Despite being one of the premier match-3 puzzlers in Japan where it is known by the more condensed name Pazudora, Puzzle & Dragons is a relative sleeper hit in the States. The operative word is "relative," though, as over 30 million people have downloaded GungHo's game in Japan compared to the only over 1 million people in America according to stats from Google Play. Where the traditional Puzzle & Dragons is free-to-play on mobile with microtransactions, this Nintendo 3DS adaptation, Puzzle & Dragons Z + Puzzle & Dragons Super Mario Bros. Edition is a fixed $30 bundle of two fully-fledged titles. Some irritating remnants of the mobile design persist, but this 3DS package will satisfy anyone who wants a puzzler that harkens back to the likes of Puzzle Quest and Bejeweled.
For the uninitiated, Puzzle & Dragons introduces monsters not far away from Pokémon or DIgimon and features a more freeform version of the standard match-3 gameplay. Any colored orbs you match in a turn becomes damage that hits enemies on screen, and any hearts you match becomes health recovery. How much damage your team inflicts mainly depends on your team's attack rating and which elemental orbs you clear, so which team members you include matters. Match fire orbs together without a fire monster, and you'll deal no damage. Of course, that's just the basics.
Instead of moving one orb at a time per turn, PAD takes a blistering approach where you select a single orb and then move it around the board for three seconds. Within that short amount of time, you can match three, four, maybe five combos together, which is important for high damage and clearing enemies without being hit. It just depends on how fast you can move the stylus and how well you can see all of the possible matches on the board. Since orbs drop from above to replace any cleared orbs, there's a bit of luck in terms of how many combos you can get out of a turn, but for the most part it's all about meticulous planning and clean stylus execution.
Complementing this is an array of other strategic elements, like an elemental system, the targeting system, the occasional blinking Z-orb that deals triple damage, and both passive and active monster skills. Being able to deal direct damage or manipulate the element or position of orbs using skills can mean all the difference in a boss battle. Leveling up monsters and evolving them to the next level by collecting the right materials are important too, though it can lead to a lot of grinding in earlier levels with the hope of lucky item drops.
Both the Z version and the Super Mario Bros. version work similarly as far as mechanics are concerned. Most of the differences between the two are based on their aesthetics or on the framework for the story. Puzzle & Dragons Z appears more like a Pokémon title, except with dragons and having to save a fictional city from a cult that wants to split the world into literal puzzle pieces, whereas the Super Mario Bros. edition features classic Mario sounds, bosses, and monsters like goombas and paratroopers.
While GungHo recommends the Super Mario Bros. version for new players given how familiar and approachable it is, I would actually recommend the opposite. Given that the SMB version has a fewer number of stages overall compared to Z's, the difficulty curve is oddly steep. By the end of the third level in the desert, the challenge ramps up considerably, in part due to the absence of a defense stat and monster skills that need many turns to activate (you need a ridiculous number of star coins to mitigate this).
By contrast in Z, the included defense stat protects you from attacks and your access to monster skills is far easier with the skill gauge. It also includes quests where you can gather extra items and special dungeons where you can defeat specific dragons (metal, sapphire, etc.) who have a high chance of dropping eggs that level up your monsters extremely quickly. In the SMB version, you'll probably hit a wall sooner or later and will be forced to grind for transformation items just to get a higher HP total. Either that, or not care about dying and spend every one of Mario's lives with reckless abandon. Given how tough some of the monster groups are, don't be surprised if that strategy is pretty much the only way to go.
Multiplayer is a bust apart from some StreetPass capabilities for additional helpers and the like. You can trade monsters with other players, but there's no platform for players to battle each other. I would also have liked some puzzle-based mini-games or perhaps a quick play option right from the start, just something outside of the numerous fixed stages to break up the monotony. Both PAD games, especially the SMB version, can becomes a grindstone after a while no matter how good you are at the game.
As a two-in-one package, Puzzle & Dragons Z + Puzzles & Dragons Super Mario Bros. has the addictive gameplay and lasting value to be a worthy purchase for a puzzle fan on the go. Those unfamiliar with Puzzle & Dragons will appreciate how approachable the game is to learn while PAD fans will appreciate not having to shelve out money for those seductive microtransactions. Despite some issues with the difficulty curve and a lack of variety in spots, this Puzzles & Dragons duo matches well with the 3DS and comfortably introduces a new puzzler to Nintendo fans of all ages.