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Lumines

(Ubisoft; US: Jul 2007)

Digital Nicotine

When I was younger, I had to make decisions about which systems I wanted, because my parents would only purchase so many. Now that I’m an adult with a job and no familial responsibilities, I apparently have to have every major system that comes along. And for better or worse, I don’t always feel that my purchase has been validated. It takes a game that I connect with for that to happen, and as much as I love this hobby of mine, it doesn’t happen that often.


For instance, I love my GameCube, but I didn’t feel that I couldn’t have lived without it until The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker and Metroid: Prime came along. The same holds true for the Xbox and Ninja Gaiden. I am still waiting for something to justify my purchase of the Nintendo DS. At this point, given how much time I’ve spent playing Lumines, I would almost be justified in buying another PSP.


Lumines succeeds largely because it is both very similar to and yet completely different from any falling block puzzle game before it. In a sense, every falling block game follows the same lifecycle. They are initially about understanding what it takes to eliminate pieces. Then theories emerge about how to eliminate as many pieces at once to get your score to leap higher. Finally, they become about efficiency. How does one use every piece that comes along in a way that wastes as little as possible? The more you waste, the more precious space you take up, and hence decrease maneuverability. In Lumines, all you’re doing is attempting to make squares out of two-by-two blocks of two possible colors.


What Lumines brings to the genre is an unmistakable sense of style. This is no surprise considering it comes to us from the mastermind behind Space Channel 5 and one of my favorite examples of games as art, Rez. Rez took the rail-shooter formula and added a level of synesthesia rarely seen before, marrying sight, sound, and, to some degree, touch in a remarkable way. The opportunities to do this on a handheld, even one as powerful as the PSP and further within the confines of the puzzle genre, are somewhat more limited.


The genius of Rez was that by its very nature (RE: rail-shooter) it can potentially play out the same way every time. Yet Rez had a system such that audio was dynamic based on the timing and number of enemies targeted before shots were fired, and graphics were similarly adjusted incrementally based on performance, with more detail being added and taken away as play continued. What this means is that, generally speaking, no two games looked or sounded identical.


Such an attempt at an interactive experience in a puzzle game has less impact. Puzzle games are never the same twice, regardless of graphics or music. So allowing the user to add layers of complexity to the music by sound effects tied to rotating and moving the falling pieces, isn’t as noticeable as with a rail-shooter like Rez.


This observation does not take away from the things that Lumines does extremely well. First of all, it follows the classic puzzle game tenet of being easy to learn but difficult to master. As such, each time a new level is attained it’s extremely rewarding. Further, the sense of style in Lumines is unmatched with respect to a design aesthetic. This is a game made of simple shapes and lines, and yet is more likely to play on the back of your eyelids repeatedly than any 3D-modelled FPS.


Finally, the timeline is a welcome addition to the puzzle genre. A line, sweeping from left to right in rhythm with the music, must cross completed squares for them to be deleted. As levels progress, a number of changes occur. The most noticeable of these changes are the color schemes, backgrounds, and music. Slightly more subtle, but with a dramatic impact on gameplay, is the timing of the sweeping line. In some levels, it comes across every few seconds. In others, perhaps those with a lazy reggae theme, it may only sweep across the screen at maddeningly slow eight or nine second intervals. This tensely allows several squares to build up as the player waits nervously for the line to pass and free up some space.


Many reviews have discussed how the progression of levels is the same every time, and how such rigidity of presentation can be irritating. Such comments overlook the fundamental change to gameplay represented by the changing intervals of the timeline. Further, the color schemes are designed in some levels to be extremely well-defined, while they are somewhat easy to confuse in others. Thus the degree of difficulty of the game at any given time is a complex interaction of a number of elements including the tempo of the music (and hence the timeline), the color and presentation, the amount of distractions presented by the background, and the speed at which the blocks fall. Hence complaining about the set order of the game is like claiming that Tetris should be presented with random levels of difficulty as the player progresses.


The truth is, Lumines has been something of an emotional rollercoaster for me. I frequently yell expletives when I accidentally place a block in the wrong space or with the wrong orientation, even employing optimal strategy. But when it clicks, Lumines is a meditative experience that makes time disappear more than almost any other game I’ve played. Even after a few weeks I still play it on a daily basis, which has made me late for work more often than I care to admit. However, it has been completely worth it.

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