Lumines: Why it's still the best game on PSP
21st Aug 2011 | 18:30
We don't want to get too pretentious and flowery over a game that basically just involves rotating squares around to odd Japanese music, but Lumines could well be described as the world's first 'sandbox' puzzle game.
It's a deceptively simple concept: you organise squares into bigger squares, which then disappear when a scrolling 'timeline' passes over them. This then frees up more screen space for your next square and you start the process all over again. That's really all it is - but you try making Tetris sound like a good idea on paper.
In fact, when playing Lumines for the first time you'll probably find it monumentally slow and extremely dull. That is perfectly normal. It doesn't mean we're lying to you right now or you're too stupid to "get it" or your game is somehow broken and not loading right - it's just a very, very slow experience to begin with.
The first level - a dazzlingly bright screen full of orange and silver played to an Underworld-like droning technopop soundtrack - challenges you to place one falling square on the screen with huge intervals between subsequent squares. You won't die. You won't find this a challenge. You might find yourself thinking "Is this it?", then heading off to GAME to trade it in (it's ancient, so you'll only get £2) for one of the GTA games instead.
But this slow pace is where the sandbox challenge appears. How long can you keep the screen clear for? How many single colour bonuses can you rack up in a row? Or why not try to build up loads of squares of the same colour in a clever pattern, causing a massive
chain reaction when a gem-thing drops, destroying all similar-coloured tiles? You make your own fun. Play fast, play slow, organise or tidy up.
ALL THAT JAZZ
The game also has a flow to it - a fast level, a slow level, a medium paced level with rubbish music you can't wait to get out of. Pretty red and white levels follow ugly brown and grey levels, the bad dark ones making you all the happier to get to a dazzling good one. The variety of music as you go from skin to skin is astonishing, blundering from 1990s trance to experimental jazz via traditional Japanese tinkling.
That's possibly the single most incredible thing about Lumines - it could make a person consider listening to jazz out of choice. After two or three minutes of playing to techno-jazz you warp into Japanese pop.
It's the same game, only now the tempo of the scrolling bar might be faster, so you have to speed up. But that's not all. Sometimes the timeline slows down, twisting the challenge from speed dispersal to screen control as you're stuck with more squares on screen for a longer period of time, completely altering how you think and play.
As with Tetris on the Game Boy, Lumines suits PSP perfectly, but it doesn't work as well on other systems. It's a bright game that rewards you with flashing lights and animating icons that blaze out of PSP's fantastic screen like a personal firework display.
You need to hold it close to your eyes to fully enjoy the audio/visual rewards you get when clearing loads of squares in one go. You want to feel the warmth of the screen on your face and have your ears perfectly placed to hear the full stereo soundtrack. In fact, plug your PSP into the mains for that extra level of brightness - screw the planet, Lumines at max brightness is worth it.
FEEL YOUR WAY
The PSP's digital D-pad is also perfect for Lumines. You can feel where to place squares: three presses to the right, two presses left, then all the way right for the next one. This isn't a game to be played on the analogue stick. You need the sort of predictable control over where your squares go that only ones and zeros can offer.
The game only loads once, briefly, between each level, so the UMD drive isn't whirring away like an angle grinder in your hand as you play. This conveniently also maximises your PSP's battery life for those mammoth high score attempts when you find yourself dangerously far away from the safety of your mains plug adaptor.
As a tech demo of PSP's screen brightness, sound processing and controls, then, there's nothing better. Man and machine become one when playing Lumines. Which is a good thing, as when you start to improve games can last for well over an hour and a half - making it the perfect foil for long journeys.
It's not the sort of game that gives you space to breathe, though. Go 12 rounds with Lumines and you'll be left with cramp, pins and needles and a stiff neck. But it's definitely worth it - a hunched back and withered claws are signs of a Lumines master. Get it.