Remember Columns? Remember how we talked about how chilled out it was, and how it didn’t want to stress you out? Yeah, you can forget all that with its direct follow-up.
Columns II is an example of an approach to sequels that was popular for a short while in the late ’80s and early ’90s: the provision of an experience clearly geared towards expert players, and a distinct case of “the same, but more so, and way harder“.
While Columns wanted everyone to relax and have a fun old time matching coloured gems, Columns II does everything in its power to stress you out at every opportunity. And I both love it and hate it for that!
For the unfamiliar, a quick recap. Columns is a falling-blocks puzzle game most commonly attributed to Sega these days, but which was originally developed by a Hewlett-Packard employee known as Jay Geertsen. Sega purchased the rights in 1990 after Geertsen had already ported his creation to a variety of home computer platforms, and from that point on the most well-known and well-regarded incarnations of the series were on Sega platforms both in the arcades and in the home.
In Columns, you control stacks of three coloured gems that fall from the top of the screen. Pressing a button swaps the three gems around between all their possible arrangements, and pulling down on the directional controls drops the block quickly. Your aim is to make lines of three or more like-coloured gems in horizontal, vertical or diagonal arrangements.
Columns II’s arcade incarnation puts a little twist on the formula by focusing on the “Flash Columns” mode that was introduced in the original game’s Mega Drive port. Here, rather than simply surviving as long as possible while the speed gradually increases (or, more accurately, ebbs and flows every few levels with a continual upward overall trend) you’re tasked with destroying specific, flashing gems in 70 different stages of pre-arranged gem stacks by incorporating them into a match. Inevitably, these flashing gems are partially buried at the start of a level, requiring a bit of “digging” to even reach them.
Columns II further complicates matters by introducing a new mechanic to the mix: skulls. Every so often, a random gem on the field (usually near the top) will be replaced with a coloured skull. If you happen to include this skull in a match, it will disappear as a normal gem does, but it will push the bottom of the play area upwards, giving you less available space to work with.
These small tweaks to the base formula make the game a lot harder. Probably the most significant difference from the original Columns is that you’re now starting with a bin that is already nearly half-full at the outset of play, meaning you need to immediately get matching in order to simply survive — and if you want to progress, you need to set up these matches with a mind to eventually digging out your target gems.
The atmosphere of Columns II is very different, too. While the original game’s rather “Classical” feel — created through a combination of visuals inspired by ancient Greek architecture and a gentle, constantly flowing contrapuntal soundtrack — made for a fairly relaxing time, even when the speed increased, Columns II is much more aggressive.
Its soundtrack is driving, determined and even angry-sounding at times, and the “time travel” theme to the backdrops often finds you matching gems against cold, unyielding, metallic, futuristic backdrops rather than the pleasant stonework of ancient architecture. On top of that, matching a skull makes a very unpleasant noise (or as unpleasant a noise as an FM synthesis chip can muster, anyway) and the overall pace of the game feels significantly higher than its predecessor, constantly pushing you onwards in a seemingly deliberate attempt to stress you out as much as possible.
To put it another way, while spending some time with the original Columns is like hanging out with an old friend who just wants to chill out and have some fun, playing Columns II is like meeting up with that friend a few months later only to discover that you’ve inadvertently pissed them off somehow, they won’t tell you what the problem is and as a result they’re going to subtly but surely make the entirety of your time together just slightly uncomfortable, awkward and vaguely unpleasant — but somehow, you still enjoy the overall experience. It’s one of the most passive-aggressive games I’ve ever played, and that, I realised more clearly the longer I spent with it, is not something I think I’ve felt all that often!
All this combines to create an experience that is clearly intended for Columns veterans rather than newcomers to the series. Columns II absolutely throws you in at the deep end and expects you to immediately get to work rather than providing you with the certain amount of almost insultingly easy “grace period” that many puzzle games provide in their opening moments. Straight away, you’ll need to think and react quickly in order to clear a path to those all-important flashing gems — and you’ll need to practice quite a bit before you can progress anywhere beyond the first couple of stages.
Thankfully, the recent Sega Ages release of Columns II on Nintendo Switch allows you to select which stage you start at rather than going from the beginning every time, and also to turn the “skull” mechanic off altogether in the rather intimidatingly named “Skull Smash” mode. The Switch release also comes with a lightweight version of the original Columns’ arcade mode, too, providing a much more straightforward experience for those who want to brush up on their basic skills; This starts from an empty bin and simply tasks you with surviving for as long as possible rather than clearing stages.
The Switch version also plays host to an “Infinite Jewels” variation on Columns II that removes the stage-clearing aspect, instead causing the flashing gems to destroy all other gems of the same colour when incorporated into a match, but otherwise acting as an endless marathon mode. Just to heap on the pressure, in this mode new rows are added to the bottom of the well every so often — but you don’t have to worry about skulls in this mode. Thank heavens for small mercies, eh?
And, of course, in obligatory puzzle game fashion, there is a two-player versus mode, too. This can be played either locally or online on the Switch version — though as with most niche-interest games, it’s probably best to pre-arrange an online battle with a friend rather than rely on matchmaking. The Switch’s local multiplayer mode also features a pleasing option with tabletop play in mind: the ability to flip the second player’s playfield upside-down, allowing two Joy-Con-wielding opponents to sit across a table from one another with the Switch laid flat between them, cocktail cabinet-style. There is, unfortunately, no ability to play a Versus game against a computer-controlled player — though the rest of the package is more than enough challenge for even the most grizzled puzzle veteran!
Everything I’ve described above may explain why Columns II never got a home release until a Sega Ages compilation for Saturn in 1997; the Mega Drive jumped straight to Columns III in 1993, which offered some significant changes to the formula. So far as puzzle games go, Columns II is perhaps not the most friendly or accessible to newcomers — though the Nintendo Switch Sega Ages version including the arcade mode from the first Columns certainly goes a way to alleviating this issue somewhat. Newcomers should definitely practice here first before tackling the considerably ramped up challenge of the sequel!
As a complete package, the Nintendo Switch Sega Ages release of Columns II is definitely worth your time if you’re a puzzle game fan. While it may take a bit of time and practice to adjust to the main game’s deliberately stressful nature, it’s a rewarding experience if you take the time to engage with it — and the addition of a “Jewel Case” featuring a variety of unlockable Sega characters provides plenty of longevity, too.
Plus it’s a cool part of Sega history that we haven’t seen celebrated all that much over the years. And that seems to be a key part of what this new Sega Ages collection is all about. I’m definitely all for it.
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Thanks for reading; I hope you enjoyed this article. I’ve been writing about games in one form or another since the days of the old Atari computers, with work published in Page 6/New Atari User, PC Zone, the UK Official Nintendo Magazine, GamePro, IGN, USgamer, Glixel and more over the years, and I love what I do.
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