Kwirk – Game Boy – 1989
Kwirk is an early puzzle game for the original Game Boy, developed by Atlus and published by Acclaim in North America. You control the titular character, a tomato, as he ascends or descends a mysterious puzzle tower. On each floor of the tower, Kwirk must move a variety of blocks to reach the staircase which takes him further along in his journey. Some of these blocks move freely when pushed; others are fixed to an axle like a turnstyle. Blocks can also be pushed into holes in the ground, allowing Kwirk to walk across.
In Going Up mode, Kwirk climbs the puzzle tower, and you have as much time as you need to solve each of the 30 floors (ten for each of the three difficulty levels). The first ten floors of the tower, representing the Easy difficulty, are a nice introduction to the game. Floors one through six are very simple, and basically introduce you to the gameplay concepts, while the next four floors require a little more thought. The difficulty spike between the top floor of the Easy level and the bottom floor of the Medium level, however, could not be more drastic. After at least 45 minutes pushing blocks around on floor one, I finally looked up the solution. It was at about that moment that I realized this game is not for me. The solution, at least compared to the one preceding it, is surprisingly complicated. Even as I was performing it, the moves I was making made very little sense to me. The following floors, as I had worried, were more of the same.
My experience with Kwirk reminds me of a kids’ puzzle game called Rush Hour. A sliding puzzle like Kwirk, the object of the game is to move cars along a grid to get your own car, an ice cream truck, out of traffic. In my youth, I was intrigued by Rush Hour, and I wanted to love it, but the truth is I was terrible at it. I’m not this bad at all puzzles – I quite like number puzzles and deduction puzzles – but these mechanical-sliding puzzles absolutely baffle me. I have never solved a Rubix Cube or even a “15 Puzzle”, and I’ve owned both since childhood. Despite being awful at Rush Hour, I still devoted plenty of time to it. The puzzles whose solutions I couldn’t visualise, that seemed just beyond my reach, could usually be solved by brute force if I could get myself 60% of the way. From there, I would try to solve it again until I could deduce exactly what I did, and to finally figure it out was rewarding. This sweet spot, where puzzles are difficult to solve and take some theorycrafting and guesswork, but ultimately can be conquered through perseverance, can make or break a puzzle game. This was, in my experience, Kwirk’s greatest misstep. There is no attacking these puzzles with brute force; you really need to be able to visualize exactly what you’re doing. Ultimately, I only got to experience one third of Going Up mode, but thankfully, the game doesn’t actually lock you out of any floors, so I was able to see them all for myself, although I didn’t even bother to attempt the Hard ones.
Heading Out is the game’s time attack mode, and it’s surprisingly fleshed out, having completely distinct puzzles from Going Up mode, these ones being smaller. You can set the number of floors (up to 99!) and Kwirk will have to conquer a random assortment of puzzles (according to your difficulty level) until he’s reached the ground floor. As someone who was only able to experience a fraction of the game’s main attraction, I was relieved to learn there’s a decent number of potential floors for each difficulty level (99 total), giving this mode some legitimate replay value. Even though I rarely venture into Medium difficulty, there is enough here to get me to play this mode again.
Putting aside the puzzles themselves, Kwirk is a decent package for a 1989 Game Boy game. The simple controls feel good (for what it’s worth) and the graphics, although unambitious, are easily interpreted, even on an old brick Game Boy. The game features two “camera angles”, top-down and diagonal. The shadows on the diagonal angle can be confusing on floors with holes in the ground, so sticking to the top-down “bird’s eye” camera is preferable. The music, I will admit, is quite grating, and there isn’t very much of it. With Kwirk having been released very early in the Game Boy’s lifespan in Japan, and the standards for sound design on handheld games being quite low at the time, I am willing to forgive this to some degree. It’s not awful, but I usually finished my sessions of this game with the volume off.
For fans of puzzle games, and sliding puzzles in particular, there is a lot to like here. The puzzles, although too difficult for me, aren’t unfun. With twists like Kwirk’s vegetable friends joining the fun, the game introduces enough in the way of variety to keep things fresh. For those to whom these kinds of puzzles don’t come naturally, this might be one to pass over. The difficulty curve is sharp enough that only four floors felt like a fun challenge to me, and that isn’t a great balance. However, I can appreciate that not every game is made for every gamer (and doesn’t need to be!). If you like these kinds of puzzles, and you’re looking for a challenge, Kwirk is made for you.
Ultimately, the concepts behind Kwirk would be expanded and improved upon by the Game Boy’s massive puzzle library (including Kwirk’s two sequels, Spud’s Adventure and Amazing Tater), but it deserves credit for what it accomplished as one of the Game Boy’s earliest third-party titles.
-Sam Keogh is just a guy from Connecticut who loves retro games. You might be able to find his work at LongBallEra.com