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Columns

Genre: Puzzle Developer: Sega of Japan Publisher: Sega of America Players: 1-2 Released: 1990

Clotho. Lachesis. Atropos.

The three Moirae of ancient Greece thread the loom of fate; they spin, measure and sever the cords of life in turn. Through an act of uncharacteristic charity, these three women have donated their distinguished names to Sega Enterprises for commercial use as song titles in the “well” puzzle game Columns. Backgrounded by this musical trinity, Columns recounts the story of placid misspent youth and the grim inevitability of gruesome, bloody death. Fear not to fall in battle, for the high score charts of Elysium await the most valorous of combatants! The first title screen weaves a tapestry of competitive camaraderie, jewels spilling forth from a vanquished warrior’s copper urn. The bronze engravings of the second title screen depict a striking scene of beauty; even heavenly angels partake of Columns, spilling their multicoloured gems at the holy feet of God as He smiles gently on.

It’s a load of nonsense. Sega wastefully grafts this idea to that with total disregard for proper craftsmanship, sculpting a disfigured golem that doesn’t deserve a place in its pantheon of classics. I’d love to smash this wasteful idol into a thousand heathen pieces, but I’ll valiantly resist. Let’s instead consider it with calm but determined resolve!

Imagine yourself lying on an elegant red satin bed, watching the rain pour through an enormous hole in the ceiling of your luxurious marble-pillared manor. As defense against the harsh midnight storm, set a sturdy pail beneath that gaping hole to prevent your fine Persian rug from being drenched. To any reasonable aristocrat’s surprise and gluttonous delight, valuable rubies, sapphires, amethysts, opals and emeralds pour from the sky and fill the orange bucket! Alas, this rain of wealth does not bring happiness but instead delivers despair; should the bucket overflow with glittery precipitation then the game is done, the fun is over, the jig is up!

Rather than plummet in an erratic downpour, these baubles descend at varying speeds in columnar sets of three, forming a multicoloured gemstone totem built from ruby set on sapphire and crowned by opal (to provide but one example). As the jewels descend, line up three or more of the same persuasion horizontally, vertically or diagonally. When arranged like so, the monochromatic trio vanishes.

It’s different but it’s not better. Research on neuroscience and spatial intelligence find that color manipulation is less intuitive than the pattern organization of Tetris; thus, Columns is less accessible to the populace at large. Furthermore, unlike the color-based Puyo Pop, the falling columns absolutely cannot be rotated horizontally or laid flat on their sides; thus, Columns is less accessible to the populace at small. The inherent disadvantage of the perpetually vertical orientation is apparent: ladders stand taller than planks. This is important because, as in one million and four other puzzle games, you lose when the playing pieces spill over the top of the screen. In Tetris and Puyo Pop, pieces can be rotated to function as either ladders or planks. In Columns, there’s no choice. Whether you like it or not, you’re delivered nothing but ladders, so the screen fills more quickly, allowing less latitude for strategic movement and pattern manipulation.

Let’s now consider the atmosphere. In the case of Columns, Sega has opted for subtlety, relying on thematic music instead of overloading the screen with singing fish, stethoscoped plumbers or midget martial artists (MMA). To the game’s detriment, the soundtrack isn’t appealing. Clotho’s theme begins slowly and methodically, bridging into a vibrant but somewhat shrill celebration of existence. That’s the good one. The squealing theme of ‘Lathesis’ [sic], a drawn-out sequence of harsh and strident notes, would be inappropriately slow-paced for any frantic puzzle game; it’s not only lazy and ill-fitting and spelled incorrectly, it’s outright irritating. The theme of ‘Atropos’ rounds out the musical trinity. Third of an insufficient three, this song rows merrily, merrily, merrily down the River Styx. It’s unusual that the bounciest melody would be named after the most feared of Fates; that’s like naming a carnival tune ‘Grim Reaper’, which wouldn’t work unless it’s a demonic carnival tune from CarnEvil. This ‘Atropos’ song falls far from demonic, regal, dramatic or anything else that would have even remotely matched the visual theme of Columns.

The even more deceptive Sega CD version opens with a surprisingly evocative Egyptian theme, obscuring the game’s blatantly Greek inspirations. This 20-second mesh of electric guitar and snappy percussion tricks you into thinking the game might actually feature CD music, but once the adventure begins you’ll burst jewels to the same sounds as your socially inferior, digitally deprived brethren.

Wouldn’t it have been great if the action began with the happy melody, continued with the energetic theme, and kicked into a frightening screech near the point of demise? If only! Unlike other ‘well’ puzzle games that adjust the music to match the action, Columns stickpins you in the ear with a single track throughout. You’re likely to listen to the same music (Clotho) each time you play for the entire duration of that play… unless you’ve been bewitched by the banshee wails of ‘Lathesis’ [sic]. I find that unlikely. Even hypnotic banshees flaunted their bare breasts for extra added man-tempting charm; outside of the extravagantly ornate dual title screens, Columns lacks any sensual visual appeal.

Now let’s consider that the Genesis and Sega CD versions of Columns contain fewer features and gameplay modes than the version you could instead have purchased for the 8-bit Master System. That’s right; in the world of Columns, twice the bits add up to fewer features! Okay, that’s enough consideration. Judged on either its mechanics or its atmosphere, Columns is a problematic and troublesome mess, fated to forever dwell in the shadows of its hallowed rivals.

SCORE: 3 out of 10

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4 Comments

  1. Joeyb says:

    I forgot to mention how many times while playing against someone you just wait to get the “magic jewel” so you could clear some of your board. That would allow you momentarily to somewhat tell your opponent they’re going down!

  2. Joeyb says:

    Ok. I played this game so much that when I shut the game off and blinked, I saw “disappearing” column blocks. That’s crazy. Anyway. Play this game against someone and it turns into a flippen war! I could never justify a “3” but that’s all opinion. A “7” without even thinking about it.

  3. john8248 says:

    Columns warrants a solid 7 out of 10 in my opinion. It’s very relaxing; plays well; and has some very nice music. Not sure what half of this review was rambling on about, but hey – to each their own.

  4. Doug Jackson says:

    I’ve been playing a lot of Columns and it’s sequels lately and have to admit that I find this first game far more enjoyable then I ever used to. I really enjoy the music too. While it’ll never be Tetris it’s still a solid well based puzzle game and a solid 7/10 for me.

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