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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We’re only five months into 2019 but I can already say that this has been my most barren year for gaming so far. Not a great thing to publicise on a gaming blog, huh? Well, a combination of things has stunted my gaming enthusiasm:
Being stuck on ‘big’ games for too long
Less available time than before
A general lack of desire
With that said, I have still managed to get my game on during April and May and play a few things…
Dead or Alive 5: Last Round (PS4)
Earlier in the year, I posted about why DOA5was such a great fighting game in my opinion. With the arrival of DOA6, I decided to get back into its immediate predecessor again. There are a few aspects of 6 that I’m not overly happy about hence why I haven’t purchased a copy yet. That and the fact that I didn’t ever get the most out of DOA5 despite playing all of its revisions. I tend to stick with Ayane and a few other characters for the most part so there is still a lot for me to get from the game which is why I wanted to get back into playing it. I think, as a gamer, you just KNOW when you haven’t mentally finished with a game and this is certainly the case with me and Last Round.
Soulcalibur VI (PS4)
Fighting games have always been my favourite genre but I seem to have fallen behind lately. Thankfully, the wonderful Soulcalibur VIhas reignited my passion for fighting games and even though I haven’t sat down with a controller nearly as much this year, this is probably the one game that has hooked me enough to lose track of time on numerous occasions. To tell you the truth, I’m still in shock at how good this game is and how we came from the awful Soulcalibur V to this, a sequel which is right up there with SCII and SCIII for me. Every time I take a bit of a break, Namco drop some more DLC for the game that gets me all excited again and makes me feel the way I did earlier in my gaming life when I wasn’t so jaded. I love creating characters for example and Namco keeps adding new customisation parts that encourage me to make more new characters and go back to my older ones to update them. Oh and as of typing this, they just added in the OSTs from SCII and III to customise the game with! SCVI has pretty decent music in fairness but II and III were the high points for me so this was AMAZING.
Metal Slug Anthology (PSP)
Last month I decided to charge up and use my handhelds just to look after the batteries. What I didn’t expect was to end up playing a fair bit of Metal Slug Anthology on the PSP, a game that I sold a long time ago but had had the foresight to retain on my custom firmware-enabled memory stick. Of course, you can’t just have a “quick go” on a Metal Slug game; they are addictive and it just doesn’t work that way! So I ended up playing all of the games and reviewing the compilation. What I re-learnt was that the classics don’t age and neither does Nazca’s mind-blowing art style. I adore these games and playing them granted me a strong hit of love for videogames in general.
Yakuza 5 (PS3)
This was the “big” game that was bogging me down and had been for over a YEAR now. Yakuza is one of my most cherished videogame series’ and so it must be stressed that I wasn’t burnt out on it and I hadn’t had enough. The problem was that I had decided to go for 100% on Yakuza 5 which turned out to be a bad decision. Eventually (for my own sanity) I had to turn back and be satisfied with 95% completion. So I finally, FINALLY completed the game after 170 HOURS of playtime. Fucking hell; how did that happen? All the wandering around, fighting and trying to get the 100% I guess. This is easily the hardest game in the series to 100% in my experience and so I don’t feel too bad about abandoning my quest as much as it hurts the obsessive part of me. I don’t enjoy or understand the Japanese gambling games, the Ito fish is impossible to catch (seriously, fuck that fish – it doesn’t exist!) and the hardest level of Winter Combat is something I ran out of SOUL to continue attempting. It was a superb game though and it’s a shame that it was a digital-only release here in the West as my Yakuza shelf looks incomplete without a box showing the number ‘5’ on the spine. I have Yakuza 0, Kiwami and 6 all ready to play on the PS4 (still need to pick up Kiwami 2…) but I think I will take a bit of a break from the series to avoid burnout.
3D Streets of Rage 2 (3DS)
As part of charging up my handhelds, I played this again on my 3DS since I have very few retail games left in my collection and have nothing new to play. This is no bad thing however as Streets of Rage 2 is one of my all-time favourite games and a masterpiece of design. These days I tend to stick with the mighty SoR Remake on PC but there’s still something nice about going ‘pure’ and playing the second game as it was intended. M2 did a sterling job with the 3DS port and all the lovely options/settings it comes with and so I always have a blast coming back to SoR2. As with Metal Slug, games like this make me feel happy without even trying. I can’t wait for SoR4…
Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy (PS4)
This has been sat on my shelf since Christmas and I’ve only just taken the wrapping off the box. I’ve played Activision’s remasters in the “wrong” order and completed the Spyro Reignited Trilogy right after receiving it (also a Christmas gift) but then I got distracted by other games and the mountain that was Yakuza 5 so Crash got neglected. Spyro was always one of my Playstation favourites though so those remasters were ALWAYS going to get played first. I finally got stuck into the N.Sane Trilogy yesterday and so far, so good. I’ve aways considered the original Crash Bandicoot to be the trickiest of the original trilogy with a more merciless level design that holds little room for error and I’m not finding it much easier this time around. That’s probably because the OG game was tight and short of dumbing down the game and level design, there wasn’t anything else that could be done. I’m glad that they didn’t meddle however because otherwise, I simply wouldn’t be interested in these remasters. It’s nice to be playing these games again in lovely PS4-o-vision but at the same time, I’m feeling a bit ‘meh’ about revisiting the original Crash Bandicoot. Don’t get me wrong, I still adore it but I feel like I’m going through the motions. It probably doesn’t help that I downloaded the first game on my PSVita not that long ago so the game is still relatively fresh in my head. Still, it’s fun enough and the 90’s PS1 fanboy in me is enjoying the nostalgia hit. I played these games when they were new back then and I can’t understand where the time went!
That brings me up-to-date with my gaming situation so far in 2019. I plan to take a break from the bigger, more time-consuming stuff for a while now so that I can focus on having a greater variety of gaming experiences rather than slogging away at the same few games for an eternity.
If you’ve lived behind a tower of modern games or are a younger gamer then you may not be familiar with SNK’s Metal Slug series and that is truly a shame because you might be missing out on something special. For those already in the know, Metal Slug is a stone-cold arcade classic requiring no introduction but for the uninformed, here’s the deal. Released in 1996 for SNK’s Neo Geo arcade hardware, Metal Slug quickly became one of the quintessential run ‘n gun experiences that the rest of the genre suddenly found itself compared to. Nazca Corp. blended tight, challenging gameplay with their stunning 2D artistry to create one of the defining Neo Geo experiences and a killer app for the (incredibly expensive) home version of the hardware.
The game oozed charm and was overflowing with character thanks to the comical nature of the cartoon-like visuals which should have been at odds with the military theme and bright red blood. It was – as previously mentioned – challenging too but not necessarily in an outrageously cheap way; not to begin with anyway – that’s a sin for some of the sequels to atone for and we’ll hold court on that subject in due course.
By the time SNK called time on the creaking Neo Geo hardware in 2004, the system had hosted six Metal Slug games. If you weren’t rich enough to own a Neo Geo and splurge on massive cartridges sporting eye-watering price tags (so most of us then) then it was difficult to be a Metal Slug fan though. There were ports to all kinds of the consoles such as the Playstation, Saturn, PS2 and original Xbox but these tended to vary in terms of quality and accuracy. In 2007 however (2006 for the US), we were treated to Metal Slug Anthology for PSP, Playstation 2 and Nintendo Wii. This compilation from the retro gods collected unaltered arcade versions of the five Neo Geo ‘Slugs plus the Atomiswave’s Metal Slug 6 which was brand-new for the West when Anthology hit the shelves.
I’ll start by quickly talking about the compilation in general. I won’t discuss the Wii port as I haven’t been lucky enough to own a copy but I have owned both the Playstation 2 and PSP editions of the game. Sadly, Sony’s versions suffer from unwelcome load times, even in basic areas such as the front end menu or in-game character select screens. It’s not a deal-breaker but is still pretty unforgiveable in my opinion, especially since the PS2 and PSP shouldn’t have been at all taxed to run a small collection of old Neo Geo games when the PS2 didn’t appear to break a sweat over big stuff like Gran Turismo and Black. The PSP is a more understandable situation given that the handheld’s loading capabilities were often scuppered by the UMD drive. Even so, I play all of my PSP games direct from the memory stick (thanks to the wonders of Custom Firmware) and even then, the loading isn’t completely eradicated. The Wii port is meant to be a lot better as it was allegedly coded by SNK themselves while Terminal Reality handled the PS2 and PSP versions. Don’t quote me on that though; it’s something I remember reading in period reviews.
In terms of extras, there’s an art gallery to unlock using tokens earnt by playing through the six games. It’s not much but I’m personally a big fan because outside of the official press art for SNK games, there is a wealth of bizarre artwork resembling fan art and this is often included in their games. Artwork won’t be of interest to everybody, granted, but I love the quirkiness of SNK’s galleries at times. That said, what we are really for are the games so let’s talk about them.
Original and best
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the original Metal Slug is in close contention for being the best game of the series. It’s a purer experience than the sequels and suffers with less of the bloat and often unnecessary variety that its successors injected (in a well-meaning way of course). You simply run to the right, avoiding enemy fire and blasting anything that gets in Marco Rossi’s way. You are granted three lives per credit and ten grenades per life. Continuing with a fresh credit gifts you the Heavy Machine-Gun power-up upon re-spawning as a welcome gesture. You might think then that Metal Slug is about as complicated as Paris Hilton and that’s a fair assessment as there’s nothing overly innovative about the whole thing. It’s HOW the game does what it does that makes it so endearing.
First of all, the controls and ‘feel’ are spot-on and you should never find yourself condemning either for getting iced by an enemy. Secondly, the power-ups are just so damn fun to acquire and put to use. The Heavy Machine-Gun makes you feel like a force to be reckoned with, the shotgun’s explosive punch fills you with confidence and the Rocket Launcher is just the nuts. Special mention must go to the Arnie-like “Rocket Lowncher!” announcement from the voice-over dude when you collect the latter – always a pleasure to hear. Then there’s the Metal Slug tank itself which can take several hits before being destroyed. The tank is actually pretty cutesey thanks to its stubby profile and ability to jump but the rapid-fire machine-gun and cannon pack a serious punch.
Finally, there’s that distinctive art style which is a big part of the game’s appeal. Without it, Metal Slug would just be another solid run ‘n gun game but thanks to Nazca’s artistic sorcery, every backdrop, sprite and tiny detail deserves close attention. In fact, there is such a ludicrous level of detail in every single thing that it’s a wonder that they ever finished the game or were permitted the time to go so crazy in the first place. Special mention must go to the enormous bosses which are both intimidating and spectacular. Taking them down always feels like an achievement.
The visuals are backed up by the audio which consists of memorable voice-overs, fantastic sound effects (the explosions are awesome) and memorable music that blends military-themed composition with Nazca’s jazzy sound, the latter fitting in perfectly against all sound reason.
I’ve already stated that the game is challenging as it really is but the original Metal Slug is perhaps the fairest of the lot. The first three missions are no cake-walk but can be completed with minimal stress. It’s only towards the end of the game that the opposition begins to overwhelm and you will have to feed in credits in order to push on. This was an arcade game designed to part punters from their cash but that said, I’ve certainly played much, much worse that would have you searching for Dick Turpin’s name in the developer credits.
Put simply, the original Metal Slug is a creative masterpiece and a very enjoyable arcade action game that deserves its lofty reputation. If you only play one game in the series then this has to be it but SNK did make some sequels so let’s address those next…
Bigger isn’t always better
Metal Slug 2 is probably the closest rival that the original game has for the honour of being the best in the series. I did say that if you only play one entry then it should be the original but ideally, you’d play the immediate follow-up as well. MS2 is more of the same but bigger and more extreme than before. New power-ups and new Slug vehicles debut as do the Mars People alien enemies. The bosses are equally impressive if not better than before with special mentions going to an Arabian palace that turns into a missile launcher and the second mission’s boss which sees you constantly climbing to avoid the chasing jaws of an enormous machine. The only issue I have with Metal Slug 2 is that the last few levels are a bit brutal with the player being expected to dodge too much crap and kill far too many aliens. That aside, it is a worthy follow-up deserving of your time.
Metal Slug X is essentially a remix of Metal Slug 2. The first stage for example now takes place at dusk, there are new enemies, remixed music and new power-ups. There’s a handy list of the updates here on Wikipedia. Whether you prefer X over ‘vanilla’ Metal Slug 2 is a personal preference but being as it is very similar, I would also class X as a game you can definitely keep coming back to.
Unfortunately, the series takes a nosedive with Metal Slug 3 that it never really fully recovered from. This was the last game produced by the original Nazca/SNK partnership before SNK went bankrupt and rose from the ashes as SNK Playmore. They went all-out and cranked the creativity up to the max with MS3 which should have been a positive thing but ends up being both good and bad. Starting with the good, they went pretty wild here and introduced a ton of new stuff and awe-inspiring bosses, all rendered in the same agonisingly attractive art style. The game also still plays perfectly soundly. The first problem however is that you aren’t only fighting military forces this time around but all manner of organic creatures and aliens. This did allow Nazca’s artists the chance to flex and animate a bunch of crazy stuff (which all looks lovely) but you will miss the characterful enemy soldiers and military hardware when you’re shooting at crabs, insects and…zombies?
Yes, there is a zombie-themed level that mimics a slasher movie and I reallyhate this shit. When you get killed, a bolt of lightning will resurrect you albeit as a shambling, sluggish zombie with none of the agility that you need to avoid the onslaught of enemies. It doesn’t fit in with what Metal Slug is meant to be but even if you can overlook that, playing as a zombie slows the action to a crawl and puts a definite damper on things. Even when you are still in human form, emptying vast amounts of ammo into walking bullet sponges is no fun. The only enjoyable thing that comes from the whole zombie thing is the ability to vomit a massive arc of blood that covers most of the screen and takes out enemies with the force of a grenade. That’s fucking cool.
The other killjoy is the fact that Metal Slug 3 is just too damn hard. They really wanted your pocket change with this game, possibly to stave off impending bankruptcy. The first level is reasonably manageable but the cruelty factor soon arrives with the player being expected to dodge an unreasonable amount of on-screen shit. The final stage in particular is downright sadistic with overwhelming quotas of dangerous enemies clogging the screen and an insane amount of lethal projectiles to avoid. It also feels as though it will NEVER end. Whenever I decide to play MS3, I find myself begging the game to simply stop by this point. The bosses in this game also absorb a ridiculous amount of firepower before they go down, to the point that you may question whether your game has glitched out and granted said bosses immunity to death.
Metal Slug 3 is not a bad game per se. It has a lot going for it in the aesthetics department but the difficulty spike and general madness of battling crustaceans, Aztec gods and zombies really let it down. I simply cannot enjoy this game when I play it because it’s the first time that Metal Slug felt too cheap and remorseless to WANT to perservere with. It was the end of the original era though so how did SNK and Metal Slug fare in the Playmore era? Hmm…
A mixed bag
By this point, SNK Playmore didn’t yet exist and it was entity simply known as “Playmore”. In conjunction with Mega Enterprise, they kept SNK’s franchises’ ticking over with Metal Slug 4 being one result. I have to be honest and say that I really don’t care for this game. It’s not that it’s bad but it’s incredibly “meh”. Unsurprisingly – given the financial situation – MS4 is a recyclathon of old sprites and ideas but the classic Nazca art clashes somewhat with new stuff doing its best to imitate. The game receives points straight away for returning to military enemies but then throws it all down the toilet by re-introducing mummies and zombies. The level design is incredibly by-the-numbers and dull with very few set-pieces since the game instead favours holding the player up on the same screen for an eternity while wave after wave of enemies pour in from both sides, often in suffocating volumes that slow the game down. Bosses aren’t too interesting either and trade patterns for simply filling the screen with as many bullets, bombs and enemies as possible. Granted, I’m no master player of videogames but I don’t see how it’s possible to avoid some of the stuff that later bosses throw at the player.
Metal Slug 4 could have been a lot worse but at the same time, there’s no avoiding the fact that it had very little charm or creativity going on. It’s not a sequel that I can recommend on any grounds, really.
Conversely, Metal Slug 5 is far superior. Aside from some tribal enemies at the outset and the final boss itself, it’s back to military enemies for a more traditional ‘Slug affair. The opposing army isn’t headed up by series antangonist Morden this time (even though the sprites are blatant re-skins) but the darker colours, black ops-style enemies and gritty rock music do suck some of the series’ trademark humour out of the game it has to be said. However, this is a reasonable trade off considering that the game is much fairer than the previous two and as a result, far closer to the formula of the first two games which were challenging but not downright malicious as per MS3 and 4. Bosses too have much better attack patterns and as such, aren’t a drain on your soul to take down. The final boss is a bit cheap though and probably the most ridiculous, out-of-place end boss in the series. Looks awesome though.
Unfortunately, Metal Slug 6 ruins the redemption of MS5. This was the first post-Neo Geo Metal Slug with Sammy’s Atomiswave platform taking over the hosting duties. Appropriately, SNK Playmore tried to inject some new blood into the series by upping the character select screen to six with the addition of Ralf and Clark from Ikari Warriors/King of Fighters. In addition, each character has special abilities such as Ralf’s Vulcan Punch attack and Eri’s ability to aim grenades in specific directions. You can now also stock up to two power-ups and switch between them. Also, MS6 introduced an easy mode which lowers the difficulty and grants the player the Heavy Machine-Gun as the standard weapon at the expense of not being able to challenge the game’s final stage.
That’s the good/interesting stuff. Sadly, the game just feels like an imitation or a fan-made tribute. Yes, the familiar sprites and visual design are correct and present but as with MS4, the new backgrounds and enemies aren’t as impressive and clash with the old, classic Nazca creations. Sound effects and enemy voices are also different (not for the better) and once again, the series returns to aliens and weird shit before long. The difficulty beyond the first few missions is also tough to swallow with all manner of bullet-sponge aliens and bizarre creatures flooding the screen and demanding a ridiculous amount of firepower to put down. The game feels cheap too with so much shit happening at once that there’s no hope of surviving. The final stage takes a (rotted) leaf from Metal Slug 3‘s book and features and seemingly endless gauntlet of everything that makes this sequel so charmless and unenjoyable to endure. By the time I reached the final boss, I was both bored and frustrated – emotions that I would never have associated with Metal Slug when playing the first two games. In short, it’s still a solid run ‘n gun but only because of all the work that Nazca put in back in the 90’s. Without their blueprint and artwork, games like Metal Slug 4 and 6 wouldn’t even be worth talking about.
To sum up the core Metal Slug series, I would say that the first two games + Metal Slug X are utterly essential run ‘n guns that any gamer with an interest in old-school, arcade gameplay should experience. As for the rest…Metal Slug 3 is worth a look for it’s aesthetics but is simply too cheap to enjoy, Metal Slug 4 and 6 are not worth your time while Metal Slug 5 is surprisingly decent with genuine replayability. Personally I’d rank them as MS1 > MS2 > MSX > MS3 >MS5 >MS4 > MS6. As for the Anthology specifically, it’s a shame that there are those loading niggles with the PSP and PS2 versions but whichever port you go with, the value is undeniably strong.
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.
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.
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!
Fast forward a few years and Lumines Pluswas 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 Plusshould 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.
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?
If you’ve read my very first, popping-of-the-Wordpress-cherry feature here on Darkstalker90 Gaming then you will know that I am a big fan of the PSP and believe it has a very underrated (and often written-off) library. Naturally, the token ports of bigger brother home console games didn’t do the platform much justice but the exclusive stuff? Now we’re talking. Unless a downsized conversion is actually worth buying then I tend to stick to exclusives that made the PSP worth owning alongside its contemporary home console peers and that’s fine because there are more than a few. Anyway, I recently added a few new bits to my collection courtesy of an online buddy who was getting rid of some things and did me a great deal.
Fate/EXTRA Collector’s Edition
This is the European collector’s edition of Fate/EXTRA published over here by Ghostlight. Annoyingly, I used to own this exact set a while ago but I sold it off along with a lot of other stuff to create space and cut down on games that I’d never play. The set has increased in value since then thanks to the collector’s side of the PSP market but I’d always wondered whether I’d missed out on anything by not playing before selling. The box includes a nice artbook + soundtrack CD combo:
If there’s one thing that the PSP was a standout platform for then it was puzzle games. I have quite a few already but there always seems to be more that I didn’t know about. Echochrome is a game that I’d heard of in name but knew nothing of. I’ve probably seen this knocking around on pre-owned shelves for a few pounds in the past and ignored it but now I have a copy. It certainly looks unique from the back of the box so I’m looking forward to seeing what’s what.
Confession time: despite being a Sony/Playstation fanboy, I have not yet played an Everybody’s Golf game – not even one of the PS1 versions despite being aware of how enjoyable they are meant to be. I guess I will now be able to rectify that particular sin.
Another genre that the PSP excels in? Retro compilations. Unfortunately, many of the best didn’t leave Japan but that’s okay when the PSP is region-free. Twinbee is a series of cute and colourful arcade shooters by Konami (remember when they used to make actual interesting games?) and this pack collects together Twinbee, Detana!! Twinbee, Pop’n Twinbee, Twinbee Yahho and a remake of the Gameboy’s Twinbee Da! I’m really looking forward to playing this as Konami used to be a major force in gaming, developing awesome games as well bright, arcade hits that everybody can enjoy. It’s a shame that they appeared to have almost flushed themselves completely down the crapper but at least we can relive the good times with compilations like this.
So that’s what I gone bought for my tower of PSP shame. In complete honesty (and contrast to this post), I haven’t bought many games at all for ages. I am genuinely trying to downsize my collection and save some money by not buying up anything and everything that interests me because there isn’t enough time to play all of these damn games and eventually you realise that these masses of plastic actually hold a lot of monetary value – incredibly hard to hold onto when you have other hobbies and interests that need financing. However, when you get offered a good deal on some uncommon games from a friend then it’s usually not wise to pass it up, especially when PSP software is generally steadily increasing in value for the good stuff.
Welcome to my first ever post on this blog and to kick things off, I thought I’d have a little discussion on a console that I have a lot of affection for: Sony’s PSP.
“The…PSP?” I hear you say. Yes; you remember the first Playstation-branded portable console that valiantly attempted (and utterly failed) to break Nintendo’s vice-like grip on the handheld market? It was a great piece of kit at the time of release and in fairness, held it’s own for long enough to spawn four hardware revisions and boat-loads of software. There are many factors that contributed to the PSP’s relative failure but the big elephant in the room is Custom Firmware or ‘CFW’ for short. Hacking the PSP was a constantly evolving process that initially required certain UMD discs and permanent hardware modifications that posed the serious risk of “bricking” your system if you didn’t know what you were doing. Sony fought back again and again with firmware updates but new CFW versions kept on coming until it was possible to run the naughty stuff straight from the memory card.
Running CFW was desirable because it allowed for the use of emulators on a console that proved to be bloody good at being a portable Mega Drive/SNES/GBA etc. It also allowed people to download isos of PS1 software to run directly from the card rather than buying from the PS Store. Most of this could be passed off as harmless but what wasn’t harmless was the way on which CFW allowed gamers to download retail PSP games rather than purchasing the physical UMD. Software sales were damaged as a result (several of Square’s Final Fantasy games reportedly suffered heavily for example) and the end of the PSP was nigh.
Now that I’ve given a quick history lesson, let me continue by stating that I’m not here to argue the morality of hacking consoles and downloading software (that’s a discussion in its own right). I’m here to defend the PSP as a genuine platform for great games – many of the exclusives – that should be recognised for more than simply a big screen and buttons to hack as quickly as possible and fill up with teh romz.
The PSP has a ridiculous number of quality titles across all genres and many types of games work a lot better than you may think given the lack of shoulder buttons and that (admittedly) annoying, slidey analogue stub. There are a few kings amongst the genres though, types of games that received more support than others and were thus reasons to own a PSP. The most suited genres were:
If those types of games float your boat then a PSP is a must-have console in your collection. The fact is though that even the lesser-supported genres received some absolutely stunning games. Don’t forget that the PSP was a lot more powerful than its rival, the Nintendo DS, and had the benefit of more adult-orientated games and the kind of stuff that Playstation owners had been used to playing on their home consoles for years now. Witnessing a fully-fledged 3D Grand Theft Auto on a portable blew my mind for example, especially given that both of the “Stories” games were visually superior to GTAIII and Vice City on the PSP as well as more expansive. Then there was Tekken, God of War, Gran Turismo…the list goes on. Of course, the price to pay for this greatness was a woefully short battery life but you had to take the rough with the smooth as with most rewarding things in life.
But going back to what the PSP did especially well and it’s impossible to not start with the RPG’s. Square in particular really loved the PSP bringing upgraded ports of Final Fantasy I-IV, both Star Ocean‘s, Final Fantasy Tactics, Valkyrie Profile as well as brand-new software in the shape of The Third Birthday (aka Parasite Eve III), Tactics Ogre and Dissidia. Capcom contributed Breath of Fire, Atlus offered up enhanced remakes of Persona 1 & 2 plus a portable edition of the mighty Persona 3, Nippon Ichi made Disgaea go portable (twice!) and a whole host of other publishers pitched in with the likes of Riviera, Valkyria Chronicles, Gungnir, Jeanne D’Arc and much more.
Fighting games were also well catered for with Namco’s mastery of the host hardware blessing owners with Tekken: Dark Resurrection and Soul Calibur Broken Destiny – portable versions of their major home console fighters which looked incredible, played just as smoothly and packed in plenty of content (Tekken 6 also received a PSP port later on). Fans of the traditional 2D front were amply supplied to thanks to Capcom porting sublime updates of Street Fighter Alpha 3 and Darkstalkers. Crisp visuals, smooth animation and all of their bigger brothers’ content made it feel like you had somehow managed to ram an arcade cab in your pocket. Guilty Gear and new kid on the block, Blazblue, also rocked up to the party (with varying results it must be said).
Quick-fire puzzle gameplay was another of the PSP’s important cornerstones with so many to choose from. In fact, I’m still discovering new stuff to this day when browsing for new titles to add to my PSP collection! If a puzzle series exists then chances are, there was a PSP version. Lumines, Puzzle Quest, Puyo Puyo, Bust-a-Move, Mercury and Puzzle Fighter were merely the tip of an enormous iceberg.
And if you’re an old fart at heart (I’m a poet and I didn’t know it etc…) then the retro vibes that the PSP exuded would have been most welcome. Taito, Capcom and Midway all published multiple collections absolutely rammed with classic arcade titles while SNK gave us compilations for Metal Slug, King of Fighters and Samurai Shodown (though admittedly, these can be difficult to find due to being published in tiny quantities).
All of this and I feel as though I’ve barely touched on what makes the PSP great. The import scene for example is especially strong thanks to the console’s lack of a region lock and as you may expect, the PSP soldiered on for much longer in its homeland playing host to a wealth of amazing and quirky software that didn’t cross the water. If you have a PSP or intend to pick one up then it’s well worth investigating what didn’t leave Japan. I live in the UK and so there were also many games that the US got and we didn’t so the import pool is even bigger for us Europeans.
What I’m saying is, forget about the CFW, roms and emulators for a moment. Take the time to appreciate the PSP for what it offered in stock form and you might just be surprised at how versatile and impressive both the hardware and games were. I DO run CFW myself – a non-permanent version sitting on my memory card that can be switched on and off at will. I don’t use it for emulation or downloading PSP roms however because I much prefer to have a physical copy of a game as I find that tracking a game down and giving it a proper go is more satisfying than simply downloading a large package of soulless roms. I’m a hoarder by nature anyway and so nothing but the actual box in my hand will do! I use CFW simply to create ISO copies of UMD’s I actually own so that I can play the games directly from the memory stick to improve loading/battery life and save wear on the UMD drive. This has meant seeking out larger storage than Sony’s propiertary Pro Duo format offers so I’m currently rocking a 64GB micro SD card in a Pro Duo adaptor.
There’s far too much goodness to go through here so I will probably feature some of the best games in their own dedicated posts to highlight the gems that the PSP has to offer. With this post, I just wanted to big up the PSP for doing what it does without the aid of modifications. I really find it a shame that such a proper gamers console can’t be talked about without somebody replying “Get it flashed asap, bruv” or “U got CFW on it yet, mate?”. What do these people know? Nothing – clearly.