the handheld and seeing those colourful little guys tumble to one side is such a wonderfully tactile experience that really would be missed if it wasn’t there, especially as the accompanying sound effects do a great job of communicating the size and weight of these otherwise strange objects. Panechus clack slightly across the gridded floor, and you can tell that the bombs are clearly made of harder, heavier, materials because of the sound they make when they collide with something else. It feels like you’re playing with them. Not “playing a game”, but playing. Having fun with a curious new toy.

As joyful as it is, motion-based controls are a notoriously fickle beast at the best of times; prone to wandering at the worst moment, last minute’s top-right now registering as merely slightly off centre. Happy Panechu doesn’t entirely avoid this mysterious shifting, but it does make it as quick and easy to fix as possible: just press select while you’re playing, hold the GBA in your chosen neutral position (the game assumes you’re holding it flat), press A to confirm, then carry on. You can even reverse the controls if you like (or need to if you’re using a GBA SP or GB Micro) by inputting a secret button combo in the options menu.

So, what can you do with all of this tilting and colour matching? As luck would have it the answer to that question is “A heck of a lot”. The standard mode pits you against a series of increasingly difficult named (and portrait’d) CPU opponents, both sides trying to set off large bomb-combos to force blocks onto the other player’s unseen board (a meter off to the side lets you know how they’re doing) until there’s no room left to move, winning the free-sliding player the game. There are also three modes designed to hone your bomb-destroying skills: one that sees you trying to whittle down the health bar of the amusingly strange enemy in the centre of the screen, another that sets a hard time limit and invites you to create and then detonate as many high scoring bombs as you can, and the last one places some blocks on the screen at the start and asks you to completely clear the field—including every panechu and bomb you bring in—in the shortest amount of time possible. I have to admit I’m terrible at this one, and have turned my GBA off in a huff several times after setting up a brilliant explosion… only to see one overlooked panechu remaining in a corner of the screen.

Last but certainly not least is the “IQ Challenge”: Happy Panechu’s puzzle mode. There is no opponent or timer here, instead the idea is to clear away the strictly limited number of panechus (and occasionally, blocks) on each entertainingly fiendish stage, ideally in as few moves as possible. It’s the sort of mode that has you feeling like a genius one minute and a moron the next, but it never gets too frustrating as you can flit between and of the seventy-five of the easy, normal, and hard stages as it suits you. You’re never forced to sit and fail at one puzzle over and over again just because you want to access the next set, or treat them all as a strict checklist to work through like an extended gaming chore.

It’s a great spread of gameplay styles that wrings all of the best ideas out of the panechu concept on their first and only go (sadly this seems to be a complete one-off), each mode jam-packed with enough challenges to keep anyone happy—and because they focus on different but complementary skills you end up a better panechu-er just by playing around and giving everything an honest go. To help make this entirely optional switching easy and effortless each mode has its own tutorial, accessed by pressing the Start button before picking an opponent/puzzle in each respective mode. These tutorials don’t throw descriptive text and scripted sequences on the screen and then call it a day but take the time to pause the action and put big red circles around the demonstrated rule or relevant piece/meter/UI feature to really make sure you know exactly what they’re talking about.

The game is an absolute joy to play, one of those “one more go” puzzle games you end up sticking with until either something in the house is on fire or the batteries in your GBA have died—again. It’s honestly been a nightmare trying to get any meaningful amount of work done on this article because every “I’d better check that…” thought has led to another long and highly enjoyable sliding session. But best of all it’s the sort of puzzle game you can share with others. The controls feel natural, and the results of any action are immediate and obvious—anyone can pick it up as they go along, and however long they play for they’re sure to have a good time.

I’m upset it took me this long to try it out, so make sure you don’t make the same mistake: play this as soon as you can.

[This article only exists because Ko-fi supporters made it happen! Thank you so much!]

5 thoughts on “Happy! So happy! Mega happy!

  1. Oh I’m so glad you’ve shown Panechu off! It is super cheery and I love hearing all of your positivity about it ;u; I love games that feel like toys too! This is actually the very first game I imported back in high school when I figured out how to use a proxy service xD I showed it to my friend at school they dubbed it the “puyo puyo polyamoury” game and refused to learn the Japanese title. I should probably pick it up and try better to learn the directions (I remember struggling with it and ended up not really getting into it as you did) because it sounds like I’m really missing out! Thank you so much ^^

    Like

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