Columns – Retrospective Monday

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Title: Columns
Year: 1990
Platform: Sega Genesis (Mega Drive)
Publisher: Sega
Developer: Sega

In my early days of gaming, I was a pretty hardcore Nintendo fan. 

It wasn’t until years after the Nintendo 64 came out that we bought a Sega Genesis (Toys R Us was still selling new ones at the time, and I remember the day vividly). 

Along with the console, we bought two cartridges, a Sega collection cart with Golden Axe and Columns, the Sega Genesis 6-Pak, I believe, and Castlevania: Bloodlines (1994). 

The Sega Genesis, or Mega Drive, seemed like a much more mature console than the SNES or NES, as all the games I encountered (Golden Axe, Bloodlines, Columns, and later, the Phantasy Star games) had these unappealing, more realistic visuals that differed greatly from their Nintendo counterparts. Even bright and stylish Sonic games were less appealing and had a more mature visual style than the early Mario games.

Columns is the focus of this article, and my experience with it. 

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Columns was first developed by one Jay Geertsen, someone working at Hewlett-Packard, in 1989. It was initially supposed to be used with the HP-UX operating system, and it had early ports for DOS, Macintosh, Windows 3.1x, and the Atari ST before Geertsen sold the rights to the game to Sega in 1990. Sega brought Columns to the Sega System C arcade board, where it received some acclaim, so Sega ported the arcade version to the Genesis (pretty faithfully, too). 

Columns was also a launch title for the Sega Game Gear, which I’ll detail a bit later. The game has received numerous ports and sequels, not nearly as many as Tetris, but still a lot, one of the weirdest being a 1999 Super Famicom port from Media Factory distributed on the Japanese-exclusive Nintendo Power rewritable cartridge service, which I believe is the only instance of a Sega property being published on the SNES. 

Columns is essentially an ordinary falling-block puzzle game in the vein of Tetris, but with a match-three sensibility – Tetris plus Bejeweled. Columns of three jewels fall from the top of the screen and the player must “match three” of the same color jewels in order to make them disappear. Players can match three or more jewels vertically, horizontally, or diagonally, and the game’s “gravity” means that one alignment could make other already fallen jewels fall further and create combos, something impossible in the original Tetris

Columns (Game Gear)

Columns (Game Gear)

Sometimes players are awarded a “magic jewel,” which has the power to eliminate all of one color of jewels, whichever color it lands on. There are six colors in traditional Columns, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple. Players are able to shift the order of the jewels in each column as it falls, and different versions of the game give a bit of leeway with shifting the column for a moment after it has landed. 

The game does what it’s supposed to do, and it feels tight, but the columns usually seem to fall too slow or too fast. My favorite iteration of Tetris, the NES one, has great pacing, but Columns is just alright. Columns can be moved left or right, and be made to fall faster by pressing down, but cannot be rotated sideways.

Some versions, the Genesis one included, allow for a 2-player versus mode, but unlike Puyo Puyo (1991) or even Pokémon Puzzle League (2000), players cannot affect the other person’s game or attack them. It’s just a battle of whoever can get the most points.

There’s also Flash mode, which has players “mining” their way down to a shining jewel at the bottom of a pile of jewels. Players can select how deep they want the pile to be, and players can compete to see how fast they can get to the bottom. There’s a bit of strategy involved, and the mode can be decently fun.

Magic Jewelry (NES)

Magic Jewelry (NES)

The Game Gear version is pretty reliable and faithful. It features a ton of options, more than the Genesis version, and has a nice sunset aesthetic that passes into night over this alien civilization as players go through the levels. It’s actually sort of beautiful and pleasant, and the handheld Game Gear’s graphics capabilities are always impressive.

I also should mention Columns ripoff Magic Jewelry (1990), an unlicensed NES game from Taiwan programmer Hwang Shinwei (good man). The game is actually really entertaining from a gameplay point, and it doesn’t feel any stiffer or anything than the real Columns. Magic Jewelry also has a decent soundtrack, with 8-bit renditions of “Greensleeves,” “All Kinds of Everything,” “Hunters’ Chorus,” and “Speak Softly Love,” as well as having a Statue of Liberty at dusk-that-shifts-colors background. Very impressive all things considered.

So why do I care about Columns on the Sega Genesis? It’s a solid albeit average falling block game, subjectively less fun than Tetris on the NES. 

Columns isn’t like other falling block puzzle games. When I was a kid, I never played the game much because it creeped me out. In my head, I still associate the game with the grimmer parts of Bloodlines, which was easily one of the scariest games I had played at that point. Columns, to me, is the morose, morbid cousin of Tetris, the puzzler that occult leaders played when I was still a baby. 

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Columns reminds me of being in a mortuary or in a lifeless chapel, or on a cemetery website. It’s main theme, “Clotho,”  is haunting, eerie, and it sort of jeers at players who just want some puzzle action. The 16-bit organ is memorable, and the song is usually listed as one of the more popular Genesis tunes, but it’s equally unsettling, a bold cathedral dirge with morbid religiosity. It reminds me of being in a disturbing JPRG church, a la Xenogears, Arc the Lad II, or Chrono Trigger

The game’s music was composed by the notorious Tokuhiko Uwabo, or Bo, as he’s usually credited, who has worked on almost every major Master System and Genesis game. Columns has that distinct Sega sound, a heavy, crunch sound, though Bo’s “Clotho” stands out from his other work as being particularly creepy and related to organized religion. It should also be noted that two tracks in the game are called “Filthy” and “Quagmire,” which is a weird tone to be aiming for in a puzzle game.

PC-98 cover

PC-98 cover

The game’s aesthetic is described on the back of the box as recalling “ancient Phoenicia,” “the warm Mediterranean coast,” and a “languid sea,” and the box also informs players that Columns is a game “favored by middle eastern merchants.” Roman architecture and painting certainly informs the game’s look, as there are columns and Spartan warriors all over the place. 

There’s also a fixation with angels, and some of the Japanese port’s boxes have angels on them with various levels of nudity. The NEC PC-98 and Sharp X68000 versions feature the backside of a nude anime woman in a mystical Egyptian desert, the woman collecting or dispersing jewels  from/to the night sky. There’s a strong sense of the ancient unknown, and the cover is almost absurdly serious and sacred.

I guess this ancient Mediterranean aesthetic was supposed to compete with the sort of Russian aesthetic of some versions of Tetris, but Columns is just so jarring and creepy. Languid, yeah, I get that, but it certainly doesn’t feel like a warm seaside coast. Rather, Columns feels like a room where they have to keep the temperature so low in order to preserve dead bodies. 

There’s also a strange fixation with jewels, which reminds me of someone’s Deviantart account I saw many years ago where the guy was absolutely obsessed with crystals…and not like any way you could ever imagine. 

PC Engine cover

PC Engine cover

It’s not like Mario and his coins, or Sonic and his rings, where the collectibles have some extrinsic and intrinsic value. Columns fetishizes the jewels, and especially the “magic jewel,” which, according to the game, “pumps up the juice!” It’s goofy, vaguely disturbing, and players feel as if they’ve stumbled into some jewel occult ritual where they don’t belong. 

The jewels are sacred, and I’m not sure if I’m supposed to want them or supposed to rid myself of them. Only some Shin Megami Tensei shirtless hooded cyber-hex mage standing in a pentagram knows what those jewels are for. The original Japanese arcade cabinet read: “Cycle Jewels, Line Them Up, And They Will Disappear…A Profound Mystery!?” 

Maybe I’m too biased here. Maybe my memories of seeing that bloody crow-eaten carcass in the beginning of Bloodlines is souring my perception of Columns. A lot of Genesis fans love Columns and never talk about how “creepy” or “disturbing” the game is, and find “Clotho” a catchy song of joy.

Columns014I vividly recall getting home and unboxing the Genesis and putting in Bloodlines, seeing all the 16-bit gore, which I was unaccustomed to, my parents trying to get me to go to bed, and then trying out Columns for a few minutes before going to sleep. I didn’t think much of it then, but as time went on, I would think back to that moment and remember how shocked and disturbed I truly was. 

Otherwise, Columns is barely mentionable, slightly above average with little personality. It’s fun, but there are better options, though the game will always haunt me. 

– nilson thomas carroll (Nilson Carroll) ; p

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1 comment
  1. Norman De Stahl said:

    what on earth are you talking about? This is a puzzle game. What excatly do you find creepy or scary about it? Bloodlines has nothing to do with this game. If that title creeped you out, it is sad, but Columns has no gore, horror or violence.

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