A Love Letter to Lumines


Written by Chris Price
20 Monday 20th February 2012

Lumines: Puzzle Fusion has sold over a million units for Sony’s Playstation Portable console worldwide to date. Created by game designer Tetsuya Mizuguchi and his company, Q Entertainment, it was first released as a launch title for the PlayStation Portable in Japan on December 12, 2004. It’s popularity has been blighted with a darker edge. It’s original release format proved especially popular as a conduit to bypassing the original PSP’s firmware; it opened the floodgates to a tidal wave of pirated software through it’s SD card, which has seen a monumental dent on the handheld genre. This actually propelled the industry's move to digital distribution, so that it could retain control over software distribution. 

So why is this game so important? There are 4 modes in the game - Challenge, Time Attack, Puzzle, Vs., and Vs. CPU Mode. But we’re going to focus on the meat and potatoes Challenge mode - the mode that has ensured its UMD hasn't been removed from my PSP unit for over four years.

Like all greats, the premise is simple. A square comprising four smaller squares, arranged in one of four two-colour patterns, drops from the top of the screen. The player's job is to arrange the colours to create matching blocks of four squares. These matching blocks sit there until a metronomic sweeping line passes over them erasing them from the screen. Blocks above drop down to then take their place. 

Written down, Q Entertainment’s Lumines might sound like a shovelware mini-game with enough complications to avoid copyright from the Russian Government. Reading it back to myself, it sounds about as appealing as a leper throat surgeon. The key element of Lumines is that it takes the process of disappearing blocks out of the hands of the player. ‘Levels’ are portrayed as a change of skins, music and tempo.

Tetris, Blockout, Klax, Columns – all classics, they require the player to prep the drop field before sliding in that final piece to disappear the whole. In Lumines, his honour is bestowed upon this mysterious roving line, which sweeps across the screen removing your completed blocks. The pass provides a further secondary timed element to monitor between shifting blocks and joining groups. But it adds a key strategic element – drop blocks at the far end of a pass, empty the field in segments. What has become a constant since Alexey Pajitnov is now another variable. But crucially this variable has been tied into one of the most elemental parts of the human.

You see, Lumines isn’t simply a puzzle waiting to be solved. Like it’s tagline suggests, it’s a fusion of puzzle and rhythm - albeit without the creative physical input demanded by games like Guitar Hero. The puzzle is every heartbeat of the pass-line and every kick-drum of the bassline. Each pass syncs with the tempo of its unobtrusive Balearic-house soundtrack. Add into the mix a wildcard block which, when matched in a four, removes any matching blocks across the entire field. Cue frantic dropping, rotating and matching of squares chasing the pass line.

Its difficulty structuring is similarly cognitive. First, amping up the speed of block delivery, then ease of combinations  and wildcard blocks, then slowing the speed of the pass wave, before returning to an optimum combination of the two, though faster. Forcing a small altering of strategy, following anxious pressured levels with more sedate levels. It’s gaming ‘resistance training’ – peaks and troughs, intensity and rest in equal doses. Chunks suited to the traveling mobile format, to bursts of intense play. Similarly, the PSP’s elongated screen adds physical breadth to the play field.

But Lumines lasting power comes from its overall atmosphere. The rhythm, the interaction, the understated and broad soundtrack blotted with bloops and synthetic speech provokes the imagination. That fantastical experiences of frolicking along some virtual coastline, rock-pooling along a virtual coast of electrical impulse – prodding electrical invertebrates with infantile curiosity. It's like some expansive, electrical sunset. Tron goes Hed Kandi.

Tetris took the cursor keys on a stuffy work computer and turned them into a revolution. Lumines added a hint of humanity to that regimental Communist core and jump-started a warm beating heart. It’s a synapse-pleasing piece of software; it never demands, but merely pushes us in a perfectly harmonious natural manner. It is the perfect exponent of an evolution of a genre, gently harnessing the power of modern hardware and fully utilizing the medium from its dimensions to the way it’s used. Now, with both the environment we play and the actual process of how we interact with technology being addressed, it remains to be seen which game will set the next precident in tessellation. But if a game can get you daydreaming about coloured squares, it’s place in history is assured. One thing is certain - Tetsuya Mizuguchi and Q Entertainment will have seats there. 

Lumines: Puzzle Fusion can be picked up for around £5 for the PSP online. Lumines: Electronic Symphony will be release on 22nd February for Playstation Vita.

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