Fundamentally, both games have the same core puzzle mechanics that the popular iOS game has. Using a grid of puzzle pieces, you can match certain colours to power up your party’s attack for that turn. You’re free to move one piece around to manipulate the board to score big combos, but crucially there is a small timer as you drag your piece around the board. Attacks are split into five elemental types, following a rock-paper-scissors format between Fire, Water, and Wood elements, or light and dark being effective against each other. Hearts are how you recover health, with big chains determining how much you recover health.
It’s a rather addictive formula that sinks its talons early due to the shortness of the dungeons. Each one has a pre-determined map, but branching paths and random pickups help each dungeon with replay value. Chests are littered in each dungeon that require you to match a certain number of gems or combos to unlock. Every new item, every new unlock, is a rewarding moment in a series of moments. As such, no matter which of the two games you play, be prepared for the addiction to sink in.
Here be Puzzles
Puzzle & Dragons Z serves as the main attraction and resembles a cross between Pokémon and a Saturday morning cartoon. As you begin your career as a “Dragon Tamer”, the world begins to fragment into several pieces. It turns out that a team of crooks called Paradox is hell-bent on destroying the world. Younger audiences probably won’t have much of a problem with this, but older audiences can certainly pick out the clichés a mile away.
Since you’re focused on dragon taming, your rewards include eggs that can be redeemed either for hatching new monsters to your roster or spent as experience for your already hatched party; while puzzle pieces are crucial for evolution. On top of that, side quests reward you with further puzzle pieces, currency, or runes to redeem at the shrine to explore unique dungeons.
Puzzle & Dragons: SMB Edition, while not drastically different gameplay-wise, is distinctly different enough in both its unique elements and focus. You periodically get new Mario Bros suits as you progress, which introduce hybrid typings such as Ice Flower Mario being of both Fire and Water elements; but also obtain Bowser’s minions as sub-party members that you can level up and “evolve” with certain items. Level structure is cosmetically similar to Super Mario Bros. levels but resembles the Puzzle & Dragons formula to actually play. While in Puzzle & Dragons Z there is a shared skill meter, Puzzle & Dragons: SMB Edition has a countdown until a party member can use their skill which is able to be reduced via upgrades.
Both games have a certain style to their presentation that stands out. Puzzle & Dragons Z is a largely 2D affair while Puzzle & Dragons: SMB Edition uses a slightly cel-shaded look. Both look great on the 3DS, but neither really push the system’s boundaries. Music in Puzzle & Dragons Z is upbeat yet rather forgettable, but the other game’s music is a complete rehash of several New Super Mario Bros. music, which is still serviceable. Neither game is particularly geared towards certain ways of holding the stylus comfortably. As a left-handed player, having my arm obscure the timer is a big inconvenience that could have been resolved with left/right-handed modes.
Though it depends on who you ask, the fact this is a full retail release means that the stamina system that was a result of the free-to-play model of the mobile original is no longer feasible. Taking it away means the onus is on you to determine how long is long enough without becoming fatigued. I personally like the freedom to say when I’d like to stop, but that’s completely subjective.
To borrow a commonly used phrase in football, Puzzle & Dragons Z + Puzzle & Dragons: Super Mario Bros Edition is a game of two halves. The first is a meaty RPG with plenty of side quests and that Pokémon catching aspect while the other is more focused on the puzzle gaming. If you are still on the fence about the mechanics, give the mobile version a whirl as a trial before investing. Should you approve, this is a great bundle worth gracing your 3DS.