Review: Koloomn (PSP)

koloomn-1Platform(s): PSP (Reviewed), Arcade (as ‘Kollon’)
Year: 2006 (Europe)
Developer: MagicPot
Publisher: 505 Gamestreet (Europe)
Genre: Puzzle

The PSP, like any other respectable handheld, has no shortage of puzzle games. It’s also no stranger to block-based puzzlers, as the mighty Lumines can testify. But, also like any respectable handheld, the PSP hosted enough puzzle games that some inevitably got forgotten. Take MagicPot’s Koloomn for example: a block-based puzzle game that is just as addictive as any other.

Originally released as an arcade game called Kollon in Japan, Koloomn found a more natural home on Sony’s debut handheld in 2005. The Western PSP translation of Kollon is, in fact, an enhanced edition of an earlier Japan-only PSP port of the arcade game. Confused? Well, to muddy the waters just a little more, North America received the game under another name: Ultimate Block Party. Being completely unbiased, I have to say that I prefer the ‘Koloomn’ name and the box art we received here in Europe. It just looks more Japanese.

Does any of this nerdy, anorak stuff matter though? Absolutely not. All that matters is that Koloomn/Ultimate Block Party/Kollon is a cracking puzzle game.

Stack ’em up(wards)

Unlike many other block-based puzzlers, the blocks in Koloomn rise up from the bottom of the screen but the aim is still the same: to prevent the advancing ranks of blocks from touching the top of the play area OR, in multi-player/versus, to brick up your opponent’s screen. Blocks are cleared by forming links of four of the same colour. So far, so simple.

You re-position the blocks with a square 2×2 cursor, rotating them about until you can place four matching ones together. You are relatively free when it comes to shuffling the blocks about, moving them all around the play area by rotating them out of rows/columns into adjacent ones. That’s the basics. You’ll need to think bigger however if you want to create large combos or put an opponent under pressure.

Y’see, a group of four matching blocks is just the minimum requirement. Any number of blocks can be chained beyond that provided that the colours match. A formation takes a few seconds to disappear and, in that time, you can rotate other matching blocks to join said formation. Get smart – and quick on the controls – and you can link up multiple clusters on the playing field to clear a fat amount of blocks all at once. This is called a ‘Pop’ and, proving that size sometimes DOES matter, the bigger the Pop, the better. You can also forcibly advance the blocks with a press of the ‘R’ button and flirt with danger by filling the screen to give you more blocks to play with.

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Additionally – as per Sir Isaac Newton’s law of gravity – the vacuum left behind by eliminated blocks causes everything above to tumble south and fill the void(s), potentially linking up for more Pops. These are called ‘Chains’. Chains are vital for earning big points and making ‘magic’ blocks appear. Arrow blocks, for example, will turn every other block in the arrow’s direction into the same colour and eliminate them. Tactical positioning of arrow blocks can really help clear the screen when the pressure is on.

Bomb blocks turn all adjacent blocks into the same colour for an easy, instant nine-block Pop at the bare minimum. Then there are the Wave blocks that eradicate all blocks of the same colour, no matter where they are on the screen. You’ll only get one of these for making a chain of four though, so you you’ll need to be very good or (more likely) incredibly lucky.

Block Party

Multi-player is – as you’d expect – a frantic exercise in managing your own ever-filling play area whilst also dishing out the pain to your opponent. There are several different attacks or temporary status effects that you can hit your opponent with and BE the victim of such as being lumbered with inverted controls (ugh…), having giant blocks dropped onto the field or having the size of the cursor increased, severely hampering precision.

One glaring problem with playing Koloomn in 2020 is that this all-important multi-player aspect is obviously dead, unless you have seriously cool friends who still play multi-player PSP games. So that’s about three people worldwide, then. Sarcasm aside, there are at least Arcade and Campaign modes (confusingly hidden in the Multi-Play menu…) where you can play against the CPU and still enjoy the competitive side of the game. These two modes are pretty much the same with the only differences being that Campaign forces you to play as the main character, Kollon, and you have some humourous cut-scenes before each round.

Single player mode is your standard solo play where you attempt to survive for as long as possible, each successive level increasing the speed that the blocks rise up from the screen’s bottom.

That’s pretty much it. The game does at least store your high scores and rankings but there’s precious little to do once you remove the multi-player side of Koloomn and that’s the game’s only real weakness.

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You can’t help but be won over by the presentation, however. Koloomn has a really bright and bouncy cartoon aesthetic that I immediately fell in love with. From the comic-book style menus to the chibi characters with their bold outlines, it’s attractive stuff. The characters are nicely animated and full of personality and a humurous, playful vibe permeates everything. Even the blocks are smiling! The music is upbeat and dangerously catchy too. This isn’t necessarily the sort of game that you would think began life in an arcade cabinet but then again, I can totally picture the lively characters, vibrant colours and jaunty music being perfectly at home in a buzzing Japanese Game Centre.

Conclusion

Yes, Koloomn is lacking in content and, yes, it might have disappointed as a full-price release back in its day for that very same reason but that’s kind of missing the point. After all, Tetris didn’t have a whole lot going on but it still managed to charm a generation without being criticised for a lack of value. No, the value in Koloomn – as with Tetris – is in its addictive nature. It’s one of those puzzle games that’s easy to understand but takes some playing with to get proficient at. Once you’ve had some practice, however, Koloomn becomes like any other good puzzle game and hooks you with that ruthlessly effective “just one more go…” drug. Once that’s happened, you will only need the few modes to have a whole lot of fun. The fact that it looks fantastic and costs next-to-nothing to pick up today are just added bonuses.

Lumines [PSP] & Lumines Plus [PS2]

When Lumines first arrived for the PSP back in 2004 (2005 for Western territories), did the gaming landscape really need another puzzler based around clearing rows of blocks? Arguably not but somebody decided that we did and so a brand-new puzzle series kicked off in earnest.

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Yes, the object is to clear the screen of blocks and yes, it’s game over if they reach the top of the play area but thankfully, Lumines is a bit more than “been there, done that, got the T-shirt”. Blocks always come in two different colours and are cleared in 2×2 squares (as opposed to complete rows as in Tetris) for starters. Not crazy enough? Formations of the same colour can be linked together to clear lots of blocks at the same time and there is also a special block that – when forming part of a 2×2 – clears every single block of the same colour that is linked to that 2×2. As you can imagine, there are some huge scores to be had by strategically filling half of the screen with carefully linked blocks and then deleting the whole lot in one go with the special block, leading to everything else crashing down and forming loads more links for even more clearance and mega points.

But even that sounds fairly pedestrian and I’d totally forgive you for asking why you should even care about any of this. Thankfully, Lumines has a secret weapon and it’s the power of music.

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The Time Line is your best friend and – sometimes – also your greatest foe.

The game sports a soundtrack largely comprising of the House and Electronica styles of music and each stage (known as “skins” in Lumines) that you play on has its own unique track. Score enough points and the stage will transition into a new one with a new skin and a new track. This keeps things fresh and interesting but the music is much more than that in Lumines. The ‘Time Line’ bar constantly scrolling from left-to-right changes speed based on the tempo of the music and only blocks arranged ahead of the bar will be cleared once it reaches the other side of the screen. This can either lead to a race against time to get your combos set up before the Time Line gets there or, when the screen is perilously full on a more sedately-paced skin, you will be willing the bar to get a damn move on and clear some space before waiting blocks overload the play area.

The sound effects for blocks dropping into place and being cleared are also unique for each skin and team up with the music to form an ever-evolving audio experience for the ears. When you are really in the zone and nailing massive combo after massive combo while the music ramps up, then Lumines totally clicks and it comes into its own as a unique puzzle game.

Honestly, the only reason I can see somebody not enjoying Lumines to any degree would purely be down to the type of music involved not being to their tastes. I described it above as House and Electronica in style so if you aren’t a fan then you may struggle to ‘get’ it. Otherwise, it’s a very addictive puzzler that actually offers a decent challenge and I always have the itch for “one more go” to see if I can get further in the single-player challenge mode and see some new skins. Better still, the game was a launch title for the PSP and as such is common-as-muck and easy to pick up for a few pounds. Bargain!

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Versus mode (against CPU or a friend) is interesting. Clearing blocks pushes the boundary towards the opponent and reduces their playing area, applying serious pressure.

Fast forward a few years and Lumines Plus was released for the Playstation 2. Billed as an expanded version of the original, the game is already on the back foot purely for not being on a handheld. Lumines was a perfect fit for the PSP and on-the-move gaming…not so much for a home system. It might sound lazy but let’s face it, waiting for the disc to load up on the PS2 and then being tied to your sofa with a wired pad in hand doesn’t feel as “right”. Still, it doesn’t affect the quality of the original game and having a bigger display and (depending on your set-up) more capable speakers is an advantage for the Plus edition.

The main selling point of the PS2 version was the inclusion of a handful of new skins so in theory, Lumines Plus should be a definitive edition of the original game. Unfortunately, I noticed a few small niggles when moving from the PSP version to Plus. Firstly, there seems to be a brief two-three second pause during the transition of skins which leaves you in silence and interrupts the flow. Not ideal for a music-based game! Also – for whatever reason – the cool robotic voice that announces the name of the track as the music switches over, is completely missing from this version. Otherwise the game is a straight port with extremely minimal differences which I found to be a bit of a letdown. Even the menus and front end are indentical.

Ultimately though it’s the lack of portability that scuppers the Plus edition. If you don’t have access to a PSP then Lumines Plus for the PS2 is perfectly serviceable and still a great puzzle game. Otherwise, I don’t consider the additional skins to be a worthwhile trade-off for not having Lumines in its more fitting, handheld environment. Owning both versions is completely unnecessary and I only do so because I am some sort of batshit weird hoarder/magpie.

Overall Thoughts…

If you enjoy puzzle games (especially of the falling tile/block persuasion) or games with a heavy infusion of music then Lumines is a no-brainer. For the pitiful amount of currency that a used copy trades hands for these days, the risk to your wallet barely registers. Only bother with the Plus edition for PS2 if you don’t have a PSP or if you absolutely HAVE to play it on the big screen but you know, that’s kind of what those PSP-TV cables were designed for?