Falling blocks, flashing lights

by AJ "Tyron" Martinez @ worldsbe.st • August 22 2019

I was starstruck in my first moments with Lumines, a falling-block rhythm puzzler that seems to alternate between “universally acclaimed cult hit” and “actual nothingburger” depending on who I ask. SHININ' hit me like a train, and that was that. I was hooked.

I spent the next few months hunched over my PSP’s tiny screen, headphones in and focus absolute, absorbed in the game’s main attraction—a gauntlet of songs, one after another, each one changing the pace of the puzzle and the sounds of every button. I heard each track hundreds of times; I hear the music in my soul’s upbeat funk will always come with tantalizing visions of a slowed-down timeline, offering huge scoring potential and a much-needed break, while Aback and Dark Side Beside the River still make me vaguely uneasy, marking the halfway point when my grid would always start to look a little shaky.

Upon reflection, it was a bit brutal. Attempts were one-shot affairs, from SHININ' to the end with not much room for mistakes. Scoring was all smooth flourishes, setting pieces just behind the beat-synched timeline to set up the longest combos you could, but survival was tricky—checkerboard patterns left alone for too long would inevitably become impossible to clear, boxed in and impossible to reach. You’d watch the walls close in, walls made of your own mistakes, for attempts that could last more than an hour. I heard SHININ' again and again for months.

When I broke through to the game’s final song, Lights, it was a singular bright spot, a moment of respite after a barrage of tracks that slowly grew weirder, darker and more dissonant, the shrinking playfield threatening to crush me. It was the last thing the game had to show me, opening with calm, simple chords over a slow crawl of a timeline—plenty of time to think your moves over and reflect—and swelled into that gorgeous chorus with visuals of one final sunrise.

Eyes straining, fingers aching, I cried. It had been a long time coming.

Lumines itself is a weird thing, and I won’t recommend it to everyone; when I returned to the remastered version more than 10 years later, it was an enjoyable distraction, but I’ve spent my time with it. It is not without flaws, an enduring classic, or a game design masterclass. It is a bunch of audiovisual textures, weird and sometimes beautiful, elegantly stapled to a two-color match-4 game.

(If you held a gun to my head and asked me for a recommendation, I’d probably tell you to buy it on sale or emulate the PSP version.)

But to me, that final moment will always be the perfect synthesis of sound design and game mechanics. Lights simply was the finale, as much as my final grid was. It’s one of those magical moments where sound does more than accompany a game, providing flavorful background noise or accentuating a narrative beat, but becomes inseparable from the moving parts driving the puzzle. I play games for two reasons—to crush my enemies, and to find and collect as many of these moments as I can, hoarding them like some sort of weird draconic audiophile.

I’m writing this article today, instead of 1 year ago or 10 years ago, because of Tetris Effect—a game I wasn’t even really planning on buying. I picked it up only after a strong recommendation, keeping a close eye on my playtime in case a no-questions-asked refund was required, and came away 5 hours later awestruck.

See, Tetris Effect shares a lot of traits with Lumines—even though one was marketed as a breakthrough handheld fusion of music game and puzzle game mechanics, and the other was pitched as “Tetris on acid in VR, it’ll print money”. Journey Mode in particular echoes Lumines’s Challenge Mode, the place I launched myself into for months, but on a staggeringly opulent scale. Songs and themed playfields blend from one to the next, every input adding a sound bite in a new layer of the track, a little flash of beatmatched color and sound—but where Lumines offered only a handful of static sounds and backgrounds, constrained by small UMDs and the low-res PSP screen, Tetris Effect goes completely fucking apeshit in every regard, flaunting beautiful scenery and swirling, glimmering lights solely to show off. New boards are often crammed with multiple songs and backgrounds in sequence, the game speed adjusting to match swells and dips in intensity. There’s nothing like sudden instant-drop pieces to get your heart pounding.

Where Lumines went weird or dark, experimenting with dissonance and harsh samples, Tetris Effect instead resolves to remain heartbreakingly beautiful. It’s all spectacle, really, picturesque worldwide vistas with no cultural context, inspiring lyrics with nothing to say—but it’s such a carefully executed and exhaustively cohesive spectacle that it took me along anyway, lush and beautiful for the eyes and the ears. Hell, the game is proud of it, that’s the point of the whole thing.

It’s a single straight shot to the end, just like Lumines and its arcade-style gauntlet, but you’re given checkpoints and continues the first time through, encouraged to make progress at your own pace before returning to conquer the course in full. Mistakes don’t linger on your board forever, spectres of your mistakes that herald your inevitable failure; they’re wiped away in moments of singular focus, the Zone bar allowing you to simply stop time and clear away everything you can before returning to the onslaught. It’s not an experience you have to slave away to earn, though the game’s Expert mode did keep me on my toes the whole time.

Tetris Effect is, in every way, about the spectacle, happy to compromise on challenge if it means carrying you along for the ride; that feeling of the game driving the music and the music driving the visuals and the visuals driving the game, a neverending loop in both directions that had me whooping and screaming about a game I’ve played gorilions of times in gorillions of forms before. With this amount of care, it’s not just “Tetris plus music plus visuals”; it can only be taken as a single piece, an exhausting strobe-flash of light and sound that felt like the end of a long night at an arcade. (If this whole article sounds dumb, I’m willing to blame it on still being a little dazzled.)

I think Tetris Effect might be the game I remembered Lumines being. And that makes me smile.