Solaris Japan

Friday, 11 November 2016

Mega Drive Review - Klax (Game120)

"It is the nineties and there is time for 'Klax'". 

But now two decades later is a colour matching puzzle game worth your attention?


Developed by Atari Games
Published by Tengen
Released in 1992

I have an odd relationship with puzzle games. I'm frequently drawn to them knowing that at some point while playing I'll feel a smug sense of satisfaction when I solve the problem presented. However as soon as a time limit or a penalty for mistakes is introduced to the game, I know I'll have to endure a whole lot of unpleasant emotions to get to the back slapping satisfying conclusion. I'll feel shame and remorse when I make an error. I'll feel tense and agitated when time is running out. I feel foolish and annoyed when I can't figure out how to solve something and I'll feel infuriated and frustrated when I'm told by the game that I've failed. It's a lot to go through for a momentary sense of accomplishment and yet that's the reason we play competitive puzzle games.

I can't remember a game that's makes me as tense as 'Klax' does. It looks harmless enough, all you have to do is catch cascading blocks from a conveyor belt and put them in stacks of at least three. It doesn't even matter which direction you stack them in; vertically, horizontal or diagonally. However the claustrophobic play space and the continued unstoppable flow of blocks that'll quickly fill it, make for a frantic intense puzzle experience. Retro Gamer magazine quaintly described 'Klax' as a game where "the basic premise is to create order out of disorder." However I believe the designer of the game Mark Stephen Pierce more aptly describes the tense playing experience as "the pressure of a relentless rain of death in the form of something coming from above that must be dealt with”.

The five by five grid only allows for 25 blocks to be placed, a much smaller grid than that seen in similar puzzle games 'Puyo Puyo', 'Dr Mario', 'Columns' and of course 'Tetris'. However unlike Alexey Pajitnov’s masterpiece, the main mode in 'Klax' isn't endless.
The game actually consists of one hundred levels and your goal is to progress through them. If you set three blocks in a line you have created a "Klax" and initially all you have to do is get a certain number of "Klaxes" to progress to the next level. As the game progresses you'll also have to meet other specific challenges, getting diagonal Klaxes for example of favouring one colour over another. Obviously while striving for this goal you have to always be aware of the blocks on the conveyor belt, as failing to catch one with your controllable paddle counts as "a drop". You have a limited number of ‘drops’ and should you go over this limit, its game over - even if there is still space for blocks on your grid.

While you can get through a dozen or so levels by juggling one tile at a time, it quickly becomes apparent that to progress through the game you have to learn how to best use your paddle. It can hold up to five tiles at any one time (which adds an extra layer of strategy to the game). You can also launch a tile back along the conveyor belt allowing for you to reverse the order of the descending tiles. It may not sound like much of a game mechanic, but unless you employ all of the game’s quirks it is unlikely you’ll reach the 100th level. Seasoned pros will even know that each tile makes its own movement noise, enabling a skilled player to predict which coloured tile has most recently joined the conveyor belt. Additionally after each fifth level, the player can choose to skip five or ten levels. Although this means tackling harder stages earlier, skipping levels gives bonus points and a higher drop allowance. Mean Machines magazine took a slightly different approach to the game though. "Real Klax-perts couldn't care less about completing wave 99. Apparently the real test in 'Klax' is in amassing as high a score as possible."

Atari Games released 'Klax' to arcades on February 1990, as a deliberate response to 'Tetris' popularity. According to Retro Gamer magazine "'Tetris' became such a hit that Hide Nakajima, the then-president of Atari Games, decided he wanted a puzzle game." Atari certainly got their wish and they labelled 'Klax' a "major arcade hit" when it surpassed $41 million in sales. 

Unsurprisingly home ports were inevitable though 'Klax' didn't transition to home consoles easily. Dave Akers, who had programmed the original arcade machine, also programmed a Mega Drive version. This was released in Japan but was not well received by Western reviewers. "I played the imported Japanese Mega Drive version of 'Klax' and came away disappointed - the control method lacked precision and made playing the game unnecessarily difficult and frustrating" critic Julian Rignal once wrote. "Expecting this official UK version to be exactly the same game, I feared the worst, but found myself pleasantly surprised. They have tweaked it and made the control method far more responsive and accurate." Computer and Video Games magazine seemed to agree. "The big difference is in the gameplay. [This new version of 'Klax'] has a much better feel, more like that of the coin-op than the previous attempt."  Reviewer Paul Rand also noted that this second version of ‘Klax’ on the Mega Drive was the "graphically superior" edition. The aesthetics also seemed to impress Adrian Pitt who wrote in Sega Force magazine that the visuals were "almost arcade perfect”.

Graphics in a puzzle game are always hard to get right. They must compliment the game play but they must also mask the fact you're performing the same actions repeatedly. The visuals need to make the gameplay look exciting while being so bland that it doesn't draw the eye away from where ever the main gameplay is taking place. In 'Klax' there are obviously three areas that must remain prominent throughout gameplay: the conveyor belt, the paddle and the stacking grid. These look identical in every stage, the blocks obviously never change colour and the orientation of these three things also never changes. The background around the play space does changes every few levels though. It gives players something new to think about every few minutes while they stoically sort blocks and arrange colours.
The backgrounds are a rather eclectic mix of jungles, space, giant hands and even, oddly, car parks at night. They're thankfully subtle; there if you care to look but so innocuous that I can imagine many players don't even notice.

I find the look of 'Klax' quite appealing. It's functional yet fresh and despite its age continues to look modern and stylish. Of course it predates it, but 'Klax' feels rather like 'Lumines' with its brightly coloured blocks and uncluttered menus. It's stylish rather than simplistic. However, of all of the aspects of the game, it’s the graphics that designer Mark Stephen Pierce is least happy with. “Given the chance to go back, I could do a better job on the graphics,” he said to Retro Gamer magazine. He was proud of the audio though and the original arcade game is peppered with sound effects and speech. “I had a vision of a crowd watching, like at a golf tournament, and so we grabbed some people from the office and recorded gentle clapping and ‘aaaahhhhh’ noises.” Additionally, every time a block falls from the conveyor belt there's an ear piercing scream. “The scream is me" admits Pierce. Most of the sound effects have survived the journey to the Mega Drive and to accompany them music can be turned on. Like the level backgrounds the music never distracts but instead compliments the gameplay. Like the game itself the music manages to be calm and relaxing while simultaneously building the pressure.  

While 'Tetris' and 'Puyo Puyo' seem to get new releases every time a new console is released, the 'Klax' brand seemed to vanish as quickly as it appeared. There has not been a standalone 'Klax' games since 1999, when it was released on the Game Boy Color.  That being said there are several similar games available for the touch-screen mobile market, the closest being including Jelly Flip by Wubz games which feels like a spiritual successor. 
'Klak' was lovingly recreated in 'Lego Dimensions' however, playable in an in-game arcade. When looking to see if something has become part of popular culture it's hard to imagine a more authoritative endorsement than a Lego parody. But was its inclusion simply a nostalgic nod to a bygone era or is there a reason why someone opting to play 'Lego Dimensions' will want to get distracted by a game hidden within it? While the younger players will perhaps not have the patience to persist through the frustration and fury, their parents may realise there's fun to be had with 'Klax'. It may well be one of the most intense puzzle games conceived but when everything clicks into place it truly is glorious. 




Where did I get this game from?
I actually got 'Klax' essentially for free. It was included by a generous eBay seller when I bought a different game. Obviously if you intend to buy 'Klax' be sure to get the western re-release rather than the original Japanese version. 

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