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PokerMania - The Atari Times

PokerMania


It's a Good Bet You'll Be Challenged By This Puzzler
by David Sherwin

March 22, 2005
Although you may never have heard of him, Markus Wuehl has been one of the most influential names in the Lynx development scene over the past decade. At the core of a group of devoted Lynx coders in Germany and France, Wuehl helped to develop many of the routines utilized in the Lynx's premier game, Duranik's Alpine Games (2004), and has coded a number of individual efforts himself, most notably with 1999's underrated Sokoban clone, Sokomania. With PokerMania ($39.95 USD), Wuehl has returned his sights to the Lynx's puzzle library with a new effort designed to challenge gamers everywhere. While too difficult to be recommended to general gamers, PokerMania offers enough in its nice white clamshell package to be a worthy consideration for purchase for the avid puzzle fanatic.

Gameplay

Despite its presentation and theme, PokerMania is related more to Tetris than it is to classic poker, and has been marketed as an arcade game instead of as a card-playing simulation. All things considered, this is a fair enough assessment of the game.

Like Shanghai, an older Lynx favourite, PokerMania utilizes the structure of a familiar game without relying on its rules. Here, PokerMania borrows the scoring rules of poker and adopts them to the familiar layout of Klondike Solitaire, but restricts play to a 5x5 matrix.

Gameplay is unusual and fairly complex. In PokerMania, players select a card from one of four decks of cards to place on the static 5x5 display. Cards may be "dropped" down one of the five vertical stacks in the matrix to assemble a "hand". Each "hand" is scored according to the rules of poker. No individual row of five cards is scored until each stack is filled, and, unlike Tetris, cards do not disappear once a scoring hand has been assembled. The game sets a goal of points which must be reached before the player advances to the next level. If a player does better than the set goal, the excess points are "banked" to be used as an aid at higher levels.

The primary problem with PokerMania lies in the fact that a card deck is not well-suited to Tetris-style matching-shape games; it just introduces too many variables for good gameplay. In Columns or Klax, variables are limited to about four different colours and/or four different shapes per screen. In PokerMania, however, gamers have to wrestle with four different suits and their twelve respective denominations, not all of which will make it into any given game. In addition, the scoring system here is more complex than in most similar games, which means that players often have to keep track of an enormous number of variables in order to complete a level. There's just too much going on the screen at one time to be confident that you're playing well.

I also found the rules to be rigid and unforgiving. Given the number of variables involved during gameplay, it's often difficult -- if not impossible -- to assemble a winning "hand", and most of my screens are littered with incomplete and low-scoring combinations. The matrix' limited size (25 cards) means that, no matter what strategy is utilized, it will be impossible to assemble some combinations, and players don't have the luxury of waiting for a certain card to appear. This particular problem could easily be corrected if a Joker or other wild-card was added to the game's variables.

In addition, players are stuck with a card that they've been given, and cannot "unselect" it, as they can in Shanghai or Ishido. This feature would have been welcomed here.

I would suggest that the game's difficulty ramping needs to be tweaked. A score of 6,000 is needed to clear the first screen -- a goal that is often frustratingly difficult to achieve -- but , conversely and perversely, the point "goal" drops considerably over the next few screens, because some of the previous score will have been "banked" and carried over to help with the next screen's goal. In other words, you have to play a pretty good game to clear the first screen, but can be fairly sloppy for the next five, before the game's difficulty ramping kicks in again.

Sound Effects and Music

PokerMania features ten different tunes which may be changed and selected during gameplay by pressing "OPT 1" and "PAUSE". This does, unfortunately, disable the restart function, so players unsatisfied with any given game must turn off their Lynx by pressing the "OFF" button.

I found all tunes to be pleasant, although there's nothing so memorable here as the tune offered in the Lynx Othello minigame in Lynx Reloaded. Players may also select to have no music at all played during gameplay, which is a nice feature who may require absolute silence for the high degree of concentration needed to complete each screen.

Graphics

PokerMania does not tax the Lynx's graphic capability, as befits a card/puzzle game. Still, the game's static screens are crisp and interesting and offer an abundance of information. I did, however, find the music selection screen, with its parti-striped background, somewhat hard to read.

Tips and Cheats

Use the mixed straight (e.g. a sequential run of cards in any suit combination) to score big.
I have found that the best way of advancing beyond the first stage is building a mixed straight on the bottom row, and then full houses/four-of-a-kinds vertically to the top. Cards to not appear frequently enough or in any predictable pattern to recommend utilization of high-scoring "hands", such as the Royal Flush.

Summary

PokerMania is a pleasant and unusual game that should find favour with the Lynx's legion of puzzle fans. I found it, despite noted bugs and problems, to be a good addition to the Lynx's growing gaming library, and think the basic core of the game is sound. It would, in particular, make a nice package if bundled with a classic game of solitaire or poker -- something that the Lynx is sorely missing (and needing). Perhaps something to consider for version 2.0, Mr. Wuehl?



Some people have real "Poker Mania."
Aces are still better than Kings, right?
Poker is a bit like gambling. Oh, wait. It is gambling. ;-)
PokerMania
System: Lynx
Publisher: Markus Wuehl/ Songbird
Genre: Puzzle
Graphics Score: 70%
Sound & Music Score: 75%
Gameplay Score: 70%
Control Score: 75%

Final Score: 70%



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