If any company had a stranglehold on the puzzle genre in the arcades in the 90s, it was Taito. They churned those things out constantly, and it's no wonder that at least a few of them fell into obscurity...
Of all these adorable puzzle games, Pop n' Pop is probably my favourite, which is a shame because it never stood a chance. The arcade version feels unfinished (only four characters? C'mon!) and wasn't distributed very widely, the PlayStation home port (the version we're looking at today) was never released in America, and the Game Boy Color port was stripped of all its Taito charm and re-branded as Yogi Bear: Great Balloon Blast for its US release.
Some games just can't get a break, eh?
And that's where I come in, to spread the good word of Pop n' Pop
At its heart, Pop n' Pop is a fusion of Space Invaders and Puyo Puyo- the game's designer was Space Invaders creator Tomohiro Nishikado, no less. You control a little creature at the bottom of the screen (what creature depends on who you're playing as- the selectable characters are from other Taito games, like Bubblun from Bubble Bobble and Sayo from Kiki Kaikai, with their own movement and balloon-firing speeds) that can fire two coloured balloons at a time into the air, arranged vertically or horizontally. Above you, there's a bunch of clouds with balloons hanging from them that drift slowly from side to side before changing direction as they hit the side of the screen, like Space Invaders. They move pretty slowly, but they'll speed up temporarily if your fired balloons float off-screen, and permanently after a set time. Naturally, the only way to destroy the balloons is to match three of the same colour, and if they ever pass the deadline, the game's over. As you advance through the main Story Mode, you'll encounter other obstacles like thunder balloons (popping them spawns demons that try to nail you with a projectile) and red bubbles (which defy gravity and must be destroyed), and every fourth round is a boss fight, where you have to clear the stage while an enemy is shunting the clouds down and firing projectiles at you. Beat them and you get to choose the next level set on a world map, like Puzzle Bobble 2.
Learn the Secret Techniques or Die!
The fact that the clouds are constantly moving adds a bit of extra challenge to Pop n' Pop- much like Space Invaders, you shouldn't aim directly at your target, but where your target is going to be. It also puts the pressure on in a more direct manner than Puzzle Bobble- there, the playfield gets closer to the deadline after a set number of shots, but here it's constantly getting closer whether you like it or not. The levels themselves start out easy and get pretty challenging after the halfway point of the main Story Mode (and on Advanced difficulty, they're really nasty), so there's a nice sense of consistent progression. There's also the fact that there's two sets of levels, which means there's well over 100 of them, so the Story Mode has plenty of life to it.
More importantly, with practice you'll learn more advanced strategies vital for staying alive, such as making chain reactions (imagine Puyo Puyo in reverse- the balloons will float upwards until they hit something else) to buy some time (chains will stop the clouds and stun boss enemies) and fill the special meter to get different helper balloons (such as Tiki's Arrow that destroys an entire column), and learning which clouds to prioritise on each stage. When you really get good, you can even start 'fake' chains- if you're fast enough, you can get credit for a chain even when it's not really a chain. It's this challenge that gives Pop n' Pop its appeal- it's immensely satisfying to pull off these advanced moves consistently and watch the stage crumble by your own skills, and it's even more satisfying when you complete a stage while cheating death at every possible second- balloons passing the deadline won't end your game if you're in the middle of a combo!
Beyond Story Mode
As for the two-player game, there's the option for co-op play in Story Mode (a rarity in puzzle games) but the main event is the Versus Mode. In the tradition of Puzzle Bobble and Puyo Puyo, each player gets one half of the screen and their own set of clouds and balloons to plough through. It's pretty much as you'd expect- make as many chain reactions as possible to bury your opponent in garbage balloons- but there's one interesting twist in that you can win either by making your enemy's balloons cross the deadline or by clearing your side of all balloons. The latter isn't as easy as the former because you'll obviously be bombarded by garbage by your opponent, but it's certainly a viable option, and one that faster players might be able to exploit. However, because the learning curve is a little higher, it doesn't have the immediacy of Puzzle Bobble and the like, so finding a suitable opponent might be tricky. As a result, the two-player mode is still worth a punt, but it's not as strong as the Story Mode.
Outside the standard Story and Versus modes, the PlayStation port has many other modes on offer. Family Mode serves as a very gentle (and abominably translated) introduction to the game, Challenge Mode is a gauntlet of 50 rounds that appear one after the other until you fail (you get a ranking once you're done), and Checkmate Mode is the centrepiece- a gruelling 100 stage challenge where you're given a limited set of balloons to clear each stage. Again, it starts fairly easy but once you're halfway in, the kid gloves come off and you may find yourself staring at your TV in complete confusion at four o' clock in the morning trying to figure out the solution for Round 97 (as I did once). Compared to the arcade release, the PS1 port is light years ahead- it adds five extra characters (including Hipopo from Liquid Kids), a bigger Story Mode map (with less repeated stages and additional bosses), spruced-up visuals and music, and it's generally a more finished-feeling product. It's also the only version that lets you 'fake' chains which is a very important strategy.
In the end...
For those of you who scoff at other puzzle games for not offering enough of a challenge, Pop n' Pop should more than meet your demands. It's all in the game's mechanics- they're not as easy to pick up as Tetris or Puzzle Bobble (especially when it comes to advanced stuff like 'fake' chaining) but when you've got it down, it's a very satisfying action puzzler, one that really rewards skillful play. It also helps that there's some nice nods to Taito's other cute games (Don Doko Don and Liquid Kids references? I'm down with that), the music is classic Taito fare that will get lodged in your head for at least a week, and there's enough content in the Puzzle and Checkmate modes alone to last you a long time.
There's only two real flaws here- the two-player mode, while still very good, isn't as strong as Puzzle Bobble or Puyo Puyo- this is a game geared towards lonely players- and Tremi/Ptolemy is so hilariously overpowered (her special bubble gives her double-colour balloons for a period of time, which can lead to devastating 'fake' chaining) she can crush both story and Versus modes with her little finger- not ruinous, but it's a little disconcerting to see such a ridiculously strong character among the cast. Aside from those two fairly light problems, Pop n' Pop is one of Taito's best puzzlers, and that's saying a lot. Puzzle fans should consider this an essential game- despite the odd ULTRA R@RE!11!! listing on eBay, the White Label version can be had for fairly cheap, and whatever price you pay, it is absolutely worth it.
... And as an added bonus, the English translation is somehow worse than The Ninja Kids. Ho ho ho!
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