It would be difficult to create a list of the most influential games of all time and not put Tetris on there. Invented by Alexey Pajitnov 1985, it’s pretty much single handedly responsible for the success of the Game Boy, and is not doubt the first hit of gaming goodness for many virgin players. I would be surprised to hear I was the only one that played so much that falling blocks started to invade my dreams, making lines in my sleep. Tetris was a phenomenon, and rightly so.
Of course the other thing it did was show how well suited handheld consoles were for puzzle games. With their simple play mechanics, short game times, and generally low system requirements, they’re exactly the kind of thing you want on the train, rather than something you can’t play in short bursts. So it’s no surprise that the PSP, even with all its graphical capabilities, is home to one already.
Lumines is from designer Tetsuya Mizuguchi, who also designed Rez, and the Nintendo DS game Meteos (which I hope to review at a later date). Like Tetris or Columns, it’s also a game involving blocks, but unlike those games it also involves colour and time. The basic gameplay involves 2x2 squares falling from the top of the screen, where each little square making up the larger square is one of two possible colours. If part of one of these squares hits an existing block on the way down, then it’ll split off and continue to fall. You make the blocks disappear by moving and rotating them until you can match four similarly coloured blocks into a square, which are then removed when they are hit by the line which slowly sweeps across the screen. Like Tetris, the game is over when the blocks pile up and hit the top of the screen.
It’s actually harder to describe than it is to play, and like all good puzzle games it has a three-minute learning curve, followed by a three month mastering curve. You’ll quickly realise that the fastest way to high score heaven is the line that sweeps across the screen, and making sure you have as many overlapping squares as possible ready to disappear when that comes along. But you’ll also realise that not everybody has a brain suited for this kind of puzzle, and that visualising how blocks are going to interact when spun or split is not a talent we all have. Incredible concentration is required to really get the most out of it.
While obviously not stretching the power of the PSP too much, the visual style of Lumines makes it stand out when placed to most other puzzle games due to its use of skins. A skin in Lumines changes both the appearance of the board (the background, the colour of the squares) and the music and sound effects. As you progress through the Challenge mode you unlock new skins as the difficulty increases. There’s often a moment of disorientation as this change takes place, because you’ve been concentrating so hard on matching orange and white blocks and now you have to match purple and yellow, but it brings with it a freshness that stops you from getting bored at looking at the same thing all the time.
There are four modes included, Challenge, Time Attack, Puzzle and Versus. Challenge mode is the main single player game, where as outlined above the difficulty and skin changes as you progress. Time Attack lets you choose a length of time within which you have to get as high a score as possible, and is probably the most addictive part of the package. It’s sometimes difficult to stop yourself having one more try at beating your best. In Puzzle mode you have to try and build a picture (like a dog, or a cross) out of the falling blocks, making sure the colours are in the right places, and I found it to be ridiculously hard. Finally the Versus mode (playable against the CPU or another PSP owner via the wifi), works like most puzzle game battle modes where the success of one player fills up the other players screen. It would have been nice to have this part playable over the Internet instead of needing a PSP owning friend.
It would be fair to say there’s been a drought of quality games for the PSP, so it’s quite amusing that one of the best to come along eschews any kind of complex gameplay or a 3D graphics engine and is something as basic as a puzzler. Lumines is easy to recommend to all PSP owners, whatever kind of games they normal go for. The simple truth is that it’s just fun to play, a wonderful example of a strong central idea presented with just enough flair to keep it interesting, and probably the title you'll return to long after you've mastered all the tracks in Burnout or won every tournament in Virtua Tennis.