This little rivalry going on right now, between the Nintendo DS and the PlayStation Portable -- the Portable Wars, if you will -- it's a big thing. To my eyes, it's an important event for the future of videogaming. Console games pushed past a point of no return with Grand Theft Auto
, making the post-modern aesthetic that of tremendous depth in hybrid genre melding and literally Hollywood-quality production efforts. Innovation hasn't been squelched, but it has been forced into the wide hall of expectations and asked to inflate every novel concept to fill the space. Meanwhile, the handheld market -- always a home for smaller game concepts -- has increasingly become the territory of terrible 'tween'-set, youngsters who storm the racks for sequels and franchise-based titles while shoving potentially interesting unknowns to the floor. Independent developers have become so desperate, they've turned to the supposedly-burgeoning cell phone market in the hopes that these systems will continue to entice the bored and idle into playing and paying for games. These two new portable platforms have the chance of clearing the slate clean of the 'kiddie' stigma that kept people from playing GBA in public, while raising the bar for design to a manageable level without walling out less comprehensive productions. The two of them, brought out at relatively the same time, also inspire by their competitive aspirations the kind of hyperbole and bloodlust that drive editors to write about such systems, and gamers to pay attention.
The title that probably proves how interesting this battle may become looks to be Q Entertainment's Lumines. Brought stateside by Ubisoft after initially publishing by Bandai in Japan, the first project from visionary creator Tetsuya Mizuguchi's new game studio became one of the most globally talked-about games in the PSP's line-up. Despite the US system release being packed with over 25 titles, this innovative title is still a keystone piece of the PSP launch. All this hype and possibility, resting on the shoulders of a puzzle game. The game very basically represents the once-flourishing puzzle genre -- all that Lumines is is a falling block game, made very simple by requiring just one of two colors of blocks be matched in a square shape. The developers at Q Entertainment, however, are masters of simplicity in a way that is elegant, engaging, and exquisite. With their efforts, a game that might gone over with only a grudging quiet just last year (despite its pedigree development team) now rightfully has the center stage position on Sony's new handheld showpiece.
Puzzle X Fusion
Born out of the Tetris tradition, Lumines is a falling block puzzle game. You only need to worry about matching one color at a time out of just two possible colors on any stage, and all the falling blocks are straight squares themselves -- essentially, there are only six combinations of falling blocks to deal with, and unlike Tetris, any one of them will fit a given space comfortably without creating gaps. (Squares actually split and fall if half of the block is placed on a ledge.) Whether they will make a color combo is another story, but overall, this makes for an unassumingly simple puzzling experience where you simply drop blocks, combine colors, and make squares.
Two simple elements help to transform this puzzler into something else. The first is a compliment of the second, and is pretty standard for falling-brick puzzlers -- a special gem may be found in any of the four corners of the falling blocks, and if you are able to use this gem to begin your combo, every similarly-colored brick connected by direct touch (not corner, but edge-to-edge) to that block or another block connected to it will also be involved in your combo.
This "magic" brick, it's in every puzzle game. But it's very necessary here, and not just because it helps save bad players' asses or delivers a crushing blow from a killer player. Lumines is, as described on the box, a puzzle game of fusion -- fusing light and sound as critical elements of the gameplay itself. The game comes from the tradition of Sega's musical titles such as Rez and Space Channel 5 (fitting, since Q Entertainment's mastermind, Mr. Mizuguchi, was originally the head of UGO, creator of those games.) The music in the background of Lumines isn't just there to keep you awake.
The developers have come up with a musical staff bar that sweeps across the puzzle field, roughly in time to the music. Your combos will only be counted and cleared when the bar makes its pass, which make the music an integral part of the play. On slow tunes, you may find yourself in nervous fear of filling up the puzzle well, but you will also have a good deal of time to build dazzling combos; on fast tunes, the bar will sweep all your little combos away as fast as you can piece them together, but whether you can use the hectic pace to your advantage and melt away unmatched pieces is another matter entirely. The challenge is not to just build square-shaped combos, but strings of like-colored combos across the length of the staff bar's sweep. A little practice, and you're building giant 9x9 that are interconnected to strings of multiple 4x4s running across the wide puzzle well -- some have even created strings that run the entire length of the staff sweep.
Puzzle X Music
Get a dedicated player into Lumines, tapping his foot to the beat while chiming away on an outburst of combos, and its spell can be enchanting. It can also, however, just be another puzzle experience to another player -- one just as dedicated to feeling the innovation, and simply not finding it. As Rez was, at its core, a straight-forward shooter-on-rails, Lumines breaks away from the puzzle genre only with this one innovation -- and in a genre that is always looking to try something different, the timeline sweep feel less like a mad stroke of genius than it does simply a good new idea for a genre full of tried and enjoyed concepts. Lumines has few quirks and nuances to stand in a players way -- a quick watch of the in-game tutorial and you'll get the gameplay twists -- but those looking for breakthrough game design may not find it.
Judged solely as a puzzle game, then, Lumines is a stellar and addictive entry in the genre, with a few frustrating omissions that regular puzzle fans might expect as a given. Difficulty adjustments are not included -- instead, the game plays straight through its stages in a set pattern of challenges. The goal of the game is to continue deep into the game and unlock all of the audio/visual "skins" (its term for the music tracks and their background components), but with such a rigid structure, many will not get to hear/see some of the game's later musical joys. There is also an aggravating lack of a remix mode on the main gameplay path or CPU VS. mode -- like old-school games of days gone by, you start at level one every time, even though there is a wealth of musical content to mix up and enjoy. Stat tracking on both single and multiplayer modes is also disappointingly basic Some exclusions were simply directorial choices on a specifically paced game, but they're still just missing for people not willing to give the developers that slack.
But while the options have been left sheer, players will feel the sharp focus of design in the gameplay modes. The two main modes of play in Lumines -- the Challenge mode and the CPU VS mode -- are as addictive as any puzzler can get, especially considering that each has 'skin' stages to beat for newly unlocked elements. The linear game design makes the rewards earned for playing through the game all the more sweet. Most puzzle games are just high-score challenges, but here, players will want to battle through all of the songs they've already unlocked in order to earn just one more. Score seekers can also test themselves in the Single Skin Mode and the Time Attack modes, which are more pure challenges with nothing to win but a big point value. An extra Puzzle mode features some unique challenges in building tricky shapes without a combo destroying your efforts first. And the multiplayer mode, while also unfortunately limited in options and statistics and player count compared to other puzzlers, is madly addictive. Two players must not only battle for the highest score and the longest play before running out of vertical room, but also must fight via combos for control of the horizontal space, as each measure of music will shrink your half of a shared puzzle well unless you can put longer combo runs together and beat him off the board.
Music inclusion being the critical element here, Lumines shines on this side of things as well. The PSP game packs dozens of music tracks from Japanese DJ Mondo Grosso (AKA Shinichi Osawa), whose house and trance music tracks meld brilliantly with the minimalist puzzle design. Rave music may not be everybody's cup of tea, but the musical selection here is wildly diverse -- a few J-Pop tunes for the otakus, a few heavy rhythm and bass tunes for the tweakers, and some Fatboy Slim-style big beats for those who aren't built for dancing.
Coming from the creators of Rez, we would have liked Lumines to have been more adventurous with the mixing and interactive mixing -- it's barely noticeable that the music is slightly remixed on the on the fly, as it bumps the needle to the next beat with a combo but doesn't leap into the unknown if you are making a killing (the stylized visual designs on the 'skins' are also similarly attractive and yet too relaxed in interactivity for players to feel the impact of their efforts expressed in the visuals.) The chimes, bleeps and scratches that ring out when you've built a combo match the tone of the tune playing well, but serve more as overlaid sound effects than integral musical hits. The US edition thankfully cleans up the short, silent pause of loadtime that the Japanese version suffered, making for a more technically polished and uninterrupted version of the game. As with the gameplay, the graphic and audio design is kept all in line, never too boastful, if only rarely reaching vivid.
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