Microsoft Entertainment Pack: The Puzzle Collection
Microsoft has a long tradition of Entertainment Packs for Windows, beginning in 1990. Since that time, there have been four Entertainment Packs and one "best-of" Entertainment Pack. All were mildly successful in the marketplace, but more were more frequently bundled for free with new computers. These earlier efforts gradually moved from 16 colors to 256 colors and gradually introduced sound effects into the games, but they were in general relatively Spartan compared to similar games released by other companies. The Puzzle Collection is the first set released specifically for Windows 95, and the first to focus exclusively on puzzles. The games in this collection are slightly more elaborate than their predecessors, but they appear to continue the Microsoft tradition here that less is better. Compared to recent Windows 95 retail puzzle game releases by other companies -- such as SegaSoft's Lose Your Marbles and Actual Entertainment's Gubble -- The Puzzle Collection contains a lot less depth, intrigue, addictive quality and replay value.
Ironically, the first Microsoft Entertainment Pack contained a version of Tetris by Alexey Pajitnov, and The Puzzle Collection contains several games designed by him. After several unsuccessful post-Tetris releases with Spectrum Holobyte -- including BreakThru and ClockWerx -- Pajitnov is apparently hoping for more success with Microsoft. The ten puzzle games included in this collection are "Charmer," where you save dancing snakes; "Color Collision," where you dodge obstacles in pursuit of color targets; "Finty Flush," where you work against the clock to fill the grids with the right combination of marbles; "Fringer," where you try to untangle knots in strings of beads under time pressure; "Jewel Chase," where you try to outrace a computer opponent to collect gems and get to the next level; "Lineup," where you try to connect opposite sides of the playing field with vertical or horizontal arrays of balls; "Mixed Genetics," where you try to restore mutated hybrid creatures to their original selves; "Muddled Casino," where you try to remove cards from the table in a particular order and win the jackpot, "Rat Poker," where you trap rats and try to combine them into winning poker hands; and "Spring Weekend," where you rotate garden patterns to try to create a match. In the end, which games emerge as your favorites is somewhat a matter of personal taste; I liked "Color Collision" (which is not really a puzzle game), "Jewel Chase" (which has a cute animated introduction), and "Lineup" (which involves awesome amounts of planning ahead). All three games managed to combine frenzied fun with intense logic.
The game controls are quite intuitive, although it is amazing how many need to be played with the keyboard and not the mouse, and joystick/game pad support is noticeably absent. Also missing from the games is a multiplayer option. Microsoft is to be commended in making sure that the drop-down menus and options in each of the ten games are quite similar, making it very easy to get accustomed to the interface. Each game keeps high scores and lets you select music and sound options, difficulty level, player name and beginning level. But while any of these puzzle games would serve nicely as a fine short break from serious work on the computer, none seems to capture you to the extent you would want to sit down to a multi-hour session with it to attempt to make your way through all the levels. While all the games are indeed original, none is the sort where one says "Wow, I have never seen anything like that before and I can't wait to master it!"
The graphics in these ten puzzle challenges are diverse and uniformly high-quality. They are colorful, and in many cases they are quite fun to look at. However, none is outstanding either in terms of innovation or artistic merit. A rather minimalist "cookie-cutter" approach to the graphics seems to predominate. The great graphics in most of the shareware/freeware puzzle gems I reviewed earlier for GameFabrique make this product pale by comparison.
As with the graphics, the audio is pleasant but neither memorable nor riveting. The music in the background is never grating and always easy to listen to, but it never adds much to the atmosphere of the game (to be fair, of course, this is typical of puzzle games). The sound effects are standard and do not distinguish themselves in any way.
The hard-copy documentation for this game is nonexistent, a rarity among today's games. While the online documentation is quite helpful -- with both "quick help" and the usual more extensive help -- I found many times where I wished I had a printed reference so that I would not have to interrupt gameplay when I needed some assistance during a game.
The minimum system requirements for this game are a 486/66 CPU, 8 MB RAM, a CD-ROM drive, a Super VGA video card and monitor supporting 256 colors, a mouse, a Windows-compatible sound card and speakers or headphones, 30 MB hard disk space for the full install, and the Windows 95 or NT 4.0 operating system. These requirements are extremely modest, as with most puzzle games, and the CD-ROM drive is needed only to install the game, not to run it.
Microsoft seems to have a consistent tradition of releasing games (largely designed by outside development companies) that are quite polished and promising, but somehow do not quite fulfill the highest expectations or compete with the very best stuff out there. Indeed, gaming is the only one of its product lines where it neither has nor is approaching a dominant position in the marketplace. While The Puzzle Collection is a pleasant diversion -- one that will really appeal to puzzle fans -- it is by no means a must-buy for most gamers.