A lot of games that really stand the test of time are based on a very simple idea.
This is particularly apparent in the puzzle game genre, which typically involves little more than matching shapes and colours in one form or another. And indeed said genre is home to some absolutely timeless classics that are still getting rereleases and reimaginings today.
One puzzler from the early days of gaming that often seems to get forgotten, however, is Sega’s Columns — and that’s a bit of a shame, because it’s an interesting twist on the usual falling block puzzle format.
Despite being known as a Sega property, Columns actually got its start as a project by a Western developer: specifically, a Hewlett-Packard employee named Jay Geertsen. Geertsen originally developed the game in 1989 for the company’s Unix-based HP-UX operating system, but this was not an OS that was widely used in the home. As such, it was subsequently ported to other platforms and operating systems over the course of the next couple of years, including DOS and Windows 3-based PCs, Atari ST and Macintosh.
Geertsen sold the rights to Sega in early 1990, and the latter promptly put out an arcade version running on its Mega Drive-like System C hardware. This naturally made a home port of the game to Sega’s 16-bit console inevitable, and sure enough this appeared just three months after its original release. It drew praise for what an accurate port it was as well as being the first widely available puzzle game for the system — that honour nearly went to the legendary Tetris, but the variety of legal issues surrounding that IP in the late ’80s and early ’90s meant it ended up being pulled from shelves after a Japan-only release.
Columns had a lot of rereleases over the years, so it’s a game most Mega Drive owners probably came into contact with at one point or another. Its relatively small file size made it ideal for including on compilation cartridges such as the Mega Games I cartridge (aka Triple Score: 3 Games in 1 in North America) that was bundled with new Mega Drive systems throughout 1993. It also saw ports to other Sega systems including the Master System, and is arguably most well-known today as a launch title for Sega’s ill-fated colour handheld, the Game Gear. We’re primarily concerned with the Mega Drive version today, however, which conveniently is bundled alongside Columns III in the Sega Mega Drive Classics pack for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC.
Like all good puzzle games, Columns is based on a simple premise. You have a big pit into which things drop, and you have to ensure said pit does not fill up. In this case, you’re not creating lines as in Tetris, you’re matching groups of three or more similarly coloured gems horizontally, vertically or diagonally. Creating a match causes the gems to disappear, and anything left with a space underneath will fall, potentially allowing for chain reactions to occur.
Columns provides a slightly different mechanic on similar games by presenting you exclusively with vertically oriented “tall” pieces that cannot be rotated. Instead, you are able to swap the three gems that make up the complete piece in order to get it into an advantageous position. This has a few effects on the game: firstly, it ensures you’re never left with any “gaps” in the layout that you won’t be able to clear, and secondly, once you learn to read the board it makes it a little easier to plan a move or two ahead.
The game implements its difficulty in a somewhat similar fashion to the later Puyo Puyo series by ebbing and flowing in speed rather than gradually increasing the pace in a linear fashion. In other words, as you progress, you’ll find yourself alternating between frantic periods that, after a while, primarily become about survival, and slightly more “relaxing” times that allow you to catch your breath a bit. The Columns pro will use the slower-paced segments to set up some impressive chain reactions, then simply plop the relevant pieces into place during the frantic periods. A Columns amateur like myself will, instead, be pleasantly surprised when they think their game is about to come to a premature end, but instead they accidentally set off an astronomical combo that clears the majority of the board in a single drop.
The standard arcade version of Columns breaks the pace up a little now and then with special blocks that destroy all the gems of a particular colour, but the Mega Drive version features a number of other ways to play. Original mode removes the special blocks, provides greater customisability to the difficulty and allows you to play a timed game, while Flash Columns mode is a time attack mode that challenges you to tunnel through a pre-established layout to reach a sparkling gem at the bottom of the screen. Both modes can be played with two players simultaneously, and there’s even a curious cooperative “Doubles” mode in which both players play on a single screen, taking it in turns to place gems.
Columns is presented in a pleasantly relaxed manner. Despite how chaotic it can become at higher speeds, this is not a game that wants to stress you out. Instead, the gentle Classical-inspired FM soundtrack by Tokuhiko “Bo” Uwabo (probably most famous for his work on the Phantasy Star and Phantasy Star II scores) is relaxing and hypnotic to listen to and very much helps you get “in the zone” while playing. Meanwhile, the visuals are simple but clear, and there’s a sense that the whole experience has been designed with something of a minimalist philosophy: there may not seem to be very much here in terms of “content”, but what there is will keep you occupied and entertained for quite some time.
Is it a forgotten classic that belongs in the same league as Tetris, or a game best left consigned to history? That’s entirely a matter of opinion, but for my money Columns is still well worth playing — not only for being an interesting take on a genre riddled with copycat titles, but also for providing an enjoyably chilled experience that anyone can enjoy.
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