Normally, the last month of the year serves as a video game extravaganza for me, and with the release of various titles that month on the Nintendo DS, this past December looked ready to be another such month. For a multitude of reasons, however, I was away from my home consoles for longer than I am generally comfortable with. This past weekend I had all sorts of plans to make amends. I wanted to dedicate a good chunk of time to The Legend of Zelda: The Twilight Princess. I had planned to finally crack into Gears of War, and potentially Rainbow Six: Vegas. And yet, despite my intentions, I found myself sucked into several solid sessions of Lumines II. That is one of the effects of the ever-increasing “average age of gamers” statistic that circulates from time to time, I think—those of us that have portable consoles tend to sit on the couch and play them, when there’s a perfectly good television right there.
Since there are no fundamental changes to the gameplay of Lumines II compared to its predecessor, a discussion of its merits and/or faults must be centered on the differences in presentation. The game still looks extremely pretty and slick. The music is still subtly altered by the actions of the player. The game itself is much larger than before, with more to see and do. A more interesting discussion, though, has to do with the choice of music.
US: 2 Nov 2006
Pretty much every piece of journalism regarding Lumines II has had things to say (largely negative) about the inclusion of licensed tracks in the game. While the first game was largely scored by Mondo Grosso, Japanese dance virtuoso, the sequel also contains tracks by Gwen Stefani, Missy Elliot, and Hoobastank, amongst others. As something of a music snob, I was initially taken aback by the mention of these artists in the context of such a, to coin a term, “rave-happy” game. There is, however, more to the story. The truth is, licensed music doesn’t destroy the experience by itself. The inclusion of “Regret” by New Order, for example, is extremely refreshing. Similarly too, The Go! Team is well represented here. Fatboy Slim, though I’m not a fan personally, at least fits with the aesthetics of the game.
Unfortunately, there are a couple of issues related to the licensed tracks that are extremely irritating. The first is that clearly not all the licensed music was chosen because it works. Hoobastank has absolutely no place in this game. Even more insidious is that in making the decision to include Beck, “Black Tambourine” was the song selected for integration into the game, even as he has countless other songs that would work better. It is in instances like these that the slimy handshake between the label executives and whoever at Q Entertainment made this decision is most strongly felt. I’ve read the argument that skins can be turned off in “skin edit mode”, but that mode limits you to playing only 10 skins. Further, as I discussed in my review of the first Lumines, removal of skins or reordering subtly alters the intended difficulty progression of the game and is therefore undesirable, if you wish to progress along the path set by the developers.
The second problem with the licensed tracks is with the execution of their integration into the skins. For the most part, the skins for these tracks contain a full motion background of the music video for the song. Though I don’t, as many seem to, find the game that much more difficult to play in these instances, the presence of these videos does seem intrusive in the sense that at its best, Lumines seeks to engage the player so intensely, in a man-machine-music trinity, that the barking image of an actual musician jarringly inhibits the flow that players of the game come to enjoy in their most focused sessions.
Partially, perhaps, in an effort to address the anticipated backlash to the musical changes, Lumines II includes a rudimentary sequencer, allowing players to make their own tracks. This serves as an interesting diversion, but I imagine that as it’s fleshed out in future iterations of the game, it will become even more fun. Right now, it’s a little too basic to provide any actual depth. However, it is a step in a direction that would allow the Lumines franchise to become a living, breathing entity, as opposed to the general stagnation demonstrated by the Tetris franchise. It would be potentially extremely interesting to provide players with the toolsets necessary to make their own skins, complete with music tracks, and then allow a mechanism for these user-created skins to be downloaded for play. Clearly, this is more the domain of PC games, but with the advent of online connectivity, stores and microtransactions in the home console market, the idea doesn’t seem that far-fetched.
This brings us back to my initial thoughts. If I have so many criticims about the musical direction of the sequel, why was I locked into playing it all weekend long? The answer, simply, is that Lumines II is still a fundamentally ingenious game. This is clearly a Tetris for the electronic age, and the basics of the gameplay are so elegant that minor missteps cannot completely ruin the experience. I wouldn’t have been happy had they simply put out the same game as before, so in the name of trying new things, the developers at Q Entertainment still deserve some praise. Even so, it’s obvious that further mistakes, no matter whose fault, will eventually add up, tarnishing the reputation of the franchise as a whole. From the debacle of having to purchase the game piecemeal on Xbox Live to some of the musical attrocities committed to UMD in this version, I sincerely hope that the beautiful sheen of Lumines is able to again go from the surface to the core, as was the case with its first installment.