Thinking in 3D

Cube's particular style of puzzles is unlike anything on the PSP. Shame, then, that it has such a hard time running it.
Author: Sam Bishop
Published: April 29, 2007
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British mathematician and puzzle architect Henry Ernest Dudeney once observed that humans have a natural proclivity toward wanting to solve puzzles, and all it really takes is a simple concept that's hard to master to create worldwide crazes. The observation was no doubt fueled by the then-current obsession with crossword puzzles, but if the explosion of Sudoku these days is any indication, the human desire to think one's way through a riddle is innate and hasn't been dulled by the march of time or the advent of distractions like TV or the internet or even video games.

In fact, Dudeney reasoned that so long as these puzzles embraced any changes in medium, they would continue to periodically ensnare huge chunks of the world's population. Video games, then, are a perfect breeding ground for creating a new style a puzzle, and the PSP seems uniquely suited to do it with the flair of 3D and the convenience of a portable. Coupled with the supposed neurodegenerative disease-countering effects and brain workouts that puzzles provide, Cube should be something that actually betters the player more than, say, your average mindless shooter.

And in a lot of ways, it is. The core concepts present in the 3D puzzler require some fantastic spatial awareness, a bit of chess-like forward thinking, more than a few moments of quick reflexes and some absolutely diabolical puzzle designs later on. The fact that so much of the game has been plotted out with a keen eye for power-ups and debilitating traps makes for a game that's rarely boring and almost always teaching you something new. In short, it's a brilliant concept, and one that could have worked flawlessly on the PSP.

Yeah, there's that stupid could word again. I should probably caution against thinking I'm going to completely ream the game for its technical limitations; I'm not. Nor am I suggesting that the game can't still be enjoyed despite what I feel are inexcusably bad issues with the presentation. Instead, I'm pissed that Cube falters in doing what it does because the core game is so damned compelling, that it seems the development team's knowledge of the PSP hardware is ultimately what strips it of being a complete "wow" package.

Let's start with the basics. You're a simple cube, mostly see-through but with the light of... something shining from within. In most situations, you can move around any exposed face of the puzzle grid by flipping end over end until you reach the exit square and progress to the next level. Along the way, any number of keys are scattered all over the place, and if you can scoop them all up and head to the exit within the time limit, you'll be given a Gold finish, which can in turn unlock bonus levels if you Gold out an entire set of puzzles.

If it were just a bunch of idle flipping while wrangling with a camera that can present things from any angle, it would be fun for a while, but the developers wisely decided to throw some kinks into things. There are spike squares that hold you in place for a while, there are arrows that you can pick up with one of the faces of your cube and then lay down again somewhere else to redirect floating mines that will end your run in a decidedly explosive way should you touch them. There are squares that attach to a face on your cube that prevent you from flipping onto that side for a while. There are squares you can sink into. There are switches to rotate entire parts of the level or turn off fans and bomb-barfing cannons that impede your progress or activate moving squares or lower barriers. There are squares that wink in and out of existence in patterns, or just slowly start to dissolve as soon as you flip onto them. Hell, later on in the game there are even enemies that have their own AI and will move unpredictably to stop you.

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