The Success of a Puzzling Professor

Puzzle-based games have held an important role in the history of video games, including classic titles such as Tetris and Portal. The sub-genres of puzzle games range from falling block puzzles to puzzle platformers, but by far the sub-genre that I have found the most interesting has been the logic puzzle genre. This opinion has been largely influenced by the handheld adventure puzzle game series, Professor Layton.

Official art from the first installment of the Professor Layton series

The first Layton game was released in Japan by game producers Level-5 and Nintendo in 2007 and in North America the next year. The initial success of this game spurred the creation of five sequels, a crossover with the Phoenix Wright game series, a few books, and a movie. A quick thing to mention here is that the movie is actually decent and is canon in the games. But why has this series had so much success? I believe this is due to the game’s beautiful 2D art style, the diversity of puzzle types, and the engaging stories in each game. A Gamespot review compliments the first game in the series, Professor Layton and the Curious Village, as a game that “mixes an interesting story, challenging logic puzzles, and exploration into an extremely entertaining package that you won’t want to put down.” Across multiple game journal reviews, each game by themselves and the series as a whole receive an average score between 8 and 9.

Screenshot from Professor Layton and the Azran Legacy


The games in this series have a colorful 2D art style with great attention to detail. For instance, the curving roads in the above picture provoke the player to explore the corner store with the awning or discover something new around the bend. When I first played Professor Layton, I loved how the game had its own distinctive design with traditionally-drawn 2D characters that match the painted backgrounds they inhabit. The music in Professor Layton games is very enjoyable to listen to. Many of the songs within the games are orchestral and rely a lot on piano and violin music, with the occasional accordion. I’ve found my head bobbing to the music on more than one occasion.

The one content element of the game that kept me playing until the end of the game is definitely the mystery that the Professor must solve during the game. The plot of the first game involves Professor Layton and his young assistant receiving a letter from a wealthy family in the village of St. Mystere, asking the professor to locate a valuable family treasure left to the family. Upon arriving, there seem to be more sinister mysteries afoot and it’s up to the Professor to solve them, one puzzle at a time. A unique quirk about the other characters you meet in the fictional world is that they are all obsessed with puzzles and brain-teasers. This design aspect of the game makes it easier for the player to become immersed in the game world and not think that everyone’s fascination with puzzles is strange, since puzzles are identified as a daily activity in this fictional world.

At certain points in the game, you will need to accumulate a certain number of picarats, points earned when solving puzzles, in order to proceed further in the story. If the player doesn’t have enough picarats to advance, they must travel back into the previous area and find more puzzles to solve.

A puzzling puzzle


The sample puzzle above visually shows how most puzzles appear in-game. The top screen of the DS will have written instructions about the puzzle and the player can restarts the puzzle, ask for hints, take notes on a ‘memo’, quit, and submit the answer to the puzzle. The memo is greatly appreciated when solving a more difficult puzzle or one that involves math or process of elimination. The number of picarats a puzzle is worth corresponds with how difficult the puzzle is supposed to be. Puzzles become noticeably more difficult to solve the farther you progress into the game. The difficulty rises at a steady pace so it doesn’t intimidate players who have been playing the game at normal intervals. The mechanic of hint coins in the Professor Layton games adds more to the free exploration aspect of the games besides solving puzzles for people. These coins are scattered throughout the different areas the player explores and can only be found by semi-randomly tapping the screen with the DS stylus and a coin will pop out from practically anywhere, like in a bush, under a pebble, or in a fruit cart. These coins can then be used to access hints for puzzles, there are three hints to each puzzle in the first game, but they must be used wisely or you can be left attempting to solve a very difficult puzzle and can’t buy any hints. The best thing about the puzzles is that they don’t feel too repetitive. You may find a few puzzles of the same style during the game, but the most unique puzzles, the ones designed to progress the story and relate to the plot, are all individual puzzle sub-types not repeated in the rest of the game. You feel a lot of pressure solving these particular puzzles since they are necessary to complete before advancing, but they still have hints in case you’re stumped.

While the main series of the Professor Layton games has ended, developer Level-5 has plans for a second animated Layton movie and a seventh game that will take place in the Layton game universe, but not focus on Layton himself. Hopefully, the atmosphere created by the character interactions, puzzles, graphic design, and immersive story will remain in these new iterations. If you’re the kind of player who enjoys a good mystery and mind-boggling puzzles, I highly suggest that you give the Professor Layton series a try.

Layton’s famous catchphrase

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