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
IT ISN’T ABOUT MAKING MATCHES TO BUILD A SCORE, BUT UNPLAYING THE GAME TO BETTER PLAY THE MUSIC
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