No one seemed to care much about last week’s post, probably because it was on a taboo subject in a game less than 60,000 North Americans have played, so this week I decided to go big. I’m not talking about a terrible game, I’m talking about a terrible franchise: Columns. I can’t possibly talk about all of the games in this series because there are at least 20 (including ports), so I narrowed it down to 4: Columns, Columns II, Columns III, and Columns ’97. Be warned: it’s still a long one.
Let’s start with Columns on the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive. Perhaps you remember everyone’s review of this game when it was released on Steam a few weeks ago. It had some support, but that was mostly from people who enjoyed the game as a kid. Columns is a very boring game, and if you don’t have fond memories of this game to keep you playing it, you will walk away from it. The music is not exciting; it’s just weird repetitive classical music that really isn’t fun to listen to. The graphics are dull as well. The background is a brown-orange and brown-yellow checkerboard in Arcade mode, in Flash Columns mode it’s a green and blue checkerboard. Flash Columns mode is much more entertaining than Arcade mode and it gives you an objective to reach (instead of just high scores), but it’s unintuitive to access this mode – you have to go through the “Menu” option in the main menu to select it – and its appeal is lost once you realize that it’s basically the same thing over and over.
I can’t judge this game for not having all the modern-day features we’re used to because it was released 20 years ago, and the concept is even older than that. I can, however, judge the sequels for this. That brings us to the first sequel Columns II: The Voyage Through Time for Arcades. This sequel actually plays surprisingly well compared to the first game; it improves on all of my complaints from the first game. The soundtrack features melodic songs (with actual beats) that aren’t painful to listen to. Some of the tracks are actually pretty catchy and would probably be more remembered if they weren’t in a Japan-only arcade game. The graphics are much livelier as well. Obviously an arcade game from 1990 will have better graphics than a console game from 1990, but what I mean is there are colours on the screen other than the colours on the blocks. That alone makes it better than the original Columns. Also, it’s much easier to play Flash Columns mode because it’s a choice on the main menu. The gameplay in Columns II is basically the same as in Columns. Despite this, Columns II does make some improvements over the original game. For one, Flash Columns mode is not just one level over and over again, and each level has interesting and unique graphics. Even though this game doesn’t play like a more modern puzzler, it’s not as badly outdated as Columns.
You might be asking why I’ve wasted your time talking about a game that I can’t complain about because it only sucks compared to what came after it and a game that doesn’t suck in a feature about games that suck. Well, my answer to that is Columns III: Revenge of Columns on the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive. With Columns II Sega took a generally decent game and improved upon everything in the sequel. What did they do for the third game in the series? Well, they took a look at Dr.Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine and realized they had a much better puzzle game in that, so they blatantly copied everything without putting the same amount of care into it. In Mean Bean Machine the characters are funny and have personalities. In Columns III a spider asks “Who are you?” Basically, they ruined everything.
You might have noticed that I like Flash Columns mode. I like it a lot actually, it’s quite fun. Columns II seems to be mainly about Flash Columns since it’s the first choice in the menu and it can be played with either 1 or 2 players. Strangely, Flash Columns mode is not present at all in Columns III. Have you ever seen a game built almost entirely on something, and then the sequel does away with it? It seems very weird to me and I can’t explain why they would get rid of it.
Speaking of weird, let’s have a look at the box art:
Who is that guy in the middle? Is that supposed to be the player? He’s not in the game at all. The title is ridiculous as well: “Revenge of Columns”? I think the columns are supposed to be jewels, but I don’t see how they’re trying to get revenge. It makes less sense than Bubsy’s subtitle. Atleast in Bubsy it’s just a terrible pun about the enemies you face, here…just, what? The story is you bust into some pyramid to steal jewels and some innocent things try to stop you. It’s not about revenge and it’s not about columns. And why did they bother calling it Columns III if Columns II was only released in arcades in Japan? It’s like the Final Fantasy games. 1, 2, 3, 7? 1, 3, 97? Why can’t game developers count? If it were called Columns: Revenge of Columns you wouldn’t have a bunch of kids wondering what happened to Columns II, and it would make a lot more chronological sense.
The lack of thinking that went into the box art and title of this game are noticed elsewhere as well. This game feels very thrown together and I wouldn’t be surprised if no one from the first 2 games worked on this one. As I mentioned, Flash Columns mode is nowhere to be found in this game, but that’s not all they left out. When playing the first 2 games the “next block” box keeps displaying the current block until it is entirely on the screen. In Columns III, the “next block” box shows the next block the second you take control of the current one. That doesn’t sound too unintuitive, until you realize the block still isn’t all the way on the screen yet, so you have to wait until it is to know what you can do with it. There simply isn’t enough time to do this when your columns are 3 or 4 rows from the top of the screen and the blocks are falling very quickly. Also, did you know there is an attack button in this game? The game itself gives you no indication of this, so if you didn’t have a manual, you’re on your own. I spent a lot more time that I should have trying to figure out why I kept losing so badly to the first computer character on normal mode. On top of all this, in order to defeat someone you have to win 2 matches against them. Oddly enough the first game doesn’t seem so boring when you go back to it now.
Finally we have Columns ’97 for arcades. They sure skipped a bunch of numbers eh? I wonder what Columns 4 – 96 are like. Obviously ’97 stands for 1997, but as you see on the title screen it says Copyright Sega 1996. It seems like Sega’s getting a bit ahead of itself. I can’t find a lot of information on this game, but it also seems to have only been released in Japan. It does away with almost everything there was in Columns III, but it doesn’t really replace it with anything good. This game is just a re-skinning of the original Columns but with fewer features. They brought back the proper “next block” box, but Flash Columns mode is still missing. Remember what I said earlier about modern features? This is the sequel that will be judged for not being modern enough. When this game was released the Puyo Puyo games had been out for several years and Baku Baku and Puzzle Fighter were recently released. Better falling block games were available, and this one defiantly clung to its old boring style. Sure the graphics are nice, but after about 5 minutes you realize there’s nothing new to be experienced.
The Columns series never really brought anything interesting to the puzzle game genre, except Flash Columns, but they ditched that early on. The genre moved on and Columns was left in the past. Unfortunately Sega is confusing the words “old” and “classic” and Columns seems to wind up on a lot of compilations, like Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection. Oddly enough, not many people seemed to enjoy it as the Columns achievement was one of the hardest to get. Once you got it did you ever go back to the game? Well, I did, and then I wrote this. That should be reason enough to stay far away from it forever. Except Columns II, you can play that one.