“The art of simplicity is a puzzle of complexity.”
“The following is a contributor post by the Hopeful Sega Mage.”
I’ve always had a bit of a love-hate relationship with Columns. If you’ve seen my reviews before, you know that I generally play action games. In the past, I’ve not been the biggest fan of slower paced games that require thought and strategy. However, in recent years I’ve found myself playing more puzzle games and exercising my grey matter. I feel like I’ve missed out on a lot of these games over the years and I’ve made an effort to try and play puzzle games that I’ve dismissed before. I’ve enjoyed Candy Crush despite it being a mobile game, and I’ve even been tempted to grab a version of Tetris for my PS4.
Ah, Tetris… it’s difficult to discuss Columns without mentioning Tetris. Alexey Pajitnov’s classic was very popular during the 80’s, and there were many versions across several formats. It’s not hard to see why – with the success of Tetris in the late 80’s, publishers were falling over themselves to try and release their own version. It was Nintendo that locked down an exclusive deal on non-Japanese console versions of Tetris and as a result, Nintendo reaped the rewards.
The success of Tetris on the Nintendo Game Boy can not be underestimated. Tetris was a system seller and a game that could be enjoyed by all players, young and old. Nintendo had seen Tetris‘ potential and made the decision to have Tetris as the Game Boy’s pack-in game ahead of their own Super Mario Land. When you consider the quality and appeal of Mario’s games in the eighties, it was a big decision by Nintendo. History shows that it was the correct decision.
Meanwhile, Sega were one of the publishers who had been left out in the cold. They had been able to release their own commercially and critically successful version of Tetris in 1988 in the Japanese arcades. Once Nintendo made the Tetris license theirs exclusively, Sega had to look for their own puzzle game. They couldn’t port their version of Tetris to the Master System or their new Mega Drive console.
They found the solution when they saw Columns in 1989. Created by Jay Geertsen at Hewlett-Packard, Columns was a ‘match-three’ puzzler inspired by a Japanese game called Chain Shot!, with the aim of the game being to match up three coloured blocks. Originally developed for Macintosh computers, Columns was also ported to Atari ST and PC formats before Sega purchased the Columns license from Geertsen in 1990.
In Columns, Sega saw a Tetris variation that could appeal to gamers in the same way Tetris had by being a launch title for their upcoming handheld, the Game Gear. While Sega had envisioned Columns as a Game Gear title initially, they soon made the call to release Columns on every format they could. An arcade game came first, followed by the Mega Drive port, then the 8-bit versions in 1991.
So now I’ve got the history part out of the way, how does Columns stack up (no pun intended) in 2019?
Visuals – 5/10
While Columns is a simple game visually, it does have a charm to it. There is a ton of bold colours, both in the blocks themselves and the Ancient Greek inspired presentation. While there is nothing graphically impressive, Columns does everything it needs to do right – it’s appealing and functional without ever being amazing. I always think that puzzle games do have an advantage over other genres in that they don’t date as easily, but Columns does hold up fairly well. If you look at the arcade original of Columns, the Mega Drive port is fairly faithful; I think only a diehard arcade Columns fan would notice the downgrade in graphics.
Audio – 7/10
The music for Columns, composed for the arcade game by veteran Sega composer Tokuhiko Uwabo (Space Harrier, Fantasy Zone and Phantasy Zone II, to name a few) is ported perfectly to the Mega Drive. The main theme from Columns (“Clotho”) is an odd one. I didn’t like it at first, dismissing it as twee and rough around the edges. Now, it’s one of my favourite things about Columns. Clotho is a tune you can lose yourself in – like all great instrumental music, it’s a landscape… it’s ever present but never interferes with your thought process.
That said, I actually think Clotho (and the rest of the Columns soundtrack) would be better suited to the Super Nintendo than the Mega Drive. The SNES has a more varied sound palette compared to the Mega Drive’s grungy, metallic sound chip and I think the tunes here do suffer due to this. Columns‘ score is more orchestral than the likes of Golden Axe, and I think the Mega Drive’s sound chip actually does Columns a disservice.
I’m a big fan of Columns‘ sound effects. If you’ve read my reviews before, you probably think I have an odd obsession with sound effects. You’d be right, I do – I think sound effects need to suit the action on screen yet stand out, and I think that Columns‘ effects do that. They’re quite distinctive and fit the game’s Mediterranean feel well. Some might find them a bit irritating, but I like that they are so high pitched…it gives them a sense of urgency that enhances the gameplay.
Gameplay – 7/10
This area is probably where Columns shines most – it’s a fun game to play and certainly has its addictive qualities. I find myself often playing to try and beat my score, and I’m usually surprised at how much time passes. Columns plays well too – a puzzle game lives and dies by its controls and Columns is responsive and simple.
There is definitely a ‘one more go’ factor with Columns, though I wish it had more strategy to it. While it’s a game I can happily lose myself it, Columns seems a bit simple sometimes and I find myself wanting more depth from its gameplay. If not a story mode to get my teeth into, then maybe a few challenge modes or timed modes…just something to keep my interest! The Flash Columns mode is a nice idea (you have to eliminate the flashing block as quickly as possible) but it would have been nice for a few other modes to be added.
Themes – 5/10
In terms of theme, Columns has a nice consistent thread running through it. The Mediterranean setting fits the game well and is quite memorable. I like that even the games manual tries to tie Columns to this era (see above) – it’s a small touch, but I appreciate the effort. It would have been easy to just throw Columns out with no frills and plain graphics, but Sega, to their credit, did try to do something interesting with what could have been a very bland game.
Accessibility – 8/10
Columns is one of those games that can be played by anyone. It’s a relatively easy game to understand and like many puzzle games, it’s a very easy game to control. If someone has played Tetris before, they should be able to pick up Columns pretty easily. I imagine most people have played a variation of the ‘match three’ puzzler before so Columns would be second nature to most players.
Columns is a very easy game to get hold of too. It’s fairly easy to find in original cartridge form for the Mega Drive, both on its own and as part of the Mega Games I compilation (along with World Cup Italia 90 and Super Hang On.) Columns has also been re-released many times on various formats as part of Sega’s compilations. It’s one of those games that Sega now release on every format, which is probably due to its small file size and simplicity to play.
Replayability – 8/10
I do think Columns has a lot of replay value. There’s always the challenge of trying to beat your score, I personally find Columns quite a challenge but then I’m terrible at puzzle games! Columns also has a two-player mode which adds some depth to the game.
Again, puzzle games have an advantage over story-based games in that the appeal of playing the game is testing your skill, not following a character’s story. As a test of skill, Columns is fun to revisit, whether you are trying to better your last score or simply try and survive longer than previously. That said, I do find my attention wandering after a few rounds of Columns… there is something missing to stop me being drawn in for hours on end. I think that, once you’ve tested your skills a few times, then there isn’t really a hook beyond that.
Uniqueness – 5/10
The concept of Columns isn’t unique – Columns owes a debt to Chain Shot!, the Japanese puzzle game from 1985. I imagine that there are tons of variations and clones throughout the 80’s, across a variety of formats. Given the simplicity of puzzle games, there are probably thousands of similar bootlegs. releases and knock offs of Columns out there.
However, I do think Columns‘ presentation stands out and separates it from its imitators. When I think about Columns, I think about its classical presentation and the music. These aspects really give Columns some personality and help it stand out among the Mega Drive’s early games.
Personal Grade – 6/10
I like Columns, but I don’t love it. It’s a great game to fill ten minutes or so but I don’t think it has the addictive appeal of Tetris. Columns also seems a bit simplistic against later puzzle games such as Dr Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine or the Puzzle Fighter series. While matching three blocks is good fun, I find myself missing the tension and strategy of Mean Bean Machine.
That said, Columns is a game that I often like to throw on for a quick go. It’s a great time filler and an easy game to play if I’m tired or have little time in the evening. I don’t think Columns is a game that would inspire a long gaming session, but as a distraction from another game or for a quick score challenge, it’s fantastic. I’d recommend Columns to any one who likes to dabble in puzzle games, someone who likes to play them out of curiosity or to scratch an itch as opposed to a hard core puzzle fan.
Aggregated Score: 6.4
The Hopeful Sega Mage is a Sega obsessive who shouldn’t be approached by members of the public. However, he can be found on Twitter at @carrythegary and here at The Well-Red Mage, if you wish to discuss Japanese Mega Drive artwork and the greatness of Altered Beast.
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Categories: Game Review