After spending about 30 seconds with Magnetica, an allegedly new puzzle game for the Nintendo DS, I was struck with an acute sense of déjà vu. I had to double-check, but there’s no doubt about it: Magnetica is identical to a game called Zuma that you can play for free on the Web. I’d even downloaded a Zuma demo for Xbox Live Arcade. So with an identical game freely available elsewhere, does Magnetica warrant a $30 purchase?
HOT TIP: Having trouble with your aim? Try extending your follow-through with the stylus.
The short answer is no. Granted, portable puzzle games have an inherent appeal. They’re the reason handheld systems were invented. And Zuma — er, Magnetica — isn’t bad. Colored balls follow a spiral track inward; if they reach the center, the game is over. You launch colored balls of your own outward from the center, and if you join three or more of a kind, you eliminate them. The detritus will remain stationary unless there are two balls of the same color at either end of the gap, in which case they’ll be pulled together. Almost as if attracted by magnetic force.
It’s a twist on the classic falling-blocks motif. There’s also an action component, because aiming your shots requires a flick of the stylus. Accurate aim is crucial. It’s also hard to come by when a line of colored orbs is marching inexorably toward your destruction. In that sense, Magnetica achieves what it must. Even when you’re winning, you feel as if you were mere seconds away from losing. If you can’t handle the pressure, you’re sunk.
Magnetica was developed by Mitchell Corporation, the same people behind last year’s Polarium (also for the DS). The presentation is much the same. In addition to the standard “play until you lose” mode, they’ve included a “quest” and a “puzzle” mode. I still can’t figure out what’s different between the quest and the standard modes, except that the quest offers shorter levels. Puzzle mode is more distinct. Starting with a static configuration and a fixed amount of ammo, you must clear the board in a set number of moves. The puzzles often strike the perfect balance between difficult and doable — they challenge but don’t frustrate. The biggest problem is the superfluous animation that appears when you fail a puzzle. It’s ridiculous that there’s no immediate way to reset the board.
NOTHING REVOLUTIONARY — and scarcely the definitive version of a classic.
Magnetica is pretty to look at, a surprise given how little is happening on screen. If you’re fortunate enough to have gotten your grubby paws on a spankin’ new DS Lite, with its bright, shiny screens, all the pretty colors may well send you into a state of rapture. (So, can I borrow your DS Lite?) The repetitive musical score, on the other hand, wouldn’t be out of place in the dentist’s office. It’s easier just to turn down the volume. Not that you’re looking for technical wizardry when you’re playing a puzzle game on the T.
The DS has several innovative titles and more than a few updates of beloved older games. Magnetica falls in between. It’s nothing revolutionary, unless you think that using the stylus might offer a substantially different experience from using a mouse — which it doesn’t. And with only a few gameplay modes, this is scarcely the definitive version of a classic. More to the point, it’s hard to imagine wanting another puzzle game on the DS unless it’s groundbreaking or you’re already tired of Tetris. Magnetica is not groundbreaking. And let’s be honest: if you’re tired of Tetris, you’re tired of life.