In the late ’80s, Tetris was a worldwide phenomenon. Between its accessible gameplay, addictive music, and availability on practically every platform of merit, Tetris naturally spawned a host of competitors for the block dropping space. Columns, Sega’s entry into the fray, has been one of the most spiritually successful games to come from that scrum, living on as the DNA of games such as Popcap’s Bejeweled and Sega’s own Puyo Puyo series.
Columns innovated a number of mechanics in the block-dropping genre that have since gone on to be standard. Unlike Tetris, where all of the blocks were functionally identical upon landing, Columns made the colors of the blocks significant—match three or more of the same color and they disappear, and not just horizontally, but vertically and diagonally as well. And once blocks were dropped, they were not locked into place. If blocks cleared below, the blocks on top of it dropped down independently of their horizontal neighbors. This led to massive potential combos and skyrocketing points as the blocks cascaded down.
The soundtrack to Columns, by Tokuhiko Uwabo, was suitably mystical sounding and managed to feel minimalist and endless without becoming frustratingly repetitive over the course of hours of play. In a nod to Tetris, three tracks were included for the player to choose from.
While available on both the Genesis and the Game Gear (as a pack-in, no less), the best way to play it was on Sega Channel. That bizarre peripheral allowed gamers to actually save-state the game as they played. Yeah, it wouldn’t actually help with the gameplay, but being able to save and continue a game in progress was amazing, especially in a genre not known for caring about persistence.
Ultimately, in the head-to-head battle with Tetris, Columns was a clear loser. Tetris and Game Boy had too great a head start, and Columns looked dated even by 1990’s standards—a bigger issue on a 16-bit console than a portable. The game survived, though. Game developer Compile took the mechanics of Columns and refined them, allowing the blocks to turn like tetriminos and break into segments like Dr. Mario, while keeping the combo strength of the source game. The resulting game was branded with anime characters and released as Puyo Puyo, which went on to be a huge series for Sega, both in Japan and the States.
With Sega’s recent trend of rereleasing classic games on modern platforms, Columns is available on most devices and consoles, and holds up just as well today as it did in 1990. Some games are eternal, and Columns is worth another look.
Article by Shivam Bhatt
GameSpite Journal 12: Columns