The most obvious difference between Poker Smash and the other puzzlers available on XBLA is the poker theme. Rather than simply matching up similarly colored blocks (or gems, or spheres, etc), Poker Smash has players attempting to create poker hands. The smallest hand you can create is three-of-a-kind. As it happens, each type of card is color coded -- 10s are yellow, queens are purple, etc. -- so you can actually play Poker Smash like you would any other puzzle game, matching three cards of the same color together over and over. Doing this, however, will rob you of points and will honestly make the game more difficult. The real points and challenge of Poker Smash comes from creating four and five card hands. Finding that full house, straight, or flush just before you're about to lose is quite a thrill, which serves as proof that Poker Smash possesses the necessary tension of a good puzzle game.
In addition to the card mechanic, Poker Smash also tosses several other puzzle game mechanics on their collective ears. Rather than falling from the top, players manipulate the cards as they rise from the bottom of the screen. If they reach the top, it's game over. Players can select any card on the grid and then move it left or right, but not up or down. With quick handling, it's possible to have cards jump over gaps, and we even managed to catch a card as it fell and then moved it again before it fell. Hands can be made horizontally, vertically, or both ways at once with clever planning. As in other puzzle games, it's also possible to create chains by stacking cards so they fall into place when other hands are destroyed. Perhaps the most interesting twist to all of this is that cards are manipulated using the right stick, which gives the game a very different and very intuitive feeling.
There are a few (ahem) wild cards that can give players an advantage when they're in a tight spot. The first are bombs. Bombs are placed with the A button and destroy any card upon which they are placed. So, if that ace you need to complete a straight is one row too high, all you have to do is destroy the card beneath it. There is a limited supply of bombs, but it is replenished as cards are destroyed. The second trick to help out struggling players is to slow down time by pulling the right trigger. Slowing down play allows for some breathing room when looking for great hands or some spare time when trying to keep the game from ending. The amount of slow motion available is indicated by a gauge that slowly refills when not in use. Finally, players can also cause the cards to rise faster by holding the left trigger. This comes in handy if there are no obvious hands to play on the board.
In our time with the game, we were constantly restarting the timed trial version in order to outperform our last session. The added strategy of the poker mechanic forces players to think about puzzle games in a different way. As collecting three-of-a-kind hands will only get players so far, the game really forces you to look for the five card hands in order to succeed. In closing, Poker Smash is addicting, different and, most importantly, fun. If you like puzzle games (or poker), we suggest you check it out.