Nnooo's Pop is an unusual puzzle/shooter hybrid. It has a lot in common with matching-based puzzle games: activating multiple objects (in this case, bubbles, activated by tapping) of the same color as they fall builds a score multiplier, and gameplay-modifying items are found in some of the objects. However, unlike Columns or Bust-a-Move, there is little immediate penalty for missing. Bubbles don't build up and kill you when they fill up the screen -- they fly by at a constant rate regardless of your actions. You are required to pop consistently to fill a timer, but the lack of building stacks does change the character of the game a lot versus that kind of puzzle game.
Instead, Pop's tension is based more on recognizing the flying bubbles quickly, and popping as rapidly as you can with some semblance of strategy. There's no penalty for popping different colors, but popping the same color builds your score multiplier. Big bubbles add more time but less score, and small bubbles add more score but less time. Since all of these effects are still positive, the basic strategy of the game is to pop the hell out of anything that is a bubble. In this way, the game feels very much like a scrolling shooter.
You lose time for touching a non-bubble area of the screen, which forces you to choose a bit more carefully -- this then makes you pay at least a little attention to the screen, and thus motivates you to start working on combos. And that interaction -- discerning between bubbles, but still popping as quickly as possible -- is what makes Pop interesting. The first couple of games consist of players killing the timer by missing almost instantly. Then Pop clicks (pops?) and you start rapid-fire popping, adjusting how carefully you look for combo opportunities, and seeking out items (score multipliers, bombs, slow-down items, but not the skull that stops your combo), and you start flying through the game's waves.
The waves each have a different color scheme, and alter the speed and direction of bubble movement, as well as bubble size. Between every few waves is a bonus stage -- like Galaga's "Challenging Stages" but with way more things to shoot and no expectation that you'll shoot them all.
Multiplayer falls somewhere between cooperative play and competition. Exclusive multiplayer items include a flashlight that restricts the view to an area around one player's cursor, and a lightning bolt that temporarily prevents the opposing players from popping bubbles. However, despite trying to outscore your opponent, causing them to fail is not advantageous to you, because you share a timer. It's an uneasy alliance!
Pop features online leaderboards for single- and multiplayer modes, but these leaderboards can only be viewed after you finish a game, or in tiny form on the title screen. In addition, players earn "badges" (like achievements) whose requirements flash on the screen when it is awarded. These can only be seen in a little window when you're choosing your player profile, and you can never read what they mean again after receiving them. You just end up with a collection of meaningless icons.
Pop contains one very important feature that will make many gamers' lives easier. When creating your profile, the game will display the four different-colored bubbles and ask if you can tell the difference. If you say "no," the bubbles will be different shapes as well! Color-blind gamers: welcome to puzzle games. We missed you.
I thought, at first, that Pop was an irritatingly random twitchfest, the "watch your timer count down very quickly" game, and then within about five minutes I just got it. I began clearing multiple waves and I just fell into it. Initially, I scoffed at the idea that something so frantic could be designed to put you in a trance. But that frantic quality is exactly what makes Pop so entrancing. Unlike other puzzle games, you have to let bubbles pass. You focus your attention on what you can, and let the sea of bubbles wash over you while delightful ambient music plays and your bubbles pop in changing rhythm.
It isn't perfect, of course. The game still has a heavy element of overwhelming randomness. And there's a waggle-based bubble-inflation maneuver that doesn't seem to be useful, ever. But none of this matters over the course of five or ten minutes, which is the sweet spot for this game. After that long, you definitely feel like you've had a full gaming session. And you may not even realize you liked it until it's almost over.
My opinion is fascinating and all, but Pop wasn't exactly designed for me. I wondered what a more casual gamer would think about Nnooo's puzzle-shooter. So I asked one.
My wife, Mary, is a longtime gamer who enjoys "Wii Sports, puzzle games, and platformers like Super Mario Bros.", but only plays games "less than once a week -- maybe a handful of times a month." Furthermore, she's likely driven away from games by living with an insufferable game nerd (not her words). I sat her down with Pop (it wasn't hard -- "Want to play this WiiWare game?"), and after some single-player and a multiplayer session or two, I asked her impressions. She obviously isn't the voice of all casual gamers, but I figured that she could at least have a more casual perspective than me.
NWF: What do you think of Pop? MF: I think it's fun to play for about ten minutes. It's pretty repetitive, but it's fun to pop the bubbles.
Was it easy to figure out? Yes, it's very easy to learn. There's a short training game, and then hints come up. How well do you think you were doing? I thought I was doing slightly below average. I wasn't very good at chaining them, and I missed a lot. You stopped because your hand was getting tired. Were you also getting bored? Yes. I don't think I'm interested in trying to get a higher score. It's boring to play for long stretches of time.
I like getting the badges. If only they'd tell you what they were and you could look at them.
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It is worth noting that her "slightly below average" was #37 worldwide, which grew the next time to #20. And that she started a new game immediately after we finished our discussion of her last session. She declined to provide a review score, but she enjoyed Pop at least that much.
As for me, I was pretty sure that I was going to give Pop a solid 6/10, but the uncomplicated, addictive quality of Pop and the ease of playing downloadable games makes it a 7.5/10, easily. It's just so appealing to jump in and lose yourself for a few intense minutes. Just don't expect to play it for hours or days on end.