• Try as I might, I can never win at poker. Perhaps it’s the lack of a convincing poker face or a monumental lack of knowledge about the various rules and hands, but if it’s a straight choice between playing a hand or shoving a game into a console and playing that instead, I’d go for the console.

    Thankfully Poker Smash on XBLA doesn’t need much of an in-depth knowledge of poker. Instead, poker thrills are served up in puzzle-game fashion.

    The basic gameplay involves matching cards, suits and hands in order to clear cards from an ever-growing stack. If the stack reaches the top of the screen it’s game over, so you need to work fast in order to match and clear to stay in the game. Sounds simple enough doesn’t it, but as any Tetris fan will tell you, sometimes the simplest games have razor sharp sabre-toothed fangs of addiction which they’ll sink into you and grip you until you look at the clock, realise it’s 2 AM and wonder where the last hours have gone, particularly if you’re aiming to beat an online score or top your best points total.

    Poker Smash does at least attempt to put a relatively original spin on the classic “match three things to clear a grid” type of puzzle game which we’ve seen on just about every platform seemingly from the year dot. The affiliation with poker may be quite loose but it does add an interesting angle to a tried and tested formula.

    Poker Smash

    Poker Smash is rather nattily presented, with pleasingly functional and colourful graphics, neat backdrops and lots of loud smashy-type sounds whenever you clear a set of cards, and some cheesy music thrown in (though of course the best thing you can do there is shove your own soundtrack on and play that in the background instead).

    The game’s core mode is a straight up single player challenge to accrue the most points possible before your stack gets too high and the game ends. In addition there is a puzzle mode which involves clearing all of a preset arrangement of cards in just a few moves (with some 55 puzzles to clear) and a timed challenge which basically allows to you try and score as many points as possible in a given time.

    Movement of cards can only happen horizontally, so you highlight a card with the left stick, then move it across to a new position with the right stick. Form a line of three similar coloured cards or more, or a poker hand and the cards will disappear from the grid, and all the remaining cards will fall down to take up new positions.

    Challenges are issued from time to time, and matching the challenge hand quickly before the timer runs out will net you a stack of points. Similarly, combo drops will also increase your points multiplier. I thought I was being clever managing to chain three combos together till I took a look at the online LIVE scoreboards and noticed that people were getting 70-80 combos per chain. Eek!

    Poker Smash can be played against a friend in split-screen locally, or you can enter an online tournament or ranked match against four other live players. This mode is satisfyingly frantic as every time you clear some cards, more are added to each of your opponents in turn. Gameplay changes from all out clearance to beastly strategy as you try to force the other players out of the game by swamping them with cards.

    I should issue a word of warning. If your other half is anything like mine, this type of game is like catnip to ‘em so if you don’t want to lose your 360 for hours at a time, best to keep this one quiet.

    Score: 7/10

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