Everyone loves a good brainteaser, I reckon. They’re one of the few great unifying forces in the entertainment world. Whether it’s the crossword in your local paper, the daily Wordle/Heardle/Other-Variants-Milking-A-Recognizable-Name-le, a jigsaw or something more advanced like Mensa, nothing beats that feeling of everything slotting into place. A victory for logic is, more often than not, a victory for your dopamine receptors. Simple folk enjoying simple pleasures, we are.
Which is why it’s handy, as a gamer, to have so many fantastic options for getting our puzzle fix in a pre-packaged digital format. Time to drop a bombshell that will surprise literally no-one who pays even cursory attention to my articles. Puzzle games happen to be one of my favourite genres; not only because they keep my noggin a-cookin’, but because they often tell great stories and offer cross-generational appeal to boot. There aren’t many corners of the gaming world I can persuade my technology-refusenik elders to gingerly dip a toe into, but the accessibility of the humble puzzler has bridged that gap for me before. Told you that DS purchase was worth it, didn’t I, Dad?
With the imminent release of A Weekend in Puzzleburg (which promises to be a unique, RPG-slanted take on the classic adventure formula), then, I thought it might be nice to run down my top five entries in the genre, as well as a couple of honourable mentions. Get your hands in your pockets and dig out your leftover hint coins – here we go, in no particular order.
5. Professor Layton (2008 – present)
Yep, no surprises here. If you thought I’d make it more than a few paragraphs into a listicle like this without dropping the big Hersh-dog’s name, then ohohohohohohoho, you are sorely mistaken. What can I say about Level-5’s top-hatted wonder that hasn’t already been said a quintillion times over? Professor Layton is practically synonymous with the puzzle genre, is firmly entrenched in gaming culture and has spawned an entire fanbase’s worth of screen-tapping addicts bent on their next Picarat hit. Players both casual and hardcore the world over flocked to the good professor, and for good reason. These DS/3DS point-and-click adventures are rendered in a lavish art style, evoking a nostalgic vision of London that still feels rather modern (it’s meant to be present day, but everyone dresses like it’s Victorian times and putters about in vintage hatchbacks).
The puzzles, conceived by the late legendary boffin Akira Tago, run the gamut from lateral thinking scenarios to riddles to infuriating sliding mechanisms, but they’re all absolutely top-notch. Considering that there are something like 200 to 300 individual brainteasers per game, the consistency of quality is astounding. The plots, too, are well-known for their utter lunacy, dropping such choice ‘twists’ as (spoilers for these decade-old games, I guess): ‘everyone is a robot’, ‘everything is a hallucination’, ‘the ghost was actually a giant seal’ and ‘time travel isn’t real, you were actually just inside a massive cavern – oh no, hang on, time travel is real.’
In short, Professor Layton is suave, sophisticated dynamite. The franchise is sadly in a bit of a fix at the moment, what with Level-5’s financial troubles and a mediocre entry starring the likable-enough, but ultimately uncompelling protagonist Katrielle (Layton’s daughter). It would be nice to see them dust the main bloke himself off for another run on the Switch, where he and his awful-accented protégé Luke would be right at home. Critical thinking is the key to success!
4. Puzzle Agent 1 & 2 (2010 – 2011)
Bit of an oddball pick for numero dos, I know – you’re probably all opening Google as we speak – but it’s one that nonetheless deserves more attention. This quirky little series of puzzler-cum-detective-sims puts you in the shoes of Nelson Tethers, the sole member of the FBIPRD (that’s the FBI Puzzle Research Division, and not an especially catchy acronym). Nelson’s task is to deal with an assortment of strange goings-on, not least of which involves the White House’s pencil eraser factory being mysteriously shut down. Yes, it’s one of those sorts of games.
I dig the offbeat, sometimes slightly unnerving tone of these adventures, with an art style and musical sensibility that draws on the works of David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick. That, combined with the fact that Telltale Games are the folks behind this, should really tell you all you need to know. You never can tell what wacky character you’ll run into next, be it a hotel receptionist who’s in league with a cult of boiler-stealing gnomes, or a Sasquatch who’s key to the fate of the world. You’ll puzzle your way through jigsaws, logic conundrums and lots more besides, with the neat twist being that you have to send your answers back to the FBIPRD (try saying that out loud) for approval; it’s up in the air whether they’ll sign off on your solution, so best of luck.
Overall, this duology won’t be for everyone, but if all of it sounds to your tastes, then strap yourself into Nelson Tethers’ shoes and get sleuthing. Plus they’re dirt cheap games these days. No excuse.
3. Lost in Play (2022)
Now, I’ve already spent several hundred words banging on about how Lost in Play is pretty much the best thing since sliced bread (if you happen to share my niche set of interests, that is) so I won’t be repeating myself. My good heavens, no. Instead, I’m going to simply direct you to my review and let that elucidate for you precisely why I think this unassuming, 4-hour indie adventure game is actually one of the finest puzzlers in recent years.
All the same, here’s the basic skinny. You play as a couple of precocious, sassy kids (yeah, really pushing the boundaries there, aren’t we) whose innocuous playtime soon morphs into a real journey across the landscape of their imaginations. In a sublimely gorgeous hand-animated tale, you’ll match wits with spies, goblins, seafaring seagull pirates and more. There’s always some new gameplay quirk around the corner, keeping you hooked throughout, and sweet gentle Jesus have I mentioned the animation yet? I think I have, but still. Bears repeating.
Toss in some fiendishly clever puzzles and an intuitive hint system, and you’ve got yourself a winner. Lost in Play didn’t get anywhere near the attention it deserved when it hit our monitors last year – what, not enough assault rifles for you all? – so I urge you all to give it a crack. OK, aaannnd… off my soapbox.
2. The Monkey Island series (1990-present)
Oh come on. Like you didn’t know Monkey Island would make the cut. How could it not? I’m not going to pretend the early entries have aged particularly well. We all know that, despite the gorgeous pixel art and whip-smart writing, there are some teething problems that firmly date them; obtuse, please-buy-our-strategy-guide solutions anyone? And would you like some unintended softlocks to go with that? How about game-ending dialogue choices that the developers didn’t account for? A veritable smorgasbord of suck.
But (but!) the Monkey Island franchise has earned its place here for numerous reasons. Putting aside these growing pains, there’s something truly special about the adventures of Guybrush Threepwood. He and the good people of LucasArts codified essentially all the tropes we now associate with point-and-click puzzlers. Legendary designer Tim Schafer poured his heart and soul into the series, and it shows. Every exchange, every little ‘aha!’ moment when the answer clicks is positively dripping with character.
Granted, ol’ Guybrush has lost his way a la Layton of late, with a middling showing throughout the 2000s and 2010s, and a divisive entry last year in the form of Return to Monkey Island, which many fans tore to shreds over its minimalist art style. Personally, I say: ‘so what?’ It’s not like this damn franchise has subscribed to any consistent visual format before. What I do take issue with, though, is the game’s story and ending message. It appears to convey to longtime fans that they should just pack it in and stop expecting any further decent Monkey Island adventures. Alright, guys. Message bloody received! To quote Yahtzee Croshaw, “how about next time you just Tweet that and not charge me twenty bucks?”
Regardless, the collective Monkey Island franchise is a bonafide classic. Wouldn’t be a legit list without it.
1. Zack and Wiki: Quest for Barbaros’ Treasure (2007)
Man, talk about your stillborn franchises. Alas, Zack and Wiki. We hardly knew ye. In fact, this title nearly tanked its publisher’s finances for the quarter when it bombed on release, regardless of the amazing critical reception. ‘Performed far below expectations,’ as the press release so diplomatically put it. And it’s a darn shame, because Capcom’s bonkers piratey puzzler on the Wii is an all-time masterwork within the genre.
Let’s meet our principals. You’ve got Zack. Though Zack fancies himself a pirate, he only really has an oversized hat to prove it. Then you’ve got Wiki, who is not, I was relieved to discover, a walking digital encyclopaedia. Wiki is instead a flying Aztec monkey thing, which may or may not be even stranger. Your task is to waggle, point and gyrate your Wiimote through wacky environments in the pursuit of Captain Barbaros’ treasure. Barbaros is a friendly fellow – for being a demonic skeleton lord – who you reassemble over the course of the game. Also accosting you at points is the ‘nefarious’ Captain Rose, the sole female character with any agency and probably the cast’s weakest link. Think for a moment about every cliché anime girl convention you can think of in media. Now combine them, and you’ve got Rose; stuffing sweets in her face, wearing short skirts and prancing animatedly around, all while complaining about boys and puffing out her cheeks. Though at least she packs heat.
Thankfully, the game’s puzzles amply compensate. From using a toilet to brew up an antidote to fighting a series of gigantic mirrors in a cavern, the game is top-shelf creative. Everything controls wonderfully, and there are a ton of optional treasures to poke around for if you’re a completist. The odd action setpiece, like sword fights, helps to add further variety. I’m especially fond of the numerous ways you can cock up per stage. There must be hundreds of unique death animations here, as Zack is skewered on spikes, smooshed by boulders and more. Tex Avery would be proud.
All told, Zack and Wiki is an A++ puzzle experience. Though it’s pricey on the second-hand market, thanks to the aforementioned mauling it received in 2007, I’d contest it’s worth it to have such a fab outing in your collection. Avast, mateys: this one’s a beauty.
And now it’s time for a little rundown of some honorable mentions. They might not get a paragraph to themselves, but I just had to squeeze these guys in.
- Portal 1 and 2: These need absolutely no introduction, except for those to whom rocks seem like acceptably comfy real estate. With revolutionary physics gameplay, pitch-black comedy and mind-bending puzzles, there really is no other way to describe Valve’s seminal works than: they were a triumph. Making a note here – huge success.
- Machinarium: Amanita Design are one of the supreme unsung heroes of the puzzle game genre. They developed a good chunk of my childhood, including Questionaut, a BBC Bitesize browser game that made exam revision just a little more bearable for British schoolkids. Their magnum opus, however, is Machinarium. It’s a quiet, atmosphere-driven point and click tale that sees you guiding a little robot through a post-apocalyptic crapsack of a world. His goal? To reach a lady robot, of course. Heartwarming, brain-tickling stuff.
- The entire Humongous Entertainment library: Alright, I’m kind of cheating here, and it’s an inclusion mostly fuelled by nostalgia, but whatever. Pretty much any gamer of a certain age can recall the likes of Spy Fox, Pajama Sam and Freddi Fish. These rudimentary PC titles were formative texts in their day, and though they undoubtedly skewed towards a younger crowd, the snarky dialogue and often-taxing puzzles ensured they could be enjoyed by all. If you fancy a go, they’re pretty much all available on the Switch eShop.
A Weekend in Puzzleburg brings even more puzzling fun this month!
Thus do we come to the end of our delightful delve into the world of cranium training. Hope it’s been illuminating. Whether it’s point and click purity you fancy, or something a tad more streamlined like Brain Training, this genre is unique in that it truly offers something for everyone. Regardless of if you share any of my favorites or not (and feel free to let me know one way or the other in the comments), we can surely all agree on that.
Yet, this is just the beginning of the fun, as we await the upcoming launch of A Weekend in Puzzleburg. With a charming art style and pleasingly compact world design, we might have ourselves a sleeper indie hit. Ranging from basic, point and click-style conundrums (your character wants to make a wish in a fountain, so she rips off some quarters from the local arcade) to slightly deeper mathematics and logic-based ones, there’ll be something to tickle the fancy of all.
A Weekend in Puzzleburg arrives on Steam on February 17. A demo version is currently available.