While the Neo Geo Pocket is mostly remembered for its numerous fighting games, it did have its fair share of puzzle games as well; among those is Puzzle Link. Developed by Yumekobo, formerly Aicom, Puzzle Link shares a lot of similarities with Magical Drop and Puzzle Bobble; two games that can also be found on the Neo Geo Pocket. Similar to those series, you are faced with rows of advancing blocks which appear more frequently as time progresses. However, rather than matching certain colors of blocks together, you need to link together blocks of the same design for them to be destroyed.
The premise of Puzzle Link is very straightforward; you move your character, which appears as a small gun at the bottom of the screen, left and right, and fire connectors at the incoming blocks above. Once a connector hits a block, you'll continue shooting connectors of that type until you complete a link or choose to erase the connectors. Once a link is created, the blocks connected by the link, as well as all blocks of the same color that happen to be in contact with them, will be destroyed. If you happen to destroy blocks that are above others, the other blocks will shift up to fill in the empty space and could potentially cause chain reactions; destroying blocks they share a color with if they happen to shift into contact with them. This is the key to Puzzle Link, especially in later levels, as chain reactions allow you to clear large portions of the screen at once. However, if the blocks happen to get too low they cross the deadline, located directly above your character, and the round will end.
Links can only be created between blocks that are not in contact with each other, or are connected by other blocks of the same color between them. Since your character is limited to shooting blocks on the lowest rows, this leads to some strategy for creating links and clearing blocks. Instead of relying on creating links between blocks on the lowest rows, you'll find situations where it is better to shoot a block on a lower row to establish a particular color of link, and then link blocks together that you otherwise would not be able to shoot.
After clearing a number of basic blocks, "Round Clear" blocks will appear; these are designated by a large "C" printed on the block, and they only appear in pairs. Connecting the "Round Clear" blocks will clear all remaining blocks on screen and end the round. In the "Normal Mode", connecting the "Round Clear" blocks will progress you to the next round, and eventually another stage once ten rounds have been cleared.
"Normal Mode" is the primary focus of Puzzle Link, and the game does offer some incentive to play through stages multiple times. While playing a round in "Normal Mode", there is a timer in the shape of an hourglass on the left side of the screen. As the round progresses, the timer will tick down and eventually run out completely. There is no penalty for taking too long to finish a round, but clearing the round within the time limit will reward you with a character card. The character cards feature an image of a character; along with their name, height, weight, and catch phrase. However, the character cards serve no purpose other than giving you a reason to continue to playing the "Normal Mode" in hopes of collecting them all.
Other than "Normal Mode", Puzzle Link also offers two other game modes; "Clear All Mode" and "Battle Mode". In "Clear All Mode", you're presented with a full screen of blocks in a set pattern. The goal is to clear all of the blocks in as few shots as possible while avoiding an unwinnable situation. Unfortunately there is no real reward for "Clear All Mode"; and without the constant pressure of advancing blocks, "Clear All Mode" quickly loses its appeal.
"Battle Mode" allows for you to play against a friend via the systems link cable. Here you are able to send rows of blocks onto the opposing player's field by creating chain reactions. The larger the chain reaction, the more blocks you create on your opponent's field. Similar to "Normal Mode", the game ends when blocks cross the deadline. The first player to win three rounds in "Battle Mode" will win the match.
Despite the light amount of content, Puzzle Link is a fine game with solid and addictive mechanics. The character cards offer a bit of replay value for completionists, and the short rounds allow for quick games while on the go.
Released just over a year after Puzzle Link, Puzzle Link 2 expands on the original by adding two new game modes; "Endless Mode" and "Card Mode". As the name implies, "Endless Mode" is a continuous round where the speed at which blocks advance gradually increases overtime. Upon starting "Endless Mode", you choose how many different types of blocks will be generated. This serves as a difficulty setting; as only have to manage two different types of blocks is very easy, but dealing with three or four different types can be fairly difficult at higher speeds. As you create links you also fill a power up gauge, once the gauge is full you have a few seconds where your shots will instantly clear all blocks of the matching type without requiring a link. As usual, the game ends once the blocks cross the deadline at the bottom of the screen.
"Card Mode" is the most interesting of the new modes, as it finally gives you a reason to collect character cards in "Normal Mode". Unlike the original Puzzle Link, the character cards are grouped into sets; 10, Jack, Queen, King, and Ace cards. Cards are unlocked by completing rounds in the corresponding stage in "Normal Mode" within the time limit. For example, you can earn cards in the Queen category by completing any of the ten rounds in the Queen stage. Once you have some cards you can then compete against the CPU or a friend in "Card Mode". First, you choose an ante card to bet the match on. Once you've selected an ante card you then choose a suit from which a random card you own will be drawn. Afterwards you compare the suit you chose to the one your opponent chose and points are awarded. For example, if you picked the Ace suit, then you will automatically win against any card picked from the Jack, Queen, or King suits; but you will lose to any card picked from the 10 suit. If you happen to pick the same suit as your opponent, the winner is determined by the power associated with the randomly drawn character cards. A higher power results in a win. "Card Mode" is an interesting distraction from the main content of Puzzle Link 2, and can serve as a fun and competitive way to get a few cards that you may be missing, but overall it feels like somewhat of an after thought to finally give purpose to the cards you were collecting.
Other than that, Puzzle Link 2 remains largely unchanged from the first game. There are a few minor graphic changes throughout, most notably the addition of new block types, and you're also given a few lines of dialogue by characters at the beginning and end of each stage in "Normal Mode". This does help to add a bit more personality to the game, but the core mechanics are no different than those in the original Puzzle Link. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as the game is still very enjoyable to play, but there isn't much to differentiate it from its predecessor. Unless "Endless Mode" and "Card Mode" are must haves, you're fine sticking to the original.
Overall, the Puzzle Link games are very solid entries for the Neo Geo Pocket. While they may not be revolutionary, they do offer fun and addictive gameplay with a bit of replay value. If you're looking to explore the non-fighting game offerings of the Neo Geo Pocket, then the Puzzle Link series is definitely worth your time