When you think of Atlus, you obviously think of the Shin Megami Tensei games, or maybe just Persona, or — if you are a righteous and god-fearing human — Etrian Odyssey. But like so many developers, Atlus took a while to find its groove; the studio didn’t simply spring into existence as a world-class RPG-producing powerhouse. Although the MegaTen series actually dates all the way back to 1987, it didn’t become Atlus’ primary money-maker until the PlayStation 2 era, almost two decades later. Up until that point, the company made do however it could.
In the 8-bit era, that often involved working on some rather unglamorous contract projects. Heck, even Megami Tensei originally came into the world under the auspices of Namco. Perhaps the most infamous NES creations by Atlus came in the form of some licensed projects for LJN, those world-class purveyors of schlocky and poorly made games based on flash-in-the-pan toy and cartoon licenses. While that might sound ominous for Atlus’ legacy, in fact their projects for LJN were quite possibly the best things that particular publisher ever churned out for NES: Jaws and Friday the 13th.
More importantly, those work-for-hire productions gave Atlus the latitude to build its own original creations. Without Friday the 13th, we might never have gotten games like Kwirk. And that would be a darned shame.
Kwirk was a completely original production for Game Boy — kind of a nutty risk, when you think about it. Atlus surely had limited bandwidth in 1989, and they committed a big chunk of it to releasing a new property for a brand-new system. Even with Nintendo’s clout and mindshare circa 1989, there was no guarantee Kwirk would become a hit. And indeed, the game seems to have been largely forgotten; in fact, the entire series (called Puzzle Boy in Japan) is probably most notorious for the second entry in the series, 1991’s Puzzle Boy II, aka Amazing Tater — one of the rarest and most expensive U.S. releases for Game Boy. Otherwise, Kwirk retains a bit of notoriety for having been part of Acclaim’s sad excuse for a Captain N ripoff, The Power Team.
About which the less said the better. [Image source]
But this isn’t fair. Kwirk deserves more than simply to be remembered for having a woefully underproduced sequel and being part of one of the most ill-conceived commercials-as-cartoons of the shameless ’80s. Weird as the character may have been, the game in which he starred was nothing short of excellent. I would go so far as to call it the single best game for the platform released to date (November 1989) — or at the very least, right on par with Revenge of the Gator.
Much like Revenge of the Gator, Kwirk excels through its specificity. This is not a broad or ambitious game, but rather one that focuses in on a single concept and explores it to brilliant effect. At heart, it owes a great deal to Boxxle; it plays like a beefed-up Soukoban. Where Boxxle felt sluggish and limited, being based so faithfully on a PC game from the early ’80s, Kwirk incorporates both a snappy pace and much more complex and varied mechanics.
Where Boxxle had you pushing 1×1 boxes, Kwirk takes the concept of shoving things to a new level. You’re still limited to pushing objects rather than pulling, but these can take much more complex and elaborate forms — they can be larger, wider, longer, asymmetrical, whatever. You can shove them into holes in the floor to create ersatz walkways. Some boxes are bolted to the ground on a pivot point, effectively becoming turnstiles that rotate 90 degrees at a time and create dynamic obstructions even as they allow you to pass through.
And to get really tricky, many stages feature Kwirk’s vegetable pals, requiring you to swap between multiple characters to solve puzzles. Your goal in Kwirk is always to reach an exit rather than simply to move boxes to predetermined locations, and when you play with multiple characters every participant in the puzzle has to reach the end — not just Kwirk himself. Needless to say, these puzzles grow remarkably complex and elaborate quite quickly. Unlike many previous Game Boy puzzlers, though, Kwirk never feels like it’s working against you. The difficulty comes in the intricacy of the puzzles themselves, not because you move so glacially (Boxxle) or have to deal with more information than you can see at once (Hyper Lode Runner). Kwirk feels responsive, and when you screw up you can simply reset the puzzle with no penalties.
Kwirk features a wealth of options, too. In addition to the dozens of standard levels, it also includes almost 100 stages in a secondary mode that challenges you to complex multiple consecutive puzzles as quickly as possible. This second mode allows for a head-to-head competitive mode to see who can make the best time working their way through the various labyrinths. Puzzle games by nature have a finite shelf life, but the addition of so many extras as well as a competitive mechanics adds tremendous legs to this little adventure.
The loving care invested in this game manifests in its attention to graphical detail, too. Sure, it features tiny sprites and geometric graphics, but you have a choice of presentation options. You can play in a straightforward top-down viewpoint that allows you a clean, uncluttered, overhead perspective on the action, or you can give it a Zelda-like false perspective that adds some depth and dimension to everything without interfering with the gameplay.
All in all, Kwirk is a real standout in the early days of the Game Boy. Yet despite its pioneering status, it’s largely been forgotten in the mists of time. Perhaps more than any other Game Boy title we’ve looked at to date, Kwirk deserves more attention and love. It’s solidly made and wonderfully entertaining. And it even kind of ties back into Atlus’ contract work for LJN, since U.S. publisher Acclaim absorbed LJN shortly after. See, it’s all connected.
Japanese title: Puzzle Boy • パズルボーイ
Publisher: Atlus [JP] | Acclaim [US]
Release date: 9.24.1989 [JP] | 3.1990 [US]
Genre: Puzzle (Soukoban variant)
Super Game Boy: No enhancements
Previous in series: None
Next in series: Amazing Tater/Puzzle Boy II [Game Boy, 8.2.1991]
Similar titles: Boxxle [FCI, 1989], Nontan no Issho: Kuru Kuru Puzzle [Victor, 1994]