Columns

 

columnsjp

This is some gorgeous, eye-catching art for an innocuous puzzle game.

 

columnsus

Sucks to be purple.

 

PLAYERS: 1-2 simultaneous/alternating

PUBLISHER: Sega

DEVELOPER: Jeff Geertsen (port by Sega)

GENRE: Puzzle

DIFFICULTY: Expert

RELEASE DATE: 06/30/90 – (JP)

                                             09/90 – (US)

                                             02/91 – (EU)

 

Columns is a falling-block puzzle game usually viewed as Sega’s response to Nintendo’s versions of Tetris, though the truth is more vague. Atari – who owned the arcade rights to Tetris in America at the time – sub-licensed the rights to Sega to manufacture Tetris arcade machines in Japan. But when Sega developed a Mega Drive port, only a handful of Tetris cartridges ever made it to store shelves before they shelved it. There was no official statement from Sega as to why, but there are a couple theories. Either Nintendo and Bullet-Proof Software, who had the rights for the home versions, sent Sega a cease-and-desist, or Sega themselves witnessed the Atari/Nintendo lawsuit and canceled the port for fear of getting sued. Either way, the Mega Drive version of Tetris was never mass-produced and is one of the rarest cartridges for the system today.

 

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“No, ladies, that is not how you play Columns.”

 

Columns was originally created in 1989 for the X Windows System by Jeff Geertsen. The game was quickly ported to DOS, Macintosh, and Atari ST by other programmers, but somewhere around the time of the Tetris debacle, Sega swooped in and bought the license. They then wasted no time in putting Columns in arcade cabinets worldwide and on all their consoles, including the Master System and the brand-new Game Gear.

 

columns-w-rev00-000

But all I have is a D-pad!

 

In Columns, you move and manipulate “columns” of three colored gems vertically stacked onto the playing field below. There are six colors in all: red, orange, green, blue, yellow, and purple. Line up three gems of the same color, either vertically, horizontally, or diagonally next to each other, and they’ll disappear. In order to do this consistently, you rotate the gems in the columns to place them next to gems of the same color. The goal isn’t just to make the gems disappear, but to create combos and get more points. Combos are achieved when two or more series of gems disappear, one after the other. The more gems you’re able to disappear, the faster the columns fall. When the columns eventually stack to the sky and fill the playing field, it’s game over.

 

columns-w-rev00-002

Yes, yes I have.

 

Columns on the Mega Drive is nearly arcade perfect and features several modes not found in the arcade, including Flash Columns where you eliminate gems in order to get to the flashing jewel at the bottom of the screen, and Doubles, a two-player co-op mode where each player has a turn in controlling a column. Other less interesting modes include Time Trial, where you’re limited to three minutes of play, and Versus, a two-player competition where the person who doesn’t get their screen filled with columns, wins.

 

columns-w-rev00-001

The orange gems look a lot like raviolis.

 

Columns‘ gem rotation starts out addicting, but the game speeds up way too quickly. I consider myself to have decent hand/eye coordination, but by Level 3, the columns were dropping so quickly, I couldn’t rotate the gems fast enough to keep up. There is a bit of seemingly purposeful lag that allows you to rotate the column one last time as it lands but before it locks into place, but even this generosity won’t help you as the game gets faster.

 

columns-w-rev00-003

There were no survivors.

 

Unlike Tetris, where your focus is on how the falling shape connects with the shapes below, Columns asks you to align a vertical stack of three colored gems alongside other stacks of colored gems as quickly as possible. Figuring out which color should be placed where, then rotating the column if need be is considerably more challenging than placing a straight line next to a square.

If Columns was Sega’s answer to Tetris, they were clearly desperate – and possibly blind to why Tetris was so popular. The latter was a phenomenon because, like the best casual games, everyone from children to the elderly could understand and enjoy it within minutes. Tetris is fun, addictive, and most importantly, simple. Columns has potential to be fun and addictive, but the mechanics take some time to digest. By the time you understand the basics and advance to higher levels, the speed becomes overwhelming. Only those with the sharpest of reflexes will even want to hone their skills.

 

columns-w-rev00-004

A rare magical moment.

 

Columns might lack the pick-up-and-playability of Tetris, but I doubt Sega cared much. The game was a success for the company, remains fairly influential on today’s puzzle games (hello Candy Crush Saga), and, like Tetris, can still be played on just about any console or computer of your choice. Despite the latter point, I do suspect that Columns‘ longevity has more to do with Sega’s incessant need to repackage their old games than anyone’s lingering fondness for it.

 

C

 

columnsus

With a fruity taste that can’t be beat!

 

columnseu

Frustration for the whole family.

 

PLAYERS: 1-2 simultaneous

PUBLISHER: Sega

DEVELOPER: Jeff Geertsen (port by Sega)

GENRE: Puzzle

DIFFICULTY: Moderate

RELEASE DATE: 09/90 – (US)

                                      12/90 – (EU)

 

This 8-bit port of Columns sacrifices graphical fidelity and speed for a tamer experience. The gems don’t sparkle as brilliantly here as they do on the Genesis version, though that is to be expected. Was it necessary for the sprites to be shrunk to the size of a pebble, though? Compared to the large, lustrous 16-bit gems, the Master System’s are irritatingly tiny. The console’s slower processor also ensures that the challenge ramps up a little more conservatively. To wit: by level 3, I was still holding my own.

 

columns-ue-000

No Greco-Roman imagery in this version.

 

While the Doubles option has been excised, all the other Options – Flash Columns, 2-Player, and Versus – are still here. Also, if you’re feeling feisty, you don’t even have to play with gems. In the menu, you can switch out the gems for blocks, dice, or even fruit.

 

columns-ue-001

It’s like playing with Runts!

 

If you’re a budding grandpa like myself who can’t quite keep up with the 16-bit version, this port will suit you better. Just make sure to bring your reading glasses along for the small sprites.

 

C+

 

columnsjp

“And lo, the earth quaked, and gems spurt forth from the underworld.”

 

columnsus

Now in colorful Blur-o-vision!

 

columnseu

The European Game Gear logo is the tops.

 

PLAYERS: 1-2 (via Link Cable)

PUBLISHER: Sega

DEVELOPER: Jeff Geertsen (port by Sega)

GENRE: Puzzle

DIFFICULTY: Above-average

RELEASE DATE: 10/06/90 – (JP)

                                             04/91 – (US)

                                              1991 – (EU)

 

Forget the Genesis and Master System: Columns belongs on Game Gear. Not because the Game Gear version is the best version, but because puzzle games and portable systems just work together, like chips and salsa.

 

columns-u-000

What is that grey mass supposed to be?

 

Game Gear Columns is essentially Master System Columns, only slightly more neutered. The Two-Player option has been removed and you can only play a Versus mode with the Gear-to-Gear cable. With the Game Gear’s small screen and limited display resolution, the small gem sizes make more sense here than on the Master System. And even though the handheld contains the same Zilog Z80 processor as the Master System’s, the game still seems to move a bit faster than the latter, though still not as fast as the Genesis.

 

columns-u-001

Gems don’t have anything on me lucky charms.

 

No one in their right mind would bust out a Game Gear just to play Columns today, but in 1990? You betcha. Columns was a launch title for the Game Gear in Japan, America, and Europe, and packaged with the handheld in Japan. Columns likely helped Game Gear sales, at least initially, but it didn’t have the same impact as Tetris did for the Game Boy. Even on a smaller screen, Columns is still B-tier puzzling.

 

C+

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27 thoughts on “Columns

  1. I started off as a Tetris guy, but I have to admit, I probably like Columns more now and it’s since become one of my absolute favorite puzzle games.

    There’s just something about the simple, but fun gameplay and the soothing music that makes it a great game to unwind with after a stressful or busy day.

    There have sequels and ports, but the original Genesis one is still the best and it’s now very easy to find and pretty cheap to pick up these days.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. While I do own a copy of Columns for the Game Gear, it’s because it’s synonymous with the system, and freaking cheap, rather than anything to do with the game itself. As you say, it’s really just an incredibly average puzzler that doesn’t hold a candle to the mighty Tetris. Somehow I prefer Puyo Puyo/Mean Bean Machine to Columns, even though the concept is incredibly similar. Zoo Keeper on the DS is another similar ‘match 3’ which is far superior.

    The grey background on the Game Gear version? Clearly it takes place on the surface of the Death Star.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I agree with your review – Columns is an average game that is easy to port and repackage so SEGA will re-issue it every generation (see also; Altered Beast)

    I have the Steam version; I like it, but it never holds my attention for more than 5 mins. I imagine that is the aim of Columns though, a quick diversion before playing something else?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t see Columns as anything more than a quick diversion at best, but there are folks who genuinely love playing it.

      My wife, who is incredible at puzzle games, supposedly got to level 40 once. Given my ineptitude with the game, I called shenanigans on her, but she swears it’s true.

      Like

  4. I would have much rather gotten Tetris on my Genesis. In fact , there is a good chance that having not gotten addicted to Tetris in the arcade and on gameboy, I would have never bought this game. Like most falling block games, it pales in comparison. I was pretty decent at it and managed to rack up some mean combos on occasion, which is probrably the most appealing feature of this game.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I love Columns, and while I understand your frustration with it, it remains a favorite from my childhood. I got a copy of the game as a bonus for collecting so many coupons from a cereal box, and it was one of 3 Sega Genesis games you could pick from a list. For some reason, I got a boxed copy sans manual, so I presume that it must have been a ploy by Sega to clear out some extra stock, and promote their products with kids who ate overly sugary cereals. In any event, I put a lot of time into Columns as a kid, and recently (within the last few months), I had a really long run of the game on PSP via the Sega Genesis Collection that lasted for days (short bursts of play every so often), and I racked up a score of 58,493,447, reaching Level 199. This was in the ORIGINAL GAME mode, accessible by choosing “MENU” instead of “ARCADE”, then choosing “ORIGINAL GAME”. I agree that the arcade mode is too hard, and the speed ramps up far too quickly. This was likely because, as you know, it was designed to munch quarters. I would encourage, and perhaps even challenge you, to go back and play the “ORIGINAL GAME” mode. I suspect you’ll find a less harried, and far more zen experience. You can really rack up a lot of points, and the whole thing is far less frenetic. That’s the game mode I spent the most time with, and it’s a much more pleasant overall experience.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Wow, that was an informative review. I had no idea about MD Tetris. A great read too – thanks!

    Columns was the pack-in game for my (first) Mega Drive, but in the form of a mail-in coupon. I remember the game box getting thoroughly obliterated in transit. I think I only played it a few times – it wasn’t until Super Puzzle Fighter on PSX that I got really hooked on a falling blocks game. Man, what a game that was.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Amazing how this is the first review spanning all three of Sega’s consoles, even officially kicking off the Game Gear reviews (yes, I know you previously looked at Sukoban). ANd it won’t be the last, plenty of other games found their ways on all three platforms.

    Liked by 1 person

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