Lumines

By Shamus
on Jan 26, 2010
Filed under:
Game Reviews

I was serious when I likened Lumines to Tetris. The elegance of the gameplay has a “why didn’t anyone think of this before?” thing going on. Simple. Pure. Captivating.

Having said that, I think the game fails at a couple of crucial points. In its natural state, the game is a system of organizing binary data in time to electronic music. This game is essentially a drug for people with my particular mental makeup. The mixture of left brain provocation (introducing disorder to a system which the player must combat through sorting) and right brain stimulation (the music) is the kind of thing that causes me to completely lose track of time.

The problem comes with the different “skins” in the game. Every three-ish minutes, the game completely re-invents itself. The pieces change color and appearance. The music changes. The animated background changes. The rhythm changes. Most of these skins are like this one:

lumines1.jpg

…which has striking contrast and a catchy tune. Also fun is this one:

lumines2.jpg

…which also combines clear visibility with a bouncy tune. But every once in a while you have to endure three minutes of this:

lumines3.jpg

This one is so ugly that it actually causes discomfort. The pieces have no overall contrast. Green on red vs. Red on green? Ugh. And the “music” here is just a looping sound of echoing voices, like someone mumbling nonsense into a time-delay feedback loop. It sounds like someone’s nightmare. Both parts of my brain instantly stop having fun as both the color-based sorting and the aesthetics go right to hell.

Less extreme but still annoying is this one:

lumines4.jpg

The pieces look fine in still frame, but the background image is a high-contrast pattern that’s constantly shifting, which makes reading the board of semi-translucent pieces more challenging than it ought to be. When that bright white spot gets right in the middle of the board, it can be tough to tell what the heck is going on.

When one of these levels pop up, it’s actually a great deal of effort to continue the game. The game is suddenly harder not because it’s moving faster or things are more complicated, but because I can’t see what I’m doing. I can only assume that this was an intentional decision on the part of the game designer, to challenge the player in different ways. The downside is that the game instantly loses all of its charm and becomes a trial which must be endured. Messing with the visibility of the board betrays the logic-puzzle / pattern matching gameplay, which doesn’t need obfuscation in order to daunt the player.

The shift in music also feels schizophrenic. I actually wouldn’t mind the “hoedown” music if it was kind of catchy and the game stuck with that theme. But leaping from one unrelated genre of music to the next is frustrating and flow-breaking, particularly when the non-electronic bits are so grating. (You can loop a few seconds of thumping electronic dance music more easily than you can loop a few seconds of banjo playing. Ugh.) This is exacerbated by the fact that the music and sound effects share a common volume slider, so you can’t just turn off the music and provide your own unless you want to also give up all in-game sound.

It’s not that these things ruin the game. Allow me to point you back at my second paragraph if you’ve lost hold of that crucial context. I still enjoyed it. (Too much.) It’s just that the game could be so much more satisfying without these unpopped kernels in Lumines’ bag of popcorn. Then again, if this game had been more enjoyable I might not have been able to stop playing.

You can play the game online at Wild Tangent, although you should be aware of their business practices before you put their bits on your hard drive. I got my copy on the Steam store, which also offers a demo.

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From the Archives:

  1. Mari says:

    I have a problem with this sort of game myself. Heck, I still occasionally go on Tetris binges where the world recedes to nothingness for days at a time while I drop little colored blocks on top of one another. So basically I just wanted to thank you on behalf of my family (who probably won’t be eating for a few days now) for introducing me to more addiction fuel.

  2. Pickly says:

    Don’t you mean “Cream on brown vs. Brown on cream” for that third one? (To be nitpicky.)

    I can see what you’re saying for the music, though. It sounds like the sort of effect that could get quite anoying if not handled well.

  3. Eric says:

    you got to play it on the psp. That’s what it was made for.

  4. lynn says:

    Have you looked at World of Goo? Oh my, I loved that game.

  5. LafinJack says:

    For the dots one, is that maybe intended as part of the challenge of the skin?

  6. GTb says:

    What the… Lumines?!

    You are aware that Mass Effect 2 came out today right?

    Hurry up and play it so I can bitch about it without ruining anything.

  7. Tesh says:

    I’ll second Eric. I like the game, and have it on the PC thanks to Steam and an impulse buy, but the PC controls aren’t remappable (no Twinkie, bad designers!), so actually controlling the dang thing on the PSP is so much better.

    …other than that, yes, the “endurance” levels are extremely annoying. I’ve given up unlocking high level skins because I value my sanity, ears and eyes too much. I take comfort in the mode where you can choose the skins.

  8. Volatar says:

    Audiosurf does this kind of thing to me too *winces*

  9. Eidolon says:

    I got it during the Steam christmas sale, too. Controls don’t bother me — I use the mouse, which makes it very easy.

    Most of the skins aren’t too bad, but I do hate that one with the circles. The one in Advanced mode that looks like little brick walls isn’t fun, either, although the contrast there is a lot better.

    On the other hand, I kind of like the translucent blue and white one.

  10. Michael says:

    WildTangent are the darklords of gaming. Worked with their SDK for awhile and they continued to change and modify under us every step of the way to the detriment of our customers.

    We finally abandoned it after hosing enough of our users machines.

  11. SteveDJ says:

    Since I don’t have a PsP, nor an account on Steam or any other similar service – I won’t be playing this any time soon.

    But, it would be nice to have some explanation of the general game play… :(

  12. Hal says:

    Oof, I still have relapses into Dr. Mario. Please don’t drag me back in. I can’t do that to the people I love.

  13. Nick says:

    This is a single player game right? So why would I have to install something on my computer to play it ONLINE?

  14. axilet says:

    Damn, I’m being tempted to buy this game. Which would be bad, since I have about three uncompleted PSP games sitting in my drawer…=(

  15. Ramsus says:

    Despite the flaws it has (and what year it was made in) I’m sure you’d still nominate it for Videogame Writing Award of 2009 right?

  16. Deoxy says:

    Perhaps the “bad” skins are an intentional attempt at getting you to take breaks from the game? That would be a good thing foa developer to, after all, especially with a game as addictive as Tetris or several of its derivatives (which this seems to be – drop the pieces from the top, line them up in certain ways to win).

  17. Kiwipolish says:

    My brother is red-green color deficient, and I can tell you that red/green level would be a gamebreaker for him. He literally would not be able to play the game.

  18. Kirin says:

    I’m with you, I absolutely adore the game and am obsessed with it. You actually listed my favorite and least favorite skins accordingly. All I can say is thank god for the playlist mode. Making my own transitions and keeping only my favorite skins makes for an enjoyable experience (you can even loop one good skin forever.)
    @Nick- Steam isn’t an “online game” program, it’s a ‘digital distribution program.’

  19. UtopiaV1 says:

    In the Matrix, Agent Smith makes the insightful comment (waaay to insightful for the Wachowski brothers to conjure) about earlier versions of the matrix, which goes something like this – “…some believe that we lacked the programming language to describe your ‘perfect world’, but i believe that human beings define their reality through misery and suffering…” And I think that is true of games too.

    Let me clarify. A game that is excellent is played continuously buy its audience (the intense, compulsive nerds that we are) and is quickly finished with and discarded. Maybe later referred to ‘that awesome game i played years ago’, but we remember the experience fondly and also remember how short it was (or seemed). A good game (not excellent) is also alot of fun to play, but have you noticed it lasts longer? We seems to play it more over the years and fail to ever really finish/discard it because ‘Oh, that game is really good, i still have some stuff to do on it though, don’t wanna do a couple of the levels, but i have too if i want to get back to the good ones…’.

    My point is, i think that imperfections improve the longevity of a game, and make you appreciate the good parts all the more. A game that consistently delivers and awesome experience every time makes you EXPECT an awesome experience every time. You start to become immune to that adrenaline or good feeling you get when playing, and find the whole concept tiring.

    For example, Supreme Commander is a very impressive game, and as an avid strategy gamer i love the (almost) perfection of it. However, i tire of its perfection very quickly, because it gives me what i want most of the time (i definitely notice when it doesn’t), and often turn to its spiritual predecessor Total Annihilation afterwards, and not because it’s a necessarily better game. I feel the roughness of the graphics and somewhat lackluster ai actually makes the games more entertaining, by making me appreciate the intense action and satisfaction of an attack well planned (sort of like the way cell-shading games avoid dealing with the uncanny valley).

    That’s my opinion, but i’m open to any criticism of my argument, or even examples of when you feel a game has been improved by its ‘faults’. (ps sorry for the long post) :P

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