Jeremy Heckt's Blog

Tile-Matching Games, A Super Brief History

This had originally appeared on another site that I was writing game-specific topics for, but I decided that I was going to fold it into this blog as i never write anything because I have so many set up.

I had originally wrote a blog post about a couple of "puzzle block" games, but I had originally just left it as a very short review and comparison of a handful of games. I felt that the level of detail was beneath what I wanted to present, so I decided to dive deeper into the topic.

I will also be changing what I call them to "tile-matching" games, as this appears to be the proper term. Tile-matching games have been played by humans for many years, even before the advent of the video-game. There were such reminiscent games such as Solitaire and Mahjong Solitaire. We will be focused on video-games only.

Earliest Days

Puzzle games started coming to prominence around the mid-to-late 1980s. The biggest name of the era, and arguably still the biggest name, is Tetris. I will not spend time on Tetris as it is one of the best selling games of all time so I will assume the reader knows what that is.

The same year we got Tetris, 1985, we got Chain Shot! (which is also known as Same Game). In Same Game the goal is to select groups of tiles that have two or more matching tiles touching to cause the group to be removed.

A screenshot of Same Game for the Game Boy. I chose the Bomberman themed pieces.

Once you select a group of tiles and they disappear the remaining tiles fall down to fill in the gaps left. The goal of Same Game is to remove as many tiles from the screen as you can before there are no more valid selections for you to make, after which you either fail the level due to lack of score or you continue on to the next.

Tile-matching games were not confined to the portable console during this time. In 1989 Japan got an arcade game named Puzznic from the video game powerhouse Taito.1

The 1990s was when tile-matching games really started to take their true form.

Match Three

SEGA released Columns in 1990. It was originally targeted at the arcade but it was ported over to the SEGA Mega Drive and was a pack-in title for the SEGA Game Gear, possibly seeking to have a similar effect to Tetris being a pack-in with the original Game Boy.

In Columns the player controls a set of three tiles that are stuck together as they fall towards the bottom of the screen. The player can move the column about or change the order of the tiles in the column while it is falling. Once the column lands, if three or more matching tiles are touching in the play area then they are removed and the player scores points.

Readers may notice that I excluded mentioning Puzznic (1989) here, even though it did come first. Puzznic was more-so a set of pre-defined puzzles where you moved blocks around to "match three" and clear out those colors of blocks. However, the pre-defined puzzles and layouts are what make a large enough mechanical difference here to only mention the game in passing when making comparisons between other "match three" games.

In 1994 along came another game out of Russia titled Shariki that was developed by Eugene "Zhenya" Alemzhin. Shariki is Russian for "The Marbles".

The way you play Shariki is that you click two neighboring colored balls to have them swap places, and if your newly placed balls create a group of three or more identical colors the matching balls will disappear and the remain balls in the puzzle shift around.

The DOS game Shariki. This GIF demonstrates the fun color swap animation.

The gameplay, while rather simplistic, proved to be both fun and influential. Players loved the game, and developers sought to emulate it. Shariki is one of the primordial modern match-three tile-matching games2, having been credited with being the inspiration or mechanical basis for giants such as Bejeweled, Jewel Quest, and Candy Crush Saga.

In Shariki the player can take their time, analyze the board and make their move at their leisure. A relaxing atmosphere. But what if a player was seeking a different kind of challenge? This mechanic was fine, but what if a few things were changed?

Puzzle League, also known as either Panel De Pon or Tetris Attack, was released in 1995. In this series the blocks appear as a line at the bottom of the screen while the player using their cursor to swap two blocks that already exist in order to try to make a group of three similar tiles, up/down or left/right.

A screenshot from from Pokemon Puzzle Challenge, a game in the Puzzle League franchise

There is a timer on screen that displays the remaining time to finish the level. As the timer gets closer to zero the blocks move a little bit faster, putting a little pressure on the player. As well, large blocks will appear to block parts of the screen that must be cleared by removing all blocks immediately below them or in the same line.

Puzzle League and Shariki provide contrasting play-styles. One allows puzzles that can be examined and solved, while the other provides a challenge based on quick thinking while "on your feet". Another form of match-three games combines the two, which adding another layer of player agency.

Puzzle Bobble was released in 1994 for the SNES/3DO/GameGear, being another entry in the Bubble Bobble series3. Puzzle Bobble is a tile-matching game with some fresh twists: the player has to "shoot" a tile at a pre-defined layout of other tiles while racing against a clock and constricting play space.

A screenshot of Puzzle Bobble for the SNES, showcasing some of the fire/bomb tiles

As play progresses the ceiling moves closer to the player, bringing the remaining tiles with it. Tiles with additional abilities are also present, such as the fire/bomb tiles which "explode" and take out a few other tiles as collateral.

Puzzle Bobble went on to inspire some games that gained quite a lot of traction, such as PuzzLoop (1998), Zuma (2003), and Luxor (2005)

  1. Taito has made a lot of games, starting in the 1960's: 

  2. For more older or "obscure" games inspired by Shariki you can view this Russian museum website. However, I was missing the font and the site was mainly just useful for images: 

  3. Bubble Bobble 1/2 are originally platforming games. The characters carry over to the Puzzle line, though.