The gameplay of Puzzle Fighter -- which is what we're calling it from here on out for the sake of brevity -- is very simple. There are two basic pieces in Puzzle Fighter: gems and crash gems. Touching a gem to a crash gem of the same color will destroy it, along with any other adjacent gems of the same color. Crashing gems causes you to "attack" the opponent and drop gems on his side. By stacking gems of the same color into squares of 2-by-2 or more, you create power gems, which have more attack power. The object then, is to build the biggest stacks and crash them before your opponent does, thus filling his playing field with gems and forcing him to lose. Naturally, you can organize your pieces so that they create chain reactions and the like (if you're fast enough). Finally, there is the diamond, which destroys all gems of whatever color it touches, which can be a lifesaver if your stack is filled to the brim. The real genius of Puzzle Fighter, however, is drop patterns.
Each character has a unique drop pattern that they use to attack opponents (note the "Counter Gem" sequence in the image above). Knowing your opponent's drop pattern allows you to organize counterattacks when stacks of gems start falling on you. For example, if you know that Ken will drop red gems, you can place spare red crash gems accordingly, knowing it could save you during an attack. It's these drop patterns and the nuances they give to each character that gives Puzzle Fighter the feeling of a true fighting game.
The HD Remix version brings a few new things to the table, most notably revised drop patterns for most of the characters. In the original game, many drop patters were less than desirable and gave crafty opponents a significant advantage. This has mostly been removed thanks to some tweaking. If you fear change, you can opt to play the original version if you wish. HD Remix also brings online play to the game. We played for several hours on Xbox Live, and all but one of our matches ran nearly flawlessly. Oddly, we had trouble finding Quick Match games but hosting your own matches can eliminate that problem. Voice chat is activated by pulling either trigger, though you'll likely be concentrating too hard to bother chatting during a match. There are plenty of leaderboards to help you earn bragging rights too (or learn that you're not as good as you once thought you were).
There are also two new modes of play that were previously confined to a limited Japanese release of the game on Dreamcast. Y mode forgoes crash gems and challenges players to line up three or more gems of the same color in order to destroy them. This mode also features a power meter that fills as gems are destroyed. Once the meter is filled, players can activate a special gem that transforms all gems of whatever color it touches into gems of its own color. This makes for huge chain reactions when used correctly. Z mode has players rotating gems as they steadily rise from the bottom. As in the normal game, the object is to stack gems and break them with a crash gem. The extra modes are a nice addition, but we imagine most players will stick to the standard mode more often than not.
Graphically, the game looks nice, though not mind-blowing. The gems and explosions in particular are very detailed. We like that each gem color has a related elemental explosion and sound effect. For example, a blue gem will explode with water and a splashing sound. The character sprites are a little disappointing, especially in light of the work being done on Street Fighter II HD. It looks more or less like the sprites are simply anti-aliased versions of the originals, which leaves them a little blurry and not particularly well-defined. Still, they're certainly passable and the attack animations add charm to the game as they always have. The use of stereo is nice, as often times you'll be so busy looking at your own playing field that you don't know what your opponent is doing. Rest assured, when they attack you, you will hear it. It's terrifying, in a good way.
In the end, Puzzle Fighter is a damned addictive game and easily the best puzzle game on XBLA (and one of the best games overall for that matter). It appeals to casual players and hardcore gamers alike, it plays beautifully, and online play adds the "just one more game" factor that nearly kept us from working at all the day it came out. It's simple: if you like puzzle games, you need this game.