Columns Review

Developer: Sega Publisher: Sega
Release Date: 1990 Also On: None

You know what I hate? I hate when programmers try to cash in on new
innovations with generally poor mock-ups of the original. Sometimes these
knock-offs can be decent, or even good, but sometimes they just suck or are
so average they suck even more. I’d rather they just straight suck than be
average. What a lead in, huh? Well, here you go, a knock-off of one of the
greatest games of all time, Tetris. It was a given someone, somewhere, at
some time would have tried to cash in on the Tetris craze. Sega wasn’t the
only company, mind you, to do this, even Nintendo milked it with titles like
“Dr. Mario” and “Yoshi’s Cookie.” However, those games were fun. Columns,
overall, is only average.

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Mediocre. That’s all I need to say about the graphics in Columns. Of course,
how fancy can you get with a puzzle game right? I mean, Tetris was just a
bunch of falling blocks with different colors now and then, so what’s wrong
with this? Well, you see, Tetris avoids this by adding in-between round
cinematics as well as having good gameplay. Columns does not present well.
Basically, you have the same sort of playing field as in Tetris, and you
have to organize falling stacks of three symbols in order to eliminate
what’s below. The symbols can be altered to different shapes like pieces of
fruit, but a few of the alterations make them difficult to see amongst
others, such as the dice symbols. The backgrounds are black with shooting
stars, grey blocks for the versus mode, and this lame looking, slow moving
racetrack for the “flash” part of the game. Why a racetrack? That doesn’t
make any sense. The animations are nice for the blocks as you move them, but
it’s not a programming marvel to make a stack of three blocks alternate only
up and down. The score section and such doesn’t present very well either,
quite bland. Some in-between level segments or something would have been
nice. Maybe a silly story? I don’t know.

The opening theme is actually decent; I liked that, but the in-game music
is, yet again, average. It has this sound to it, which is an obvious
mimickery of the Tetris tunes. Might as well go all the way with mimickery,
right? There was an attempt to pretend Columns was a “historical game,” most
specifically Phoenician, so I can hear them attempting to pull off some
classic themes as such. I really doubt this was played by “Middle Eastern
merchants centuries ago.” The song for the main segment of the game is
decent overall, though the odd periods of “silence” in the song for the main
segment breaks up the action and feels awkward. The two-player versus song
is decent, nothing spectacular, but not bad. The song for the “flash”
segment, good god what is it? It’s awful, one of the worst songs ever
created in video game history. It’s so simplistic and drab it nearly defies
explanation. The thud for falling blocks is okay I suppose, and the sound
when you make matches is nice as long as your symbols are gems, but the
music is just dreadful. The ear-piercing twitter when you advance a level is
annoying. Overall, needed some work in this category.

As far as gameplay is concerned, Columns, though a knock-off, is not
entirely bad. Basically, you have columns of three symbols coming from
above. Using Button 1 and 2 you can alternate which symbol is at the top,
in the middle and on the bottom, but you cannot in any way move the actual
column from a vertical position. It always remains vertical. When you
match at least three of the same symbol in a row vertically, horizontally or
diagonally, you eliminate said blocks. Sometimes, if you do it right,
you’ll eliminate several in a row, but this tends to be mainly chance as
it’s nearly impossible to gauge what’s going to fall after what without
having a savant mentality.

There is an option screen to tweak the
difficulty or choose levels, as well as three separate types of games to
play. You have the original version, where you just match as mentioned
above, the flash version, where you have to eat away at the blocks on the
bottom to get to a flashing symbol. Match with that and you win the round.
There is also a two-player versus version, where you play the original
version against an opponent. For every additional match you make, a section
of unbreakable blocks appears in your opponent’s space until you cut them
off. In addition, the other two versions have an additional two-player
mode, but this is pretty lame because it’s just the first player moving a
column, then the second and so forth. Okay. I guess it could be fun, I
don’t know.

So you have ten levels in all (starting from 0 and going to 9) and three
difficulty settings. So what’s the problem here? First, you are severely
limited in what you’re able to do. The genius of Tetris is that you can
move any shapes around that you like, fitting whatever you can into openings
to make lines. As it gets faster, you have to think faster. Here, you just
match colors and really can’t plan ahead in any way because of the chance
element present, you only work from the top down. It’s pretty much
impossible to determine your game before you do it in Columns.

Second, and
most importantly, there is a little trick I found here that drops the
challenge to the floor. As your columns are coming down, you can just
repeatedly press Button 1 or 2, constantly rotating the symbols. As it
comes down wherever you put it, the game will automatically match whatever
works as you cycle through the symbols. Even when it gets really fast and
the columns are falling quickly, by using this you can get much farther in
the advanced levels than you would actually trying to set up your symbols
before they fall. This really, really makes it too easy. You can simply
button mash and become a master, there’s no thinking involved, whereas in
Tetris when you get high enough you have to have skills.

There is no way to call Columns creative. It simply takes basic ideas from
one of the greatest games of all time but doesn’t really do anything unique
with them. In fact, it’s actually based off an earlier Famicom game called
“Magic Jewelry,” so by itself it’s an almost pirated title. There’s nothing
new here, just another game trying to cash in on a temporary craze.

As for replay value, there are no actual endings. Make it far enough in
Yoshi’s Cookie or Tetris, and you get nice little cinematics for your
efforts. Once you get to level nine in Columns, it just stays there,
doesn’t even get any faster. In addition, you raise levels way too fast.
It only takes about five to ten minutes to get to the highest level using
the trick I mentioned above when it gets faster. This, then, gets to the
game length. Way too short. I suppose it could be somewhat entertaining to
play with a friend, and this does have a two-player versus feature that was
missing from Tetris, but regardless the basic gameplay kind of ruins it
anyway. Honestly, I doubt you’ll have a reason to play this again and again
for any extended period of time.

In conclusion, Columns isn’t necessarily disappointing, it’s just average.
Granted, Sega had to throw a puzzle title out there for the already dying
Master System in the states, but why they chose this I’m uncertain. Surely
they could have done better with Lemmings, released in Europe? There were a
few puzzle games released elsewhere, one of which is incredible, but I won’t
speak of them here because this is in references to what the NTSC audience
had access too. Strangely enough they released this bugger on a few other
systems, without really changing anything other than some graphics. Yeah,
that’s all I need to say about that.

Graphics: 5.5
Sound: 5
Gameplay: 5.5
Creativity: 2
Replay Value/Game Length: 3
Final: 4.2
Written by Stan Review Guide

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