Friday, 2 April 2010


All Sega fans of a certain age know about this one. It was Sega's answer to Tetris (sort-of), and it's a horrible game that keeps coming back to haunt us, never improving and never matching the power of Tetris. Being one of the simplest (and most likely smallest) games for that system, it popped up in numerous compilations too boost the game count and help drive sales. It's droning, repetitive music killing brain cells until we inevitably pluck up the courage to say "to hell with Columns" and turn off the console. Or maybe that's just me.

Columns was one of the first Mega Drive titles released, and I'm not entirely sure what it was trying to prove. Engineered by Jay Geertsen for the X Window System before the rights were sold to Sega, the game first showed up on the Mega Drive in 1990, and was marketed as one of the reasons to switch from Nintendo's NES. Of course, it turned up on other platforms - the Sega Game Gear, MSX, NEC PC-9801, Sega Master System and TurboGrafx-16 all got some Columns action. It even managed to get on the SNES... so herein lies my point that it wasn't above and beyond the competition. Before Sega got ahold of the rights, there were DOS and Atari ST versions, but these aren't half as nice to look at.

Those with eagle eyes will notice that the screenshots in this blog post are from the Sega System C arcade version, which is the basis for all the Sega ports. The Mega Drive copy is almost identical due to similar hardware, but is forced to make a few tiny graphical cutbacks due to a smaller palette to work from. Columns works reasonably well as an arcade game because it's short and simple. As a Mega Drive title, it's hard to justify its original hefty price tag... but I've got similar gripes with old NES games such as Urban Champion so it's nothing new.

Columns is very much like Tetris, except rather than having tetrads (or shapes made up of four blocks), you're given columns made of three blocks. You can't rotate these columns, but you can rotate the pieces making up the columns. By combining three pieces of an identical colour in a line (either vertical, horizontal or diagonal), these pieces will be removed and all pieces above will fall down. Your job is to get rid of as many pieces as possible before you inevitably die. Sounds simple enough right?

Issues with the original Columns game are similar to those of the original Tetris games. Tetris without extra features to spice up gameplay or a one player mode involving puzzles or whatever is quite dull, especially when the programmer doesn't even bother to put in a decent rotation system. It worked on the Game Boy on the basis that the Game Boy is a handheld console. The Mega Drive was twice the price new and you couldn't effectively carry it anywhere. Whereas it does have a two-player mode, gameplay is still very limited. There's a "flash Columns" mode (which is essentially the only addition thing the Mega Drive offers), but it's still boring and you may not even realise it exists.

I don't completely hate Columns because it still has some redeeming qualities to it. The graphics are still quite nice (well... when you compare it to NES puzzle games anyway) and when bundled as part of a compilation it's decent value for money. It does, however, have one of the worst musical scores ever seen in a puzzle game (yes I would put Sonic Eraser above this). Tetris has the advantage because it's more up-beat, as is the game, whereas Columns both sounds and feels slow and bulky. There are only seven music tracks (which include the menus and jingles), and a grand total of eight sound effects. This is as basic as they come. There's less in the Arcade version, which is even more frightening.

The biggest blunder of all of course is that it's better on the Game Gear/Master System as it offers everything the Mega Drive version does (almost) plus the ability customise the blocks. The game is much more suited to 8-bit hardware due to being so basic in nature, though there's still room for improvement. Of course being released on a 16-bit platform meant that Columns could be one of the first (and only) games to have multiple title screens... which is a plus, apparently.

Columns in the arcades would be followed by the practically identical "Columns II" in the same year. This isn't really worth caring about, though it does liven things up a little with changes of scenery. Columns II has never escaped arcades, which is a bit odd seeing as it was still running on System C hardware.

However "Columns III" would show up on the Mega Drive in 1993 and offer a proper single-player experience, much better music and improved graphics, plus numerous other tweaks. Then Columns would show up on a number of other platforms, neither being particularly successful or notable. The problem of course is that they all still play like Columns, and are therefore doomed to never be as good as Tetris or Puyo Puyo (which was also released on Sega System C hardware). And of course later games would be competing with other falling brick games such as the mighty Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo. Many of the newer versions of Columns are still haunted by the original themes, which although after being remixed aren't as annoying, may still trigger bad memories.

Columns III is a much more worthy purchase than Columns I as Sega addressed many of the original game's flaws. Though I still can't put it higher than Tetris, it puts up a good fight, and it's a shame this hasn't been re-released as much as its prequel.

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