Open Emotion Studios, based in Limerick, Ireland, have been making quirky and entertaining flash games since early 2010. The first of these games was an addictive puzzler called ‘Mad Blocker’ The game proved popular enough to warrant a sequel, and after making several more flash games, for Mad Blocker Alpha: Revenge of the Fluzzles, Open Emotion moved onto Sony’s ‘Minis’ – a platform for simple, accessible games that can be played on PSP and PS3. This is a real indication of the success of Open Emotion with Mad Blocker. Ireland may be home to some high-profile international studios, but for an Irish indie developer to release a game for a major console is extremely impressive, and a real testament to the work Open Emotion have put into MBA.
The game itself is familiar, yet has a style all of its own, both in gameplay and visually. Certainly there are strong influences from other puzzle games so it’s instantly accessible to anyone who enjoys the genre. Gameplay feels something like a cross between Columns and Dr. Mario, with a little Super Puzzle Fighter in the mix too. Blocks fall horizontally in sets of three, the order of which can be changed as they fall. They can’t be rotated however, so it plays like columns on a vertical plane in this sense. The gameplay is a fantastic risk/reward trade off, as the more blocks eliminated at once, the more points scored, but the screen can become clogged quickly and the best laid plans turn to defeat. The score attack gameplay is very addictive, every bit as much as the classic puzzlers the game draws from.
In addition to the simple gameplay of the original flash version, Open Emotion have added more than just a few new blocks and power-ups. There is a story mode which, while simple, has a lot of charm. Much like Puzzle Bobble, the story mode adds impetus to keep playing, not just to get to the next level, but to see the next piece of gorgeous art. The hand-drawn style visuals are one of the best things about the game, giving it a look that stands out in a crowded genre. A lot of effort clearly went into crafting stimulating backgrounds, and offering the player a reward for their continued play. The blocks themselves have different faces, with the happy pink block looking like ‘company mascot’ material from the off. The others, from angry red to terrified yellow, are equally charming and full of personality. The music is also high-quality, catchy and jovial. It scores the experience perfectly and between sound and visuals it’s a delight to play. The design is really excellent and in adding a story mode for this full-featured release there are more than enough reasons to justify buying, rather than just playing the flash version.
A puzzle game though, lives and dies by its gameplay. MBA doesn’t disappoint, it’s perfect for PSP players in particular, offering an addictive and compelling portable experience which suits short stints of play. PS3 owners shouldn’t be put off though, as the story mode adds just enough depth. Attempting to beat high scores encourages repeat play, and the level of challenge is pitch-perfect for this type of gameplay. It’s definitely a throwback, but that’s no bad thing. The familiarity only adds to the experience and the combination of nostalgic gameplay with modern visuals keeps things fresh. The only real criticisms are that the visuals may not appeal to everyone. They’re odd, to say the least, and some may be turned off by them. In terms of gameplay the columns influence is a tad strong, but again, not a bad thing really. Unique power ups and blocks and an original style mean it’s not derivative, more of a tribute to classic puzzle games than anything.
It really is great to see an indie developer from Ireland get a game released on a home console. Not only because it shows just how far indie games have come, but that Irish developers have a chance to compete in the industry. Open Emotion are blazing a trail and already have another mini due for release – Ninjamurai, due May of this year. The Sega influence is clear as they describe it as ‘Shinobi meets Sonic’. If it’s as unique and interesting as Mad Blocker Alpha, and retains Open Emotion’s sense of style it could be another winner. If Mad Blocker Alpha is anything to go by, it should be.