Friday 11 May 2018

Mega Drive Review - Columns (Game 161)

Often regarded as the 'Tetris' of Sega consoles 'Columns' has itself been replicated and imitated for decades. Is the original worth your attention?

Developed by HP / Sega
Published by Sega
Released in 1990

Most of us do not complete many of the video games we own and while this used to be a dirty secret, it has now become a truth universally acknowledged. Back when games had boxes we used to be ashamed of the ever growing literal pile of shame that sat in our game's rooms or under our TV. Today we just don't seem to mind that we own but never play games and with downloadable games things have only got worse. Our consoles and computers are awash with hundred of titles that we will probably never play, let alone finish. Digital platforms like Steam can even tell you how many hours of un-played content you still haven’t experienced along with how many games you've yet to even start.

On YouTube videos and social media, retro gamers often ask themselves if they are collectors or gamers. I've always thought I was the latter and the by-product of playing physical games has been the growth of a collection. The majority of games on my shelf have been played and even studied to the extent that a comprehensive blog post has been written about them. This is usually because I tend to buy games I'm interested in; I've resisted the urge to just pick up everything I see for the sake of building up a collection.

But when bulk buys are often the best way to secure premium titles cheaply, even the most selective of collector ends up with undesired titles on the shelf. For me these are typically sports games, but for years I've had 'Columns' in various compilations. While I've played the game for the purpose of getting an easy virtual trophy in the superb PS3 Sega Collection, I've never played it on legacy hardware. There's a simple reason for this; I've played a lot of 'Dr Mario', I've played a lot of 'Super Puyo Puyo' and I've of course played countless hours of 'Tetris'. I subscribe to the belief shared by the often vocal Sega Power magazine. "'Columns' is practically 'Tetris' right? The world doesn't need another version of 'Tetris'." Mean Machines magazine echoed this viewpoint. "'Columns' is Sega's puzzle game along the lines of 'Tetris' [and] one might argue that there are already too any 'Tetris' alike games on the market".

Even programmer Kazuo Wakihara acknowledges that 'Columns' exists in the shadow of 'Tetris'. "People always ask about 'Columns' and 'Tetris' and they have good things in common" he noted in a documentary included on the aforementioned Sega Mega Drive PS3 compilation. "They're both easy to play and they're both straight forward as might be expected. Their rules are similar too." However despite being associated with Sega and the Mega Drive in particular, 'Columns' originally existed as a simple colour matching home computer title.

In 1989 Jay Geertsen was employed by Hewlett Packard tasked with producing programs for their hp-ux operating system. This lead to the creation of the first version of 'Columns' albeit a comparatively primitive version. While the execution was simplistic the concept was sound and the game was eventually ported to PC DOS, Macintosh and the Atari ST. It was here that Sega's research and development manager Steve Hanawa fortuitously saw 'Columns'. Sega was very aware that the popularity of 'Tetris' had almost single headedly sold the Game Boy. Frustrating the now infamous licensing issues had meant that a finished version of 'Tetris' was never going to be sold on the Mega Drive. So, fearing Russian reprisals, Sega challenged Hanawa to find an alternative game. They needed something that would not only work with their a System C arcade board, but it would also need to be easily ported to their fledgling 16bit Mega Drive and also serve as a launch title for their upcoming Game Gear portable. "Since 'Tetris' was a big hit I was looking for the next 'Tetris' title" Hanawa recalls. "I played the game and I introduced it to Sega of Japan for their evaluation. Their decision was to get all of the rights for the game from the original designer programmer, so only Sega was able to make it from then on." And thus 'Columns' became a Sega exclusive, and the publisher was keen to thrust it upon the public.

Throughout the life of the Mega Drive, 'Columns' was released seven times, frequently included on compilations and bundled with the console. It's hard to imagine any Sega console owner that hasn't heard of it. But if, like me, you're used to playing other retro puzzle titles, you'll spend most of your play time noticing how 'Columns' differs to the games you know.

According to Wakihara-San " 'Tetris' has its rows that disappear when items are lined up horizontally. By contrast sections in 'Columns' disappear when more than three colours are lined up. It makes 'Columns' unique."  In essence the game is like a single player version of 'Connect Four', although it would be more accurately to call it 'Connect Three'. There are six different coloured jewels within the game and as you play, random combinations of three fall from the top of the play space. While they can't be rotated into a horizontal formation the order of the colours can be swapped until they touch others already placed in the game grid. Like 'Puyo Puyo', if you place three coloured jewels together they will all vanish. However unlike that bean game, diagonals also count, which is something easy to over look. Fortunately 'Columns' starts off slowly and for the first three levels it actually gives you hints on where you should put your coloured jewels.
Like similar games, the goal of 'Columns' is to clear your game space, as when the jewel pile fills the 6 by 13 grid the game is over. In order to avoid this you have to strategically try to see one or two steps ahead but as the speed of the falling jewels increases the game naturally gets harder and harder. Consistency is key, as just like 'Tetris', 'Columns' punishes you for making any mistakes. You can have an excellent game going and then all of a sudden chaos ensues thanks to one misplaced jewel. 

Thankfully there are various ways the game can help you, although as they depend on random chance you can't use them as a cornerstone of any strategy.  For example, the special blinking magic jewel will instantly vaporise all blocks of a single colour. Unlike 'Tetris', gravity is a thing that exists in 'Columns'. So when jewels vanish anything above will fall down to take their place.
This allows for chains or combos, where the removal of one line of jewels causes other jewels to touch which also therefore vanish. While I'm sure there are 'Columns' masters who can probably see dozens of moves ahead, I'm simply not that good. As the game tells you which combination of jewels are coming next I can usually plan one combo, but I'll be honest and admit any chain greater than two is purely the result of good luck. However unlike 'Puyo Puyo' where chain reactions are essential to beating your opponent, in 'Columns' there isn't that incentive. A combo may give you more points and increase the chance you'll get a Magic Jewel but it seems to be a much better tactic to just get rid of jewels whenever you can. If points do matter to you, holding down on the gamepad will cause the jewels to drop faster earning some bonus points.

As you play you pick up other little tricks. In later faster levels you really do have to take advantage of the split second you get to cycle the order when the jewels touch the pile. In arcade mode you'll particularly depend on this as the game builds up some incredible speed in later stages. Default Arcade mode is never ending, jewels will fall continuously and relentlessly until you run out of space.
The Mega Drive version of 'Columns' also includes Time Trial mode where the game will end after three minutes, even if there's still space on the grid. There's also a part of the game called Flash Columns Where the player must mine their way through a set number of lines to get to a flashing jewel at the bottom. The quicker the player accomplishes this, the higher their rank will be. In practice you'll try these modes out of curiosity but most likely return to the classic arcade mode fairly promptly.

For me any longevity of a puzzle games usually comes from the strength of its two player element. Many puzzle games like ‘Columns’ get monotonous quickly for a single person, but with two they prove to be a lot more fun. However it turns out that two player puzzle games are only fun if your actions effect the other player. You plan out the tricky combos in 'PuyoPuyo' as securing them means you opponent's grid fills with annoying bubbles. You dare to try that complicated ricochet shot in 'Puzzle Bobble' as if it's a success it punishes your opponent. You hold out for a long thin 'Tetris' block, as you know that when you clear four lines  at once your opponents stands little chance of success. In 'Columns' though there's no way to attack your opponent. You may be playing at the same time and sharing a screen but what you do has no bearing on each other.

'Tetris' had an instantly recognisable aesthetic, the music is iconic and sometimes people describe objects as being the same shapes as the tetronimoes. In the original Jay Geertsen 'Columns', players simply filled a white grid with coloured squares; it was Sega who added the Greek aesthetic. Apparently the game takes you "back in time to a bygone civilisation, the ancient world of Phoenicia" where you “play the game that originated among the Phoenician merchants." Sega of course made up this historical fact but in their defence when you think of buildings with columns throughout history you do naturally gravitate to Ancient Greek culture. The visuals are functional but I must confess I can't stand the ancient style music. Any game that features looping music should have a tune that is barely perceptible. Ideally incidental music that pleasingly bubbles away in the background; that's there should you chose to listen but isn't distracting. 'Columns' has a default level theme that is abrasive, distracting and not fit for purpose. The Mega Drive has always produced a metallic jangly sound ideal for high octane thrills and spills but not suited to calm contemplation. That being said critics at the time didn't share my opinion. Mean Machines felt 'Columns' has a "haunting melody that enhances the atmosphere no end." They also felt that 'Columns' is "a flippin' good 'Tetris' clone" something I also clearly don't agree with. Reassuringly I’m certainly not alone.

"Most gamers are unaware of the history of 'Tetris' with Sega and consider 'Columns' a poor copy" laments Hanawa. "When in fact, it was the best they could do with the lost license. It wasn't a total loss either, because it's still making Sega money." The game has received numerous ports and sequels. It's hard to think of a machine that hasn't has a variation on it and that includes rival platforms. In 1999 there was a Super Famicom port of 'Columns' from Media Factory that was distributed on the Japanese-exclusive Nintendo Power re-writable cartridge service.  This gives it the accolade of being the only instance of a Sega property being published on the Super Nintendo. It was even better than the Mega Drive version of 'Columns' which has shockingly few modes. Even the versions on the Master System and Game Gear offer more and they are vastly inferior machines. I have no idea why anyone would opt to play 'Columns' when there's dozens of better similar games to go for. But if you do feel a compulsion to line up falling jewels do not reach for the Mega Drive version.

There was a caveat in my earlier percentage of played game claim; I said I'd played the majority of the games on my shelf. This clearly excludes digital games; as I have attached to my accounts dozens of games I haven't and most likely won't play. This is down to the fact that as a PlayStation Plus subscriber, Sony forces six games on me each month even if they're frequently not remotely interesting to me. Though this service does encourage us to experiment with unusual titles we wouldn't want to normally risk money on, we shouldn't feel bad for simply ignoring something that doesn't really take our fancy just because it's been given to us. If 'Columns' has taught me anything it's that often there's a reason we have never felt compelled to take it off the shelf, it simply doesn't interest us.

For most of us free Time is short and playtime even more so. Why waste it slogging through a game that we dislike just a tick it off some theoretical un-played game list? If we do feel guilt because of our pile of shame, perhaps we should review our spending habits rather than our playing habits. Or to be less severe, perhaps we should admit that we are video game collectors or archivists rather than gamers. This is not something to be ashamed of and if that’s the case the pile of shame in the corner should really be rechristened as the tower of accomplishment. A collection of pride.

Where did I get this game from?
As will no doubt be obvious I obtained 'Columns' simply as a way of making something else cheaper. Despite the number of copies sold the game does demand a respectable price on EBay. Perhaps this because there is no doubt a lot of nostalgia for the game, but I hardly feel it has stood up to the ravages of time.

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