Shout-out to Columns

Stacking puzzlers: they’re some of the best and most recognized video games out there. Gimmick-laden or streamlined to the max, numerous novel concepts have been built upon the foundation of “2D well where variety of objects collect” following the 1984 arrival of Tetris.

“Tetris clone” as a dismissive description for any non-Tetris stacking puzzler is language I’m glad we’ve moved on from. In much the same way as “Doom clone” or “Street Fighter 2 clone” were trotted out as near-pejoratives for any FPS or tournament fighter born in the wake of either massively influential title, perpetual comparisons of practically anything puzzle game-y to Tetris were commonplace in gaming journalism of the era.

For something like Nyet on MS-DOS, a deliberately no-frills recreation of Alexey Pajitnov’s tetromino long drop, “Tetris clone” is wholly appropriate and even readily self-applied by the game’s programmer David Howarth (who brazenly named his v1.0 build “Tetris” before better judgement prevailed). For something like Columns, Hewlett-Packard employee Jay Geertsen’s 1989 pattern-matching stack-’em-up, it would be akin to calling Castlevania a “Mario clone”; the influence is patently obvious, but beyond the most fundamental design elements in common, the mechanics & gameplay of one are clearly distinct from the other. There was, of course, the added dimension of console wars tomfoolery contributing to a Tetris VS Columns rivalry, so perhaps writing off the descending gem contemporary as “just a clone” had less to do with plagiarized characteristics and more to do with rank fanboy-ism.

The legal saga of Nintendo’s efforts to lock down control over Tetris is well-known, but I’ve uncovered only scant information about Sega’s licensing of the Columns concept from Jay Geertsen apart from the fact that, well… Sega did it and it happened. Did Mr. Geertsen reach out to Sega with ambitions to sell exclusive rights to his Tetris killer? Did someone at-or-connected-to Sega play the original Columns on an HP-UX system, see its potential as an arcade rival to Tetris and push for acquisition? I’m thoroughly curious and more research here is needed, but the order with which handshakes & business dealings took place is less important to what I’d like to ramble on about a little longer in this particular post. See, there’s a key innovation that Jay Geertsen’s Columns contributed to the greater puzzle tableau that, by my observation, gets nearly universally overlooked.

As best as I’ve gathered, Columns was the first of its kind to introduce the now-ubiquitous “combo”; the mechanic of triggering multiple clears with a single drop only began appearing in puzzlers from its 1989 computer system release onward. Hot on Columns’ heels and hitting the scene in 1990 were the likes of Atari’s Klax, Nintendo’s Dr. Mario and Namco’s Megapanel, followed by Compile’s Puyo Puyo and Bullet Proof Software’s Tetris-variant Bombliss a year later than that, all titles continuing the combo trend. By the mid ’90s, any score attack puzzler worth its weight featured a method for stringing together elaborate clears: Panel de Pon, Magical Drop, Baku Baku Animal, Dero~n Dero Dero (known in North America as Tecmo Stackers, the most ludicrously combo-rific of them all), Super Puzzle Fighter II X, Kirby no KiraKira Kids, etc. The examples are legion and continue to this day with inventive indie puzzlers such as Tidalis, Raining Blobs and Super Puzzle Sisters, or modern mashups of genre giants like Puyo Puyo Tetris.

Few games make the process of setting up then executing a combo more skillful ‘n satisfying than the mechanical granddaddy Columns, though. A lucky, unintended chain can save the day (Columns Crown on GBA even grades your performance with an ego-bruising “luck” metric), but reckless play spells doom faster than in most stacking puzzle games and the ability to plan out combos is central to effective Columns-izing. While it’s not my absolute favourite version of the game, I had recently become fixated on mastering max difficulty Flash mode in the Genesis port – out of sheer necessity, the player’s ability to find combos is tested in a major way by starting off with only the well’s top 4 rows clear of gems. It’s a challenge up there with maximum virus level Dr. Mario, another treat for puzzle fans prone to obsessive just-one-more-try-and-I’ll-beat-this-insurmountable-task behaviour.

Anyhow, let us raise a bejewelled drinking vessel to Columns and the combos it ushered in, the greatest thing to happen to puzzle games since gravity was applied to the tetromino! 😀

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