Black-and-white visuals and listless porting work severely undermine this port of a color-based NES puzzler.
You may be familiar with Palamedes from its NES version, which saw a release in the U.S. Palamedes for Game Boy did not, instead following in the footsteps of several other titles (including Boulder Dash, SunSoft Grand Prix, and Pop ’N TwinBee) to have skipped the U.S. in favor of Japanese and European exclusivity. It’s not really that big a loss, though.
Palamedes is basically a half-baked attempt to come up with the idea for Magical Drop before there was actually a Magical Drop. Points for beating a classic to the punch, but there’s a reason Magical Drop is a cult classic and Palamedes isn’t. There’s not really much meat to the game… and Game Boy’s lack of color support hurts it more than in any other game that comes to mind at the moment.
Consider Pop’N TwinBee, a game whose console and arcade versions featured color as a key play mechanic. By all rights, it should have suffered to the point of unplayability in Game Boy’s monochromatic ecosystem. Yet it turned disaster into no big deal, thanks to some deft use of shading and contrast. Palamedes, on the other hand, perfectly embodies the hazards of bringing a color-centric game concept to Game Boy. This version is vastly more difficult than its console counterparts, and those were pretty tough to begin with. It’s no fun to play, and that all comes down to the lack of on-screen color.
In Palamedes, you control a little person running back and forth, tossing blocks toward the top of the screen as rows of blocks descend toward the bottom. Again, it will likely remind contemporary players of Magical Drop, a series that Data East debuted five years after Palamedes hit the scene. First isn’t always best, though. Unlike Magical Drop, the play mechanics here are extremely simplistic to the point of brain-death: One button tosses blocks, the other cycles through the pieces you’re carrying, and the D-pad creates combos.
The “blocks” in Palamedes are actually dice. You can make a die on the descending stack of blocks vanish by hitting it with another die of the same value. You don’t have the ability as in Magical Drop to pull blocks out of the stack. You can create simple “combos” by firing back the pieces you’ve cleared to make matches, but that’s the extent of depth here.
When you strike a like die, only the die you hit disappears. You can’t clear out multiple interconnected dice at once or cause the stack to collapse upward by removing dice behind the frontmost row, so the play here boils down entirely to clearing out one block at a time by rapidly cycling to bring up the appropriate die value, then throwing back a pile of pieces to give yourself some breathing room.
In other incarnations of Palamedes, each die has its own color assignments: Blue for one, green for two, pink for three, purple for four, yellow for five, and brown for six. On Game Boy, however, the dice are all grey. Now, that might not be an impossible setup for a puzzle game, even one based around color. Tetris made it work. Dr. Mario made it work. Flipull made it work. Palamedes, alas… does not make it work.
The problem is in the nature and design of the pieces. Every block in Palamedes is simply a square: One face of a die. There are six possible faces, but on Game Boy those faces only come in two tones. With the odd numbers, which are all the same shade of light grey, that works reasonably well—one, three, and five are visually distinct from one another, so they read quickly. However, the dark-tone even numbers (especially four and six), look much less distinct from one another. As a result, they can easily trip you up unless you pay careful attention. You have to read the number of dots per side rather than knowing at a glance which dice you’re dealing with.
It’s a small thing, but in a game this fast-paced and difficult, you really need every design detail working in your favor. Trying to parse the number of dots on a sea of mostly identical-looking squares on a two-inch screen feels like a chore, not the key to a joyful puzzle addiction.
It doesn’t help that, as a game, Palamedes isn’t all that interesting. It offers solo play or head-to-head play, but again, there’s not a lot of depth to the mechanics. The block-tossing isn’t even as involving as what we saw in Flipull, which feels like the baseline for tolerable simplicity in a Game Boy puzzler.
There’s also one other gameplay option in the form of a tournament mode. This allows you to compete against the computer in a CPU-driven version of the two-player mode. As often is the case in faux-competitive Game Boy games, the CPU has no issues with identifying patterns on the dice. Even the very first computer opponent is absolutely savage; she’s able to cycle through her dice sets more fluidly than the controls will allow the player to. Your only hope of survival is to make use of the combo system, which allows you to clear away multiple lines based on how many matching dice you’ve collected. But there’s just no getting around the profound disadvantage posed by the “color” design of this game. Playing Palamedes mostly just makes you want to boot up Magical Drop 3 and enjoy a much more competent take on the same premise.
It appears that this port of Palamedes was the first project co-developed by a studio called Natsu System. They were a short-lived developer that eventually shifted over to ero games, as so often happened with failed developers of the ’90s. Publisher Hot-B, on the other hand, was a bit of an 8- and 16-bit mainstay thanks primarily to their Black Bass/Blue Marlin fishing sims. This was their first Game Boy release, though, and apparently one of only three they would ever produce.
Ironically, the lack of Hot-B fishing games on Game Boy left the door wide open for Natsume—no known relation to Natsu System—to explode into stardom with the Legend of the River King series several years later. Palamedes is hardly the most impressive way to kick off a Game Boy career. Hot-B probably would have done a lot better to have stuck with their strengths rather than offering up this me-too puzzler. A portable fishing game might have gone over well with the Game Boy’s adult audience, and it would have had the field to itself. On a system crammed full of puzzlers, though, you gotta bring your A game in order to stand out. Palamedes barely rates a C.