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Power Soukoban (SNES) artwork

Power Soukoban (SNES) review

"Soukoban, though ported to many platforms, is really a better AI problem or programming exercise than a game. It's simple: push boxes in warehouse onto target squares, no diagonal moves please. For full game, repeat two hundred levels, expanding floor and number of boxes. Unfortunately, its faults are as simple: for nontrivial levels, the a-ha moment pales by the drudge work ahead. Ports that rehash levels with jazzier graphics or let you undo moves can't fully hide this. Power Soukoban t..."

Soukoban, though ported to many platforms, is really a better AI problem or programming exercise than a game. It's simple: push boxes in warehouse onto target squares, no diagonal moves please. For full game, repeat two hundred levels, expanding floor and number of boxes. Unfortunately, its faults are as simple: for nontrivial levels, the a-ha moment pales by the drudge work ahead. Ports that rehash levels with jazzier graphics or let you undo moves can't fully hide this. Power Soukoban tries a different angle, with enemies to shoot and a world to explore, but it falls in the same traps.

It tries, though. You're a bouncy little red girl with blue hair, pushing spiked rocks into holes. But you can also fire at the enemies who pop up from said holes and, if you hold down the A button, shoot a big fireball you can steer. It can push the spiked rocks, too. With all holes full, you get a treasure denoted by a sign in the upper left. Enough blue tears give you more health. Special weapons that harm bosses vary between sub-worlds. You can gain six or eight of these per level, which would make bosses a real challenge if you couldn't just trade hits. Red tears give you more powerful shots against the final boss. You can run to save time with a speed button.

Many early rooms can be solved by classic Soukoban techniques, with some copied directly from classic early Soukoban levels. The first that can't are handy tutorials: shoot a rock on an island, or out of a dead end. If you mess up, you can just exit and re-enter your screen. Enemies start off as nuisances, but just shoot them and they'll cough up an hourglass to freeze them, a bomb to kill them all, or a heart to regain health. The opening castle is friendly, with just one tricky room where you must solve from the right to grab an item on the left. You'll find advice in rooms off to the side, and while getting lost is tough, Select provides an auto-map that tracks rooms you haven't solved.

The tune picks up in the next area (ice mountains) and so do the puzzles. Often you'll need to tuck yourself in a dead end, guide a rock in front of you, and push it where you need to. Slowly, of course, but you'll still get impatient and make dumb mistakes, or enemies may bunch under ladders. Worse, they pop up more frequently from holes that now block that trick shot you need to make, and often it's a matter of firing away and waiting for the right power-up. Then hopefully hacking the dead wood in your shot's path for that next move. Puzzles are also squeezed in since the scenery needs to look mountainous, necessitating a lot of cliff faces and safety rails such.

The jungle below has no such limits, offering a change of scenery and strategy, with freaky wailing and drumbeats too. Shooting rocks away from the water, or even across it, is the new rage, but there's not much variety. Many screens have two split paths through them, which offers some maze puzzles, and a broken bridge coupled with a secluded grove in the corner of one screen suggests you may need a boat. Unraveling this is the best part of the game, and you get to find new weird friends to talk to. From a fellow in scuba gear to a paper ghost to a mushroom-umbrella-Cyclops, most maze branches lead to one giving long-winded advice in Japanese. A few gave healing or powerups, and they made me laugh, but I'd guess the designers may have used these amiable oddballs to cover up a lack of puzzles.

It's back up the other side of the ice mountain for you, then, an entertaining but too-short jaunt. You'll chat with a three-tailed fox and then defeat the two-headed wolf before you get to big castle two. Granted, this is more gothic than the first one, with ornate floor tiles and such. But while the ice and jungle, while staples of action adventures, disrupted Soukoban's visual sameness, the second castle returns to that. Except now the tombstones you can and can't blast are reversed from castle one. Puzzles now force a flurry of shots before you can make that first move you finally figured out. For some, you may have to fill every hole except one before seeing the ultimate solution, then return. This problem solving by parts is legitimate. It just gets old with all those monsters to shoot, especially with those trick shots that must go over four holes. It's easy to get sloppy and damaged and need to shoot more enemies til one drops a heart. Running them over with rocks at every opportunity does not provide enough spiteful amusement to make up for this.

Now you don't have to solve all these puzzles. It just makes the last boss fight less nasty. It's a good one. You've probably fought a vampire before, but this guy dissembles into nine bats that rejoin. How to think ahead is a great puzzle, a step ahead of trading hits with previous bosses. But the buildup is mainly too many puzzles hide behind actions that don't feel so clever the tenth time through. And you'll wind up retreating to the castle entrance to heal a lot, too.

This trumps the lively presentation: your useless yet imaginative allies, the perspective on the ice mountain, and the waterfall screens there that suggest something on the other side. The jungle river tempts you to look for a bridge, and the statues offer mystery. And while it's baffling the game has two castles and the rocks never change, your enemies do, from knights to ghouls to pumpkin-heads to angel statues, with some smaller slimes and birds and turnips assisting. But looks don't matter once they become nuisances to hack down.

Power Soukoban fails, but not for want of trying. Puzzles overlap, but none feel like copycats. Your allies, if useless, are colorful, and the backgrounds soar beyond the fixed patterns of most Soukoban games. I just don't see any way to stop the trade-offs between triviality, drudgery and minimizing the risk of dumb rock-pushes, as takebacks would be ham-fisted. Power Soukoban presents some interesting puzzles but cannot solve a critical one: how to be involved enough for Sokoban fans and big enough to be a legitimate adventure, without wearing the player down.

aschultz's avatar
Community review by aschultz (July 03, 2009)

Andrew Schultz used to write a lot of reviews and game guides but made the transition to writing games a while back. He still comes back, wiser and more forgiving of design errors, to write about games he loved, or appreciates more, now.

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randxian posted July 05, 2009:

Enjoyed this for the most part. I like how you simultaneously compare and contrast this to Soukoban, yet provide enough description to also bring the rest of us up to speed.

Personally, I don't like your admission that you have no idea what these red tears do. I would just leave that bit out for a couple of reasons. One, if you can't tell us what they do, then that statement serves no real practical purpose. Two, that diminishes your credibility as someone who should be knowledgable about the game you are reviewing. Sure, it's a dinky item that probably doesn't amount to a hill of beans, but I still think that part should be cut.
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aschultz posted July 06, 2009:

Thanks randxian--I guess in every review there's always going to be the sentence that belongs there the least. Just like George Carlin discussing the worst doctor in the country.

I think this sentence may be it, but--the problem is, if half the rooms are useless and not even a decent security measure, that is valid. Can't solve a few rooms--kind of nice the game lets you slide. But when half the puzzles serve no purpose, that's a bit too much. It needs to be mentioned somehow, and maybe I just need to pick up my research to do so precisely correctly.

So for starters I'd like to mail back the folks who wrote a translation of the script of the game. Maybe they can shed some light on it.
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randxian posted July 06, 2009:

Okay, now it makes a bit more sense.

Personally, I have done research when in the processing of reviewing a game. I've replayed it, looked up info on GameFAQs, and even watched videos on YouTube. I think it pays dividends when you convey to the audience that you are on expert on everything that makes this game tick.

I'm not meaning to be harsh here. I was really floored by how you managed to simultaneously and seamlessly speak to two audiences: people who have played the original in the series and people who haven't. A lot of reviewers really isolate their audience and make assumptions that people have played games in the series before, but you go the extra mile to make sure all your readers understand what's going on. I really appreciate that.

Once you get this whole red tear bit squared away, then I'll say I feel sorry for whoever has to face this review in the TT. Thank goodness I've already matched up against you and got it over with.

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