Let sleeping dragons lie

Puzzle & Dragons is nothing short of a phenomenon in Japan. Even legendary Nintendo creative mastermind Shigeru Miyamoto admitted he was playing it when I spoke with him back at E3 2013. And if I were a smarter man, I might’ve been able to predict that Nintendo would ultimately bring Puzzle & Dragons to the 3DS.

My poor cognitive function aside, when Nintendo finally did make the announcement, I think most were still surprised that not only would Puzzle & Dragons Z be coming to the 3DS, but it’d be bundled with a Super Mario Bros.–inspired version to boot. I admit I was particularly intrigued—especially because I’m a sucker for anything that features Mario (I even own Dance Dance Revolution Mario Mix for the GameCube). I absolutely had to see what’s captivated so much of Japan—and also whether Mario could transition into the world of match-three games.

Puzzle & Dragons Z plays out just like its mobile counterpart. You take on the role of a coming-of-age teen (and have the choice to be male or female) who’s decided to join a national peacekeeping force. When a terrorist organization called Paradox upsets the delicate balance of the world’s key elements (fire, water, wood, dark, and light), you’re tasked with piecing back together your crumbling world by traveling to temples dedicated to each respective element and restoring order. Along the way, you receive eggs that can instantly hatch back at the home base; you then train these beasts to become part of a six-monster party that fights on your behalf. Members of the party then attack when you match special orbs of power into rows of three or more that correspond to the creature’s color-oriented type.

The Super Mario Bros. Edition of Puzzle & Dragons utilizes similar gameplay but stays true to the Super Mario Bros. formula: Bowser kidnaps Princess Peach, and Mario must traverse eight worlds in order to get her back—with the first seven guarded by Bowser’s trusted Koopalings. The difference here is that Mario and the gang can add members of the Koopa Troop (including Goombas, Bloopers, and Giant Hammer Bros., among others) much in the same way you acquire eggs in Puzzle & Dragons Z. Both games also have a basic RPG-inspired leveling system where the creatures in your party grow stronger the more they fight.

Unfortunately, while this 2-in-1 bundle removes the original’s free-to-play microtransactions, it doesn’t really add anything to the experience, either—and Super Mario Bros. Edition feels like a cheap reskin. After only a few worlds of each game, I found myself utterly bored by the entire thing.

Sure, gathering monsters and leveling them up is an addictive proposition that’s been a cornerstone of collect-em-all RPGs like Pokémon, and there’s a hint of that in both of these titles. Puzzle & Dragons Z even adds a town where players can speak with NPCs and receive items and side challenges—but these folks are about as interesting as the Toads who populate the Mario Bros. games.

After playing a match-three game for any substantial amount of time, you start to realize that, far too often, the game revolves around luck. The best entries in the genre, however, find ways to hide this with an interesting story, stronger RPG elements, or even the aforementioned microtransactions, which surprisingly enough can act as a boon in this case since they either force you to walk away after a short period of time or inspire a gambling-style rush if you put extra money on the line, helping keeping boredom at bay (even if in the worst way possible). Neither of the games in this bundle have any of those properties, though, and so monotony quickly sets in.

Worst of all? The tedium comes before you even get fully invested in either adventure. The difficulty between a board with four different-colored orbs and one with six is monumental, since there are ever only 30 orbs on the screen at once, which is far less than most other match-three games. After only a few tutorial battles, you’re thrown right into the six-color-orb conflicts, rarely to ever return to four or five. Since harder monsters have more HP, you’ll find yourself praying each time you clear a row that the right orbs will fall into place, like a gambler futilely hoping for 7s to lock in on his slot machine.

As much as I love puzzle games and Mario crossovers, Puzzle & Dragons Z + Puzzle & Dragons: Super Mario Bros. Edition is a disappointment on every front. It’s not inherently broken in any way; it’s just painstakingly dull. Puzzle & Dragons borrows so liberally from so many other franchises that when you peel back the layers, it leaves nothing but a half-baked match-three game at its core—and Super Mario Bros. Edition is simply one more layer trying to bolster the illusion that this is an interesting game. It’s not.

Developer: GungHo • Publisher: Nintendo • ESRB: E – Everyone • Release Date: 05.22.15
A bundle that embodies the worst grinding elements of popular RPGs with a lackluster match-three gameplay mechanic. This version of Puzzle & Dragons tries to use the gold standard that Super Mario Bros. represents in order to bolster the façade that this is an interesting, worthwhile gaming experience. It’s not.
The Good The addictive Pokémon-like nature of collecting and leveling up creatures to fight for you.
The Bad Progress is slow and grinding and nothing about the gameplay hides this fact.
The Ugly I think the reason why Japan loves this franchise so much is they have a gambling problem. It’s time for an intervention.
Puzzle & Dragons Z + Puzzle & Dragons: Super Mario Bros. Edition  is a 3DS exclusive. Review code was provided by Nintendo for the benefit of this review.