Update: I had to add in some clarifications and a correction for a feature I thought the game had that it turned out it didn’t. Everything should be in order now, though!
Tetsuya Mizuguchi stumbled into game design. Don’t ask me how. His Wikipedia article says he just sort of got an interview at Sega in its good ol’ Genesis days and got a job. Previously, he’d been a media aesthetics major in college. Now, I don’t even know what a major like that entails, but obviously his roots have shown up in his games. The creator of games like Space Channel 5 and Rez, he’s shown an affinity towards being immersed in media of all kinds; visual AND auditory. Space Channel 5 was a loopy, kitschy escapade through a future as envisioned by a 1960s mod designer. It owed as much of its heritage to retro pop art as it did to Michael Jackson music videos (the King of Pop himself actually guest starred in the game). Rez… jeez, how do you even begin to explain Rez? At its simplest level, it’s a 3D on-rails shooter. At its most complex, it’s a way to experience synesthesia, a blending of the senses. Its visuals were ahead of its time, inspired by modernist painter Wassily Kandinsky. Every action the player took in the game triggered a sympathetic aural reaction that added to the game’s driving techno background music. Both games have become sleeper hits among discerning gamers.
But Mizuguchi’s studio inside Sega, United Game Artists, wasn’t long for this world and eventually it was absorbed into Sonic Team, causing Mizuguchi to leave Sega and form his own independent studio, Q Entertainment. Mizuguchi now seemed to be fascinated with puzzle games and created one for each fledgling handheld: Lumines for Sony PSP and Meteos for Nintendo DS. One of them became a breakaway hit spawning several spin-offs and a sequel. One did not. Guess which.
Lumines, like all god-fearing puzzle games, focuses on falling, colored blocks. In this case, Lumines eschews Tetris‘ iconic block configurations to simply use 2×2 squares comprised of various combinations of two colors. The colors themselves can change depending on the game (more on that later), but it’s always just two. Players are then forced to arrange the falling blocks so that they form 2×2 squares of a single color, which makes this square begin to glow. From there on, you can add blocks of two squares of the same color onto the block you already made in an attempt to make your chain grow larger. But unlike most puzzle games, making the single-color block doesn’t make it disappear right away.
You see, there’s something called a “timeline” that sweeps across the stage at a steady pace. As it goes across the stage, it vaporizes the blocks that have been color-matched. So making matches depends not only on the skill of the player, but on his or her timing. There’s nothing worse than building a block only to have the timeline sweep through it halfway, only taking half the amount of blocks you wanted it to. I’ve had so many chains ruined by this it’s not even funny. So Lumines demands an entirely different type of concentration than Tetris, making the player focus not only on the placement of blocks, but their relation to the constantly moving timeline. If all this sounds confusing, it sort of is at first. I’ve included this video of gameplay footage (and quite cathartic footage, at that) to illustrate what I’ve been trying to describe. And, of course, in the time-honored tradition of falling block games, you get a game over when you stack blocks up to the top so that you can’t drop any more.
But of course, this is Mizuguchi. He wouldn’t stop at just making a mildly diverting puzzle experience. What he adds to the puzzle game formula is probably the most important and brilliant twist on it that’s occurred since Alexey Pajitnov practically defined the genre more than 20 years ago; at least when it comes to the falling block subgenre. You see, what Lumines brings to the stage is a concept called “skins.” A skin could be compared to a “stage” in Lumines. Each skin has its own BGM, its own set of sound effects, visuals and its own pattern for the binary color system. For example, Lumines II might switch to a stage with an African savanna background, thumping African drums and a binary color system of zebra stripes and leopard spots. You might also hear animal sounds or other appropriately-themed sound effects when you rotate a piece, or make a block.
This system not only adds variety and charm to Lumines, but also adds longevity. Lumines has you unlock new skins as you progress through different Challenge courses or battle CPU opponents. Lumines II also adds the absolutely treasured feature of a skin edit mode, letting you select a playlist of skins like you would on an MP3 player (you can set this for either a single run through or a repeating loop) and you can even edit your own tunes and save them as a unique skin! People that are musically inclined will be sure to eat this feature up with a spoon. It’s also great if you don’t want to bother with a certain song during regular Challenge mode.
Which brings me to my first real complaint. Normally during the course of a puzzle game, you don’t worry about the music. Occasionally, you’ll come across tunes that stick in your mind (Dr. Mario and The New Tetris are especially nefarious in this department) but never has a puzzle game been so fused with its background music as Lumines is. Knowing what to expect from the music is a good indicator for how good of a fit you are with the game. If you have any previous experience with Mizuguchi, you’ll know that he’s quite the electronic music aficionado, having worked with prominent Japanese DJs in Rez. Electronic music makes a strong return here in Lumines II, as well, with a combination of both licensed and original Q Entertainment music.
But the real draw of this game, if the space dedicated to it on the back of the box is to be believed, is the licensed pop music. It ranges from relatively cool (or at least decent) artists like Beck (his “Black Tambourine” skin is one of my favorites) to moldy turds like Black Eyed Peas’ “Pump It” (someone please tell me if Fergie’s a CG-enhanced mannequin or a real woman, it’s not obvious from looking at her at all). If the thought of hearing Hoobastank’s “Born to Lead” has you shifting uncomfortably in your seat and furrowing your brow, you’re not alone. Personally, this is where Skin Edit mode becomes a god-send. I don’t know if Mizuguchi included it in this version of Lumines specifically so that users could bypass the shaky additions to the soundtrack, but I thank god that he thought to include it. Hearing Gwen Stefani start out the video to “Hollaback Girl” by attempting to say “kawaii” is enough to get me a Purple Heart, in my opinion. I have found a soft spot in my heart for New Order’s “Regret“, however. The hook in the chorus is enough to keep me listening, no matter how wussy and mopey the song actually is. Sorry, metalheads/whatever-the-hell-else fans. Looks like you’ll have to stick with Guitar Hero/Dance Dance Revolution/the abandoned corner of your local record shop.
All of these licensed songs come with their respective videos, which are played in the background of their skins. I’m not really sure why this was done. You’re not exactly going to be looking past your blocks to see how Gwen Stefani is coordinating her dance moves, or to see just how much the Black Eyed Peas are blinging. It actually sort of distracts, since the other backgrounds for the skins are either static backdrops or generally sedate screensaver-type stuff. One can’t really fault Mizuguchi for wanting to take advantage of the PSP’s power, though. The game looks crisp and vibrant when it wants to be (one of the skins actually has the outlines of the blocks fuzzy on purpose, leading to a headache from me) and is a perfect showcase for the PSP’s strengths.
Moving on to failures apart from some sordid song selections (you thought I could hold back from alliterating for long?), the versus mode could use some work. Instead of allowing players to wirelessly connect through networks and play others from across the nation, the decision was made to limit the wireless capability of Lumines II to ad hoc connectivity. Basically, that means you have to find someone else with a PSP if you want to experience Lumines II’s multiplayer. That’s complete bullshit in the age of wifi and high-speed connections. If my Nintendo DS can allow me to visit a friend’s village in Animal Crossing: Wild World without having to actually be physically close to him or her, my PSP should let me connect to users from all across the country. As it is, PSP players are a rare lot. Turns out, the Game Sharing feature doesn’t even let you play 2P with a friend without a second UMD of Lumines II. It just gives them a demo. Seriously, what the fuck? Sony wants to seriously compete with Nintendo and Microsoft, but they’re trailing behind even Nintendo in the portable network category? Nintendo, who treat the Internet like the apes treat the obelisk in 2001: A Space Odyssey? No wonder the PSP’s been a massive waste of potential.
There are other modes, too: Time Attack, Puzzle and Mission mode. Honestly, I don’t use them very much, although there will be the subset of people that become consumed by the challenges they hold. Mission mode just didn’t compel me as much as the regular modes because of the small doses of gameplay and lack of variety of skins. Plus, I don’t think you really unlock anything by beating it (feel free to correct me if I’m wrong). Puzzle mode just seemed too confusing and difficult to bother with, to tell the truth. The elegant simplicity of the regular mode keeps calling to me.
Another odd factor to keep in mind while playing the game is that the widescreen aspect ratio of the PSP’s screen gives Lumines II a much wider playing field than we’re normally used to. I know that I often catch myself ignoring one half of the screen while futilely piling blocks up in the other, completely oblivious to the fact that I could be utilizing all that other space. Also, with so much to keep track of, I don’t really use the “next piece” preview window that’s become the standard for puzzle games. If someone has enough working memory to use it to augment their planning, go for it. My mind’s a little too feeble for that, though.
And there’s an interesting tidbit to the game’s design that leads me to wonder. You see, you can’t have hanging pieces like you do in Tetris. If you have a part of a block hanging off of an edge, it’s pulled by gravity down to the ground. This gives the playing field the rising and falling shape of an equalizer. Could Lumines have been conceived by Mizuguchi staring at an equalizer for too long while developing one of his other games? It’s likely, if you ask me.
It’s not hard to see why Lumines became the game to own on the PSP back when the system debuted. It spoke perfectly about the type of system Sony was trying to shill. It was a video game, yeah, but it was also a multimedia experience that couldn’t be duplicated on a Nintendo DS. Lumines II adds onto the philosophy of the original and does so admirably, turning it into probably the most seminal puzzling experience since the revered Russian rotating shapes (that’s two!). The fusion of music to the genre is something that only Mizuguchi could’ve realized so completely, and after you play it, you wonder how you played puzzle games that WEREN’T built like this before. The impression I got from Lumines II is that it was the MTV2 of puzzle games. Let me explain that I use this expression with the idea of MTV2 as it was before it was Viacom’s dumping grounds for episodes of Pimp My Ride that they somehow couldn’t fit on MTV’s regularly scheduled programming. No, I’m talking about the heyday of MTV2 where you were as likely to find a Bjork video marathon or a Daft Punk masterpiece as you were to see Missy Elliot jumping around in a garbage bag. This meeting of eclecticism and mainstream pop sensibility leads to a unique taste that gives Lumines II its charm and appeal. One has to wonder what Nintendo ever did to Mizuguchi to be denied its own installment in this lucrative franchise and to be given the frumpy Meteos instead. Maybe Sega loyalties die hard.