Before Pokemon, before Pulseman, Game Freak made its name with Mendel Palace. It wasn’t a big or ambitious game, but that’s precisely what makes it so interesting. The game thrives on its environments, creating tight spaces to maintain equally tight control over its own circumstances. On the whole, it results in the fun kind of game you’d expect from an early Game Freak, even if it walks a fine line between being involved and being stressful.
From a mechanical standpoint, Mendel Palace is very sparse. The game places you in a small arena, then tasks you with flipping floor tiles to knock people back and eliminate them from play. And when I say the arenas are small, I mean it. Each one only ever takes up about 60% of the screen. People come at you from all sides, and so much as touching one of them results in instant death. But with flipping tiles being your only defense, you’re always forced to get up close and personal with them.
As claustrophobic as the game sounds in theory, it more often hits a perfect balance in practice. A lot of that has to do with how the game represents its sparse mechanics. You only ever have the one action available to you, and it’s immediate and effective. So the mechanics put a hard cap on how stressful the levels can be. They feel less like you’re trapped, and more like you’re playing with a fun toy, something the game’s visuals work incredibly hard to reinforce. I didn’t mention it before, but there are several different tile types in Mendel Palace. Some form walls, some spawn more enemies, some acts as flippers to send you flying across the screen, etc. The only way to discover these tiles is to flip more tiles, making each flip a game of its own. It certainly goes hand in hand with the physical weight of flipping a tile, and the fun visual designs embedded in a lot of the levels. (Think Bubble Bobble, albeit not nearly as pronounced.) No wonder, then, that the game is an exact fit for the time it was made in.
Although if space is the game’s greatest virtue, then it’s also its greatest folly. I already hinted at that a little bit with the tile layering (and how it’s possible to uncover a tile that spawns new enemies), but it really comes into play in the game’s later levels, when the arena crowds with enemies. The same small space that gives the game such magnificent control also makes the levels feel incredibly busy. Where other games might use that as a source of challenge, Mendel Palace lacks the amount of control you’d normally associate with that kind of challenge. Flipping enemies takes a certain amount of space and time that crowding doesn’t allow. When you’re overwhelmed with enemies, you’re left with only one option: let them frantically chase you around the arena until your inevitable death. This skates the line between stress and frustration, to say the least.
I honestly don’t want to look at the game in such bleak terms, because I don’t want to negate the fun I had with it. I can’t deny how enjoyable it is to push people into walls, uncover trinkets in each stage, and steal stars from the night sky. Then again, I also can’t forget all those times I found myself with too many people surrounding me and no way to get out. This is definitely a good game, but lacking an amount of polish clearly needs.