There’s been an unwritten rule ever since the days of the Game Boy that every major new handheld system must launch with at least one awesome puzzle game.
Sony’s PlayStation Portable was no exception, launching with the wonderful Lumines (pronounced “luminous”, not “loo-mines”, as I’ve heard some people call it), a game that combined the familiar style of falling-block puzzling with the synaesthetic blend of light and sound patterns designer Tetsuya Mizuguchi had used to such great effect in his renowned Dreamcast title Rez, and which he would later use once again in the PSP versions of Gunpey and Every Extend Extra.
Lumines isn’t a complex game in mechanical terms. But it is most definitely not a quick-hit throwaway experience, either; on the contrary, when you sit down for a game of Lumines, expect to be staring glassy-eyed at your PSP for at least half an hour before you’ll be able to tear yourself away.
For the unfamiliar, Lumines is built around a simple concept: creating squares. Blocks made up of 2×2 tiles drop down from the top of the screen, and you have to arrange them in the wide 16×10 grid so that like-coloured tiles align and create 2×2 squares. The squares can overlap, and do not disappear from the screen until the continuously sweeping “timeline” — inspired by the time marker in digital audio workstation and video editing software, and synchronised with the background music — passes over the top of them.
Despite these simple mechanics, there are a number of layers to the Lumines experience. The first is simple survival; the game’s core “Challenge” mode tasks you with surviving as long as possible as you progress through a series of “skins”, which correspond to both different audio tracks and animated backdrops. Rather than the game simply increasing in speed as you progress as in Tetris, the skins use different combinations of tempo, colour schemes and animations to provide variety, with some clearly aiming to distract you with visual noise while others attempt to overwhelm you with speed.
Once you master the basics of surviving in Lumines, another layer comes to the forefront: timing and rhythm. While you can last for quite some time simply by dropping pieces willy-nilly and creating squares as you spot opportunities to do so, the real art of Lumines comes in timing your drops so you can create the maximum possible number of squares before the timeline sweeps over and erases them. The more squares you erase in a single sweep, the more points you get, with further bonuses available for leaving the screen only containing a single colour of block or completely clearing the screen altogether.
Once you get well and truly in the zone, Lumines becomes about taking a synaesthetic journey through its many and varied skins, and simply enjoying the experience. The size of the play area means it takes quite some time to fill up and cause you to fail, and this means games typically go on for quite some time, particularly once you start feeling “flow” from the absorbing nature of the game. Despite being a handheld title, this isn’t something you pick up for a quick hit of sugary goodness; it’s a game you play to enjoy the sensation of the music, sound and visuals wrapping themselves around your brain and doing nice things to your pleasure centres in the process. Wear some good headphones.
There are a few different ways to play besides the core Challenge mode, too. The Time Attack mode takes the core rules and applies a time limit to the experience, giving you a set period in which to attain as high a score as possible — good for those who perhaps don’t have the time for a full multi-sensory synaesthetic experience, but who still want a hit of Lumines.
Meanwhile, the Puzzle mode, a seemingly obligatory addition to puzzle games whose main attraction was a “marathon”-style mode for some time, tasks you with creating various images and set layouts using the falling blocks. This can often be more frustrating than fun if you make a small mistake and requires both careful concentration and forward planning. It’s a decent diversion if you enjoy that style of gameplay, but Lumines’ core mechanics aren’t really designed with it in mind, so your mileage may vary.
Finally, there’s a versus mode that, again, feels like the game’s core mechanics don’t quite fit with. Competing against either a CPU opponent or another PSP-wielding player, a versus match in Lumines sees you both competing on a single playfield divided into two areas. Performing better than your opponent causes the centre divide to shift in your opponent’s direction, giving them less space in which to drop their blocks and making them more likely to fill their side up to the top. This can be fun if you’re playing against someone of equal skill, but any sort of imbalance in ability will see matches being over very quickly indeed.
Ultimately the other modes are distractions from the meat of the Lumines experience, which is the Challenge mode. It’s nice that they’re there, but Challenge is where you’ll most likely get the most enjoyment out of the game. And that’s no bad thing at all; Challenge mode features a heap of content, and it’ll take plenty of practice and mastery over the game’s core skills before you’ll be able to get through all the available skins. And in the meantime you get to repeatedly send yourself into an enjoyably happy synaesthetic haze with the varied soundtrack, stylish visuals and simple, solid gameplay.
Lumines is one of the best games on PSP and subsequently found itself with numerous ports and sequels to all manner of different platforms — including an Xbox 360 version that caused one of the first significant debates over downloadable content thanks to its various modes being sold piecemeal rather than all in one convenient chunk.
There’s something magical about that original version, though, so if you have a PSP knocking around, be sure you have a copy in your collection.
More about Lumines
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