Puzzle games were big in arcades. And being the arcade system that it is, the NEO GEO was host to many puzzle games. Puzzled (or the honestly more colorful Japanese name, Joy Joy Kid) is the NEO GEO’s first puzzle game. And unsurprisingly, SNK’s first attempt is to make a Tetris clone. Tetris was originally made in 1984, but by 1990 it was ported to several consoles, arcades, Western and Japanese computers, and the Game Boy. It was huge. So it’s obvious that SNK wanted to get in on the Tetris craze with Joy Joy Kid.
What’s the story of Joy Joy Kid? Well for one, I’m surprised that you are curious about the story of a puzzle game. But there is one. The opening (which only appears in the AES version) tells of two warring villages, a male-only village against a female-only village. The war took the lives of many, leaving only children and the elderly. So the sun god built walls surrounding each village to stop the fighting, and a tower (that looks a lot like the Tower Of Babel) where he and several other gods resided in. Being the sun god, he also blocked out the sun from the villages as punishment. So each of the villages sent out a messenger in a balloon to the tower to go and appease the gods, RAD from the male village in a zeppelin (with a face on it!), and AM from the female village in a regular hot air balloon.
Joy Joy Kid uses the same mechanics as Tetris. You have the same seven shapes (or Tetrominos). And you try to rotate the falling blocks to form lines and clear them. The twist is that the objective here is totally different. Here the game is level based, and in each level you try to save your character’s balloon that’s trapped by a different pattern of blocks. And you pass the level by clearing the blocks blocking the balloon from floating up. The levels, composed of 6 stages, each with 10 floors, totaling to 60 levels, get more difficult by adding new elements, like gold blocks that need to be lined 3 times in order to break, or wooden blocks that never break, or mines or electric fields that can stun your balloon, impairing it from movement for a few seconds, or regenerating blocks. In addition, you have a special bar that gets filled the more lines you clear, and when it’s filled halfway, you can unleash an explosion with the B button that can clear out or damage blocks surrounding the balloon. Filling the bar completely will allow you to create a bigger explosion.
And this all adds up to a pretty fun game. It does change they way you play Tetris since you are only concerned about clearing a specific set of blocks. But that doesn’t make it easy, oh no. Joy Joy Kid is very hard. Extremely hard. I only managed to reach the 7th level (with 53 left to go) and could not get past it. So I cheated and used the infinite bomb cheat to progress through the game.
Each of the 6 floors of the tower has its own background art and its own charmingly FM-synthy music. Some backgrounds have sort of ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs, which while not directly related to the Tower of Babel, does fit in the whole “ancient human culture” idea in Joy Joy Kid. Between each floor, you meet these funny looking gods who talk to you and give you the key to the next floor. A couple of them won’t give you the key and instead force you to play this simple platforming bonus game. Though even you fail these they still give you the key anyway.
Once you beat all 10 stages of all 6 floors, you meet the sun god at the top of the tower, the one you’ve been looking for this whole journey, the deity who you seek forgiveness for all the atrocities created by the war. Finally after so many hours of playing it’s all over and you get to enjoy the ending, right? Well… (scroll to 1:54:00)
That’s right. Joy Joy Kid pulls a complete Ghost ’n Goblins, asking you to go through all of the game again, all 60 levels again using the other character (now with weirdly ominous music). Actually, these are new, different levels so you can’t repeat what you did the first time through. So really Joy Joy Kid has 120 levels (and to imagine I only managed to get %5.83 through). You also meet a different set of wacky looking gods between each floor, and another couple who have you do the platforming bonus game.
Once you reach the sun god with the other character, the game is truly finished. The sun god advises the merging of both villages, combining the male and female population, and thus bringing peace to the land. With the purpose of the tower fulfilled, it rockets into the air where it floats for all to witness as a memorial for the darker times of human history and as a reminder to uphold the ideals of compassion and understanding between all humans and I’m reading way into this.
There is, however, a way to finish the game in one playthrough. And that it to play it with a friend in 2P. Sadly, two-player mode seems like a big missed opportunity for such a competitive genre like puzzle games, primarily because SNK did nothing with it (a puzzling decision if I must say). Each player plays on their own screen, working on their own levels. And that’s it. There’s absolutely no “interactivity” between players. You can’t throw junk blocks or get power-ups or send power-downs or anything. Nothing that one player would do would ever have any effect on the other. You can’t even have a simple “who clears the level first” race. That’s because whenever a challenger joins a player who’s a few levels in, they don’t start at the level the first player’s in. Instead, they start at the very first level of the first floor. The only semblance of competition you could do is if 2 players decide to start the game together at the same time and race towards beating the game first, a race which might take 1, maybe 2 hours to finish. At least it’s somewhat of a cooperative experience. And the whole “2 groups of people working together towards a common goal” does fit the spirit of the story conveyed in Joy Joy Kid. It would be hypocritical if the whole way through, both players are competing, throwing all sorts of junk to each other, hampering each others progress, then at the end the sun god commends both players for being totally best friends and all. So I’ll give SNK some credit for totally committing to the game’s story.
Joy Joy Kid never got a sequel sadly, not on NEO GEO nor the Neo Geo Pocket (which would have been great). I don’t know whether it was successful enough to warrant a sequel or not, but even if it was I suspect that the Tetris licensing issue might have played a big factor. This release does not mention anything about licensing Tetris or Bullet-Proof Software (Henk Rogers’s company that had the exclusive license for Tetris on arcades, home consoles, and portables). SNK doing a sequel without getting the Tetris license again might have gotten them into some legal trouble. And I don’t know if it would have been worth the trouble to license Tetris for a sequel or not. Although, Joy Joy Kid did get released on Neo Geo CD in 1994, on Mobile phones in Japan in 2008, on the Wii’s Virtual Console in Japan-only in 2011, and most recently on the Neo Geo X in 2012. I suppose Joy Joy Kid would not work as a game on its own today, but I feel like the game design itself would make for a great “extra” mode as one of the dozen or so modes in any of the new Tetris releases.
So as to not end this on a sad note, Joy Joy Kid did have some sort of legacy to it. Ai from Neo Geo Battle Coliseum has a few special moves that cutely references Joy Joy Kid. She can summon a falling Tetrominos (or several together as a Super move). She can also ride AM’s balloon (“Joy Joy Balloon” as she calls it) and fly around. She can even do the energy bomb when on the balloon. It’s a cute and clever nod to Joy Joy Kid. So at least it’s fondly remembered in a way.
I just wish it wasn’t so damn hard.