Time Ex­tend

The taut Mizuguchi puz­zle game that’s a night­club in your pocket


A look back at Lu­mines, the Tet­suya Mizuguchi puz­zle game that’s a night­club in your pocket

The story of how Tet­suya Mizuguchi found his muse is a fa­mous one – as le­gendary as Miyamoto dreaming up Pik­min in his gar­den, or how Poké­mon was in­spired by Satoshi Ta­jiri’s child­hood bug-catch­ing. Mizuguchi’s light­bulb mo­ment was a lit­tle dif­fer­ent: danc­ing to elec­tronic mu­sic at a fes­ti­val in Switzer­land, flanked by hun­dreds of fel­low rev­ellers in sim­i­lar thrall to the beats and bass, he knew what he wanted to do next in a ca­reer that had, un­til then, fo­cused on the cre­ation of rac­ing games for Sega’s coin-op divi­sion. He wanted to make peo­ple feel, through games, what clubbers felt on the dance­floor. He called it synaes­the­sia, bor­row­ing the name for a neu­ro­log­i­cal phe­nom­e­non where a feel­ing in one of the senses causes an­other in an­other, join­ing up mu­sic and games.

It’s the sort of thing a cou­ple of worse-for-wear space cases would come up with in a chill­out room at 4am and agree is the great­est idea in his­tory for the 13 sec­onds it takes the both of them to for­get what they were talk­ing about. Yet Mizuguchi has made a ca­reer out of it. His techno-in­fused on-rails shooter Rez is widely held as the synaes­the­sia stan­dard bearer, and with good rea­son. It’s im­me­di­ately, ob­vi­ously a shooter set to mu­sic, a love let­ter both to videogames and the time-hon­oured tra­di­tion of get­ting span­gled in a dark­ened room. Yet it’s Lu­mines, re­leased along­side PlaySta­tion Portable in 2007, that comes clos­est to mak­ing Mizuguchi’s psychedelic dream a re­al­ity.

“Puz­zle X Mu­sic”, blares the game’s Ja­panese box art, but that’s un­der­selling the way Lu­mines weaves to­gether its two com­po­nents. Yes, it is a puz­zle game, tautly de­signed, in which bi­colour squares of four blocks must be ar­ranged into rec­tan­gles of a sin­gle colour. And it is a mu­sic game, the dif­fer­ent back­ing tracks dic­tat­ing both the speed at which blocks fall and that of the timeline, which sweeps across the widescreen board clear­ing matches from the screen ev­ery two bars. That alone jus­ti­fies

Lu­mines’ con­cise el­e­va­tor pitch, but “Puz­zle X Mu­sic” is a con­cept that runs much deeper than the me­chan­ics on the game’s sur­face. Mu­sic it­self is, af­ter all, es­sen­tially a puz­zle – a col­lec­tion of jum­bled, awk­ward sounds pro­duced from an un­fa­mil­iar in­stru­ment. The so­lu­tion here, too, lies first in ex­per­i­men­ta­tion, and then prac­tice. When it all comes to­gether, the re­sults can be beau­ti­ful.

Ro­tat­ing a block trig­gers a sound ef­fect. When it falls into place – ei­ther of its own ac­cord or when you force it to by hold­ing down on the D-pad – you’ll hear a dif­fer­ent one. Hold left or right to push a block to the edge of the board and yet an­other sam­ple will play. The sim­ple act of puz­zling is, as shoot­ing was in Rez, a mu­si­cal in­stru­ment – but here you have far greater con­trol over what plays and when. While the back­ing track dic­tates the pace, and those with faster BPMs de­mand you play Lu­mines as puz­zle game first and mu­sic game sec­ond, for much of the ac­tion it’s you that de­cides when and where to drop a block, when to push one all the way to the edge, and when to ro­tate it. If at first you don’t do so in time to the mu­sic then, well, don’t worry. Re­mem­ber the first time you picked up a mu­si­cal in­stru­ment – and this is a puz­zle game, af­ter all. But be­fore long, al­most with­out re­al­is­ing it, you’ll be puz­zling to the beat of the drum: drop­ping blocks in time to kick­drums; ro­tat­ing lit­tle scratch sam­ples on the off-beat; sweep­ing blocks from side to side even though you de­cided where to put it a sec­ond-and-a-half ago. You are per­form­ing – and for an au­di­ence of one, Sony’s hard­ware serv­ing as the record­ing stu­dio in your work bag, the pri­vate night­club in your jacket pocket.

When viewed like this, Mizuguchi’s orig­i­nal vi­sion for videogame synaes­the­sia has less to do with the feel­ings of the dance­floor rug-cut­ter and more to do with the per­son in the DJ booth. Here, af­ter all, you are pro­vid­ing the en­ter­tain­ment, rather than pas­sively ex­pe­ri­enc­ing it; you are not solv­ing a puz­zle so much as defin­ing what that puz­zle is to be us­ing the tools pro­vided. The game’s 40 lev­els (styled ‘skins’) vary wildly not only in vis­ual de­sign but in the pace and genre of their sound­track, Mizuguchi flaunt­ing his eclec­tic taste in mu­sic, a se­ries of sharp left turns from dub to disco, sparse techno to jazzy drum’n’bass. In the de­fault Chal­lenge mode, skins are

played in fixed se­quen­tial or­der, laid out end to end like a Mizuguchi mix­tape. Any DJ will tell you that it isn’t sim­ply about the tunes you play, but the or­der in which you play them: a crowd is there to be man­aged. The Chal­lenge mode setlist is, in this con­text, prop­erly paced, its peaks spread out, spaced by de­tours into left­field gen­res, the pitch slow­ing, let­ting you catch your breath and clear out the board be­fore you build into the next crescendo.

While the sound ef­fects caused by ma­nip­u­lat­ing blocks em­power a cer­tain cre­ativ­ity, the beat­ing heart of Lu­mines as both puz­zle game and per­for­mance piece is the timeline. Con­stantly mov­ing across the screen, clear­ing matched blocks from the field of play as it passes them, it puts an el­e­ment of risk/re­ward on mak­ing large com­bos, es­pe­cially when the board is clut­tered: if a match made on the far left has been ex­panded hor­i­zon­tally across the screen, none of those blocks dis­ap­pear un­til the timeline has passed by them all.

Yet the timeline also dic­tates the progress of the mu­sic. Each back­ing track is split up into two-bar sec­tions, the game only ad­vanc­ing to the next one once the timeline has cleared a match from the screen. To put it an­other way: the cur­rent sec­tion will loop end­lessly un­til you de­cide to make a match. Dur­ing the skin set to Shake Your Body, a cheery Latin house num­ber by Ja­panese pro­ducer Mondo Grosso, you can loop a phrase dur­ing the break­down, flecked with clas­si­cal gui­tar, for a good minute if you’ve got a clear board to play with, whip­ping the imag­i­nary crowd – be­cause there is al­ways one of those when we play Lu­mines – into a frenzy as they wait eagerly for the drop. Sud­denly the puz­zle is flipped on its head: it isn’t about mak­ing matches to clear the screen and build a score, but the op­po­site, unplaying the game to bet­ter play the mu­sic. When the time is right – or you make a mis­take, or your hand is forced by a sin­gle-colour square that is go­ing to form a match wher­ever you put it – the beat drops, the crowd in your head goes wild, and the dance­floor in the palm of your hand is bounc­ing as you rapidly clean up the board.

Th­ese mo­ments are rare in the game, just as they should be on the dance­floor. There are cer­tainly times where the mu­sic couldn’t be far­ther from your thoughts, when you must play a tra­di­tional puz­zle game to sim­ply stay alive. Some­times that’s a ques­tion of back­ing-track BPM; at oth­ers it’s be­cause your brain is strug­gling to parse the de­sign of the cur­rent skin (one Game Boy-style mono­chrome ef­fort has ended many a run). Even in th­ese mo­ments

Lu­mines is a de­light: af­ter all, none of the mu­si­cal as­pects of Mizuguchi’s synaes­the­sia equa­tion would work were they not en­twined with a de­cent puz­zle game. Even with the vol­ume down, Lu­mines sings: there is a min­i­mal­ist el­e­gance to its de­sign, with just five dif­fer­ent block types that can be


ar­ranged in mind-bend­ing con­fig­u­ra­tions. It’s a point that’s rammed home in Puz­zle mode, which asks you to cre­ate spe­cific shapes – a pic­ture of a dog, per­haps, or a UFO – show­ing you the broad po­ten­tial of its seem­ingly sparse toolset.

But Chal­lenge mode is where the real ac­tion is – and this is a club that never closes. Play through all 40 skins and there’s no con­grat­u­la­tions screen, no fireworks, no rolling of cred­its. It just loops back to the start and will con­tinue to do so even af­ter you’ve reached the score limit of 999,999. It was an ideal fit for PSP, a show­case of its dis­play, its au­dio pro­ces­sor and, above all, its standby mode, an end­less night out in a venue ready to fling open its doors when­ever you have a spare ten min­utes.

Lu­mines was enough of a suc­cess to spawn a num­ber of fol­low-ups, each serv­ing to re­in­force the bril­liance of the orig­i­nal. Lu­mines II suf­fered for its sound­track;

Lu­mines Live! was stymied by the 360 con­troller’s sub­stan­dard D-pad; and mo­bile ports fur­ther il­lus­trated the im­por­tance of re­li­able phys­i­cal con­trols. Mizuguchi then walked away from the se­ries, mak­ing Ev­ery Ex­tend Ex­tra for PSP, and Xbox 360 ti­tle

Ninety-Nine Nights. Sub­se­quent se­quels let the player ar­range the Chal­lenge mode skins in the or­der of their choos­ing, as if Mizuguchi was the DJ and had just stuck a playlist on shuf­fle. Vita’s Lu­mines Elec­tronic

Sym­phony had an en­tirely li­censed sound­track that lacked the breadth and nu­ance of the orig­i­nal game, from wasps-ina-tin Dutch trance to ra­dio-friendly dan­ce­pop and a few EDM bangers too many.

Lu­mines: Puz­zle & Mu­sic Neo, re­cently re­leased on the App Store, is the best

Lu­mines since the orig­i­nal – lit­tle won­der given it her­alds Mizuguchi’s se­ries re­turn and fea­tures much of the same mu­sic.

To pro­mote Neo, Mizuguchi took to Red­dit for an Ask Me Any­thing ses­sion. He spoke of his ex­cite­ment at what VR could do for his work in synaes­the­sia – no sur­prise, given the im­mi­nent re­lease of Rez

In­fi­nite – and that when com­bined with mo­bile, the pos­si­bil­i­ties were in­tox­i­cat­ing. Yet he also said, “I don’t think I’ve come up with a mas­ter­piece yet.” As we tease out a break­down, slam­ming blocks in place with per­fectly timed piano stabs be­fore lin­ing up a match and let­ting the beat drop in, we would like to re­spect­fully dis­agree.

Mondo Grosso’s Shinin’, which plays over the first level, is a fan favourite that came to sym­bol­ise the en­tire se­ries

Mul­ti­player is too fran­tic for a game best played at your own pace. The ever-mov­ing di­vid­ing line con­fuses, too

Shake Your Body in ac­tion. Here, back­ground vi­su­als are used to en­hance the ac­tion, but else­where they’re used to dis­tract

Mul­ti­player can be played against the CPU, too. Wins un­lock skins and avatars for use in other modes

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