After Tetris came out, plenty of game companies wanted to add their own spin to the falling block puzzle sub-genre. SEGA’s answer was Columns, released in 1990 for the Mega Drive (or Genesis). The original idea was made by a chap called Jay Geertsen, who sold the rights to the title to the iconic Japanese game developers. After that, the game began springing up on countless consoles. Don’t be fooled by its beautifully-simple premise, for underneath this gem-encrusted box art is a taxing but pleasurable experience.
The gameplay is self-explanatory. Triplets of gems will drop down, getting chains of the same colour (horizontally, vertically, or diagonally) offers you points and gradually raises the game speed, game ends when it’s too full, etc. Stacks cannot be rotated horizontally; they will always fall vertically. Although, they can be instantly reorganized at the press of a button, which adds a new degree of difficulty, at least.
Arcade mode offers three difficulty modes. Easy is slow and simple, and even offers hints. Normal mode is a bit quicker. Magic jewels that shatter all gems of a specific colour eventually start to appear at rare intervals. Whereas, Hard mode gives a lot of bonus points from the get-go, but gem stacks will drop at lightning-speed. Starting from here is difficult to recommend, as even seasoned Columns players will no doubt struggle to react in time! Perhaps some more special jewel-types might’ve sufficed, too, like heavy blocks that clear out an entire column.
A few additional game modes are packed in. Original mode allows you to alter the game speed and how many gem types you want to see in the game. ‘Flash Gems’ places a gem at the bottom of the grid, surrounded by jewels, and only by shattering it can you complete the round. Both of these can be played with another person cooperatively, or competitively. Topping off the package is a time attack mod, which limits a round to a three minute game. These are small, subtle tweaks to the core game, but are welcome changes, and the addition of two-player is a nice inclusion.
The dark, detailed backgrounds of Columns (inspired by the ancient Phoenician civilization) juxtapose with the eye-catching gameplay and the multi-coloured gems on-screen. The sound effects are nice and crisp, and the luscious, soothing soundtrack – composed by Tokuhiko Uwabo – really sets the tone. It may not be particularly suitable for when the game becomes a lot more frantic, but the few songs available are still a great listen.
It may not have revolutionized the sub-genre – not like that was SEGA’s intention – and while it may not be as iconic as Tetris, Columns is still a solid choice after all these decades. The fairly-generous amount of customization on offer will let anyone tune the odds towards or against them, depending on whether they want to relax or challenge themselves. Is it a top- priority Mega Drive title of yesteryear? Not really. The experience, however, is entirely worthwhile.