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The Top 10 Puzzle Games of All Time
I love a good brainteaser. As much as I enjoy shooting Covenant grunts and racing karts, puzzle games let you focus on the cerebral side of video games, often in devious ways. Working your brain out is a good thing, and the interactive nature of games make them a prime candidate for puzzles, visual riddles and other activities that may not help your twitch skills or physical fitness, but will help you work out the most important part of your body: your brain. With that in mind, here are the top 10 puzzle games of all time.
*Note: You will notice a lack of “classic” puzzle games like Tetris on here, as I have chosen to focus more on games filled with individual puzzles, as opposed to quote unquote “casual” puzzle games. The distinction is subtle, but necessary for this list.
10. Scribblenauts series
Scribblenauts is one of the most innovative and unique games I have ever played. The premise of the game is simple: you play as a kid named Maxwell who must retrieve a bunch of starites hidden in plain sight. To do this, he draws upon the power of a magic notebook that brings into the real world almost any item he writes down. Is there a starite hanging high up in a tree? Simply write the word ladder into your notebook, and one will appear that Maxwell can use to climb up. With the sequel Super Scribblenauts, adjectives were brought in the mix, allowing you to turn that regular ladder into a hairy, glowing giant ladder. Or you could use a slimy, smelly, bronze jetpack to get up there as well. The possibilities are endless and, despite having the world at your fingertips, some puzzles are dastardly difficult. Recent additions to the series have brought DC heroes into the mix, opening up some super possibilities. It isn’t the hardest puzzle game out there, but simply playing around with the notebook provides hours of fun in its own right, and coming up with he wackiest combinations imaginable never gets old. I’ll never forget the epic war I created between a winged robot T-Rex and an army of golden hipster zombies. I think it might be the greatest thing I have ever done with my life.
9. The Swapper
Facepalm Games’ The Swapper has everything you could want in a puzzle game: an easy to learn yet hard to master mechanic, an engrossing atmosphere, a bevy of difficult puzzles and an intriguing story. The core mechanic is simple at first glance: you are given a ray gun that can create clones of yourself and gives you the ability to swap between them with a simple blast from it. The difficulty comes in the fact that only the clone you are currently controlling can pick up the orbs you are trying to obtain, and different colored lights obstruct your goal in different ways. Red lights block swapper rays, but you can create clones inside their bask. Blue lights stop you from creating new clones, but you can swap through them, and purple lights block both. Most puzzles can be completed by logically thinking backwards from the goal, but Facepalm still managed to fit some tough puzzles into the mix. Along the way, the game poses some nagging questions that fit perfectly into the strange and oppressive atmosphere of the game: How does the swapper work? What happens to those hundreds of clones you let fall to their deaths. Perhaps most importantly, how far are you willing to go to find out the answer? The Swapper doesn’t give up its mysteries easily, but they are worth the work to uncover them.
I’ve never played a game quite like Antichamber. Created from the mind of Alexander Bruce, Antichamber constantly defies and redefines perceptions you have probably always taken for granted. The game’s use of non-Euclidean geometry is ingenious, and leads to some horrifyingly difficult puzzles. Take the above picture as an example. Early in the game, you round a hallway to see these two stairwells. After taking them both a few times, they always lead back to the same hallway, while a sign nearby tells you that “the choice doesn’t matter if the outcome is the same”. Taking that advice to heart, I turn around and head back the way I came. Lo and behold, a new path was waiting for me. Antichamber is filled with moments like that. Smart design decisions like a map and fast travel exist (once you figure them out anyway), and help cut down on frustration, but make no mistake about it, Anitchamber is one of the more difficult puzzle games around. A countdown timer in the first room leads to an unexpected surprise (which I don’t want to ruin here), and finally reaching the climactic finale is as satisfying as reaching any princess ever was. Antichamber may be non-traditional, but it is an absolute blast.
They say it is always best to make a good first impression; after all, you only get one shot at it. PlayDead Studios clearly had that mantra in mind when they created Limbo. Coming pretty much out of nowhere, Limbo proved that it isn’t only puzzles that make a great puzzle game. While it certainly has its fair share of brain teasers, Limbo also brings haunting sound design, intriguing secrets and a fantastic atmosphere to the table, all while wrapping it up in one of the most interesting, visually arresting (and since emulated) art styles ever. The stark black, white and grey color palette perfectly meshes with the nightmare-like quality of the game to elevate Limbo from mere video game to work of art, and while the minimalist story may not answer every question you have, this is a case where the journey is truly more important than the ending. Though it relies a bit more on twitch platforming skills than brain power near the end, Limbo has rightfully earned its place in the pantheon of puzzling platformers.
6. Picross 3D
Who would have thought such a simple idea could lead to one of the best puzzlers in recent memory? Don’t answer that, it’s rhetorical. Instead, let’s look at what makes Picross 3D so brilliant. The idea is brutally simple: using numbers on the outside of a grid, the player must fill in boxes to create a picture within the grid. If it sounds difficult, it makes a lot more sense once you have seen it in action. Based on a type of puzzle called a nonogram, Nintendo ran with the idea with Mario’s Picross on the Game Boy, and released a number of sequels thereafter. However, they really knocked the concept out of the park with Picross 3D on the DS. Translating the puzzles to a three dimensional grid worked so well, it’s hard to imagine why it took so long for it to happen. Figuring out what sort of rudimentary Nintendo figure the puzzle contains is an absolute blast, and requires gamers to use cognitive thinking, spatial reasoning and even some light mathematical skills. Don’t let that scare you away though, as Picross 3D is a puzzler than can be enjoyed by casual users and hardcore gamers alike.
The difference between a 2D representation of something and a 3D recreation of the same thing can be quite drastically different. This is a concept Fez plays with to great effect, but to label that as all that Fez does would be a disservice to one of the smartest, and difficult, puzzle games of all time. When I say difficult, I mean I want to meet the person that could uncover all of Fez’s secrets without help, because they are clearly some sort of savant. Once the gamer figures out how rotating the 2D world affects the 3D objects within it, he or she may think they have the game figured out. They could not be more wrong. When a game has its own alphabet and translation cipher hidden within in, you can bet things aren’t going to be easy. Thankfully, controversial creator Phil Fish never makes things unfair. Sure, decoding the alphabet requires you to find a room with a quick brown fox jumping over a lazy dog, realizing the in-game alphabet doesn’t read left-to-right like our own and tracking down a translation cube, but it can be done if you put your mind to it. Many players have strolled past dozens of puzzles without even realizing they were there, but that is one mistake you shouldn’t make with the game itself.
4. Professor Layton series
Not all puzzle games need to feature brooding narratives and oppressive atmospheres. Created by Level-5 Studios, Professor Layton has starred in a number of games involving him and his apprentice Luke solving numerous riddles and puzzles in pursuit of larger mysteries, each one seemingly better than the last. But they are all connected by some common strands: a fun and vibrant French art style, fun metagames and a smorgasbord of brainteasers filling each game to the brim. Does it matter why random citizens want you to complete hundreds of riddles throughout each game? Not as long as you are having fun, which is almost a guarantee if you are playing a Layton game. Figuring out the riddles and puzzles within is only half the fun though, as each game tells a narrative with its own unique twist, and along the way Layton gives more than a few lesson that have real world applications, none being as important as how to be a true gentleman. If you are a fan of puzzle games, you are doing yourself a disservice by not playing these.
3. Portal series
At this point, I’m not sure what I can say about Portal that hasn’t been said before. Released as part of Valve’s Orange Box collection, along with Half-Life 2 and Team Fortress 2, Portal took the world by storm with its clever puzzles, titular portal mechanics and, most of all, the robotic antagonist GLaDOS. Spawning many a meme that I don’t need to repeat here, Portal quickly became a fan favorite. Portal 2 released a few years later to more critical acclaim, and added cooperative play to another stellar single-player campaign. Learning to “think with portals’ is satisfying when that switch finally clicks, and both games excel at giving you that “aha” moment. The fact that both games have excellently crafted, and often hilarious, dialogue is just the icing on the cake, which incidentally isn’t a lie. Portal has done about as good a job as you could hope for bringing puzzle games into the mainstream, and remains one of the most beloved games in the genre.
While Myst certainly wasn’t the first puzzle game, it brought a number of innovations to the genre that simply hadn’t been seen before. Released in 1993, the scope and ambition of Myst was largely unmatched at the time. Letting players loose on a huge island filled with cryptic puzzles proved to be a big hit with gamers, as it held the distinction of being the best-selling PC game of all time, until a little title called The Sims knocked it off its perch. Immersion wasn’t exactly an industry buzzword back in 1993, but Myst showed how important it could be, allowing gamers to soak in the huge puzzles and groundbreaking (for the time) visuals of the island at their own leisure. Instilling the game with a plot and backstory was another facet that puzzle games had never really played with before, especially to this extent, and it resonated with gamers and ushered in widespread adoption of the CD-ROM. Whether they realized it or not, almost every game on this list owes a debt to Myst in some degree.
Here we are, the end of the line. We have looked at some fantastic puzzle games so far, but eventually you knew one would have to rise to the top. Jonathan Blow’s masterpiece Braid is, at first glance, a beautiful puzzle game that shares more than a few traits with a certain mustachioed plumber. Goomba like creatures walk around begging to be jumped on as you traipse through the themed worlds, and a creature at the end of every one of them is more than happy to explain that the princess is not there. But to label Braid as derivative neglects the brilliance of what the game does. Braid plays with your expectations of what video games are, and what we think versus what we are actually doing. The game drops subtle, at best, hints about what is going on throughout your journey, but seeing the mind-blowing end sequence for yourself really makes you think, as do the game’s dozens of devilishly hard puzzles. Tracking down the hidden starts and finding the secret ending, something that took the game community awhile to even learn of its existence, adds a whole new layer to the story telling, and Blow has went on record stating that gamers haven’t even discovered everything in Braid. Equal parts puzzle game, engrossing story and work of art, Braid takes our spot as the number one puzzle game of all time.