Monday, July 12, 2010

Groovin' Blocks

Groovin' Blocks combines a match three game with a rhythm game in a very predictable way. The basic game clones Columns, which was Sega's answer to Tetris. Columns (and in more advanced levels, squares) of individually colored blocks fall into a pit one after another. If you arrange for three or more blocks of the same color to settle orthogonally, the blocks are cleared and potentially start a chain reaction as other blocks match three colors in a row. There's definitely skill involved, especially in pattern matching, but also a fair amount of luck in getting the right combination of colors and finding the biggest chain reactions.


While you can enjoy the basic game on it's own, you'll need to play the rhythm portion as well to rack up high scores earning stars to unlock new song sets and powerups. Dropping blocks on the right beat will start filling up a multiplier meter. Dropping on not on the right beat clears the meter and multiplier, but letting blocks settle on their own preserves any multiplier and progress. Powerups (such as bombs and scoring bonuses) are only primed if dropped on rhythm and later cleared. Finally there are "Super Beats", which temporarily double the multiplier if hit.

On the "Casual" level, I found the gameplay combination relaxing and interesting. Songs last about four minutes and tend to have plenty of beats, which makes for a pretty satisfying way to fill time once in a while. With playtime limited by the length of the song, it's fairly easy to get the satisfaction of beating each stage. The "Experienced" level ramps up the challenge by raising the score to earn stars introducing four-block squares and making the pieces fall faster. What tends to happen for me is either A) I focus on the match-three game and don't score enough points to earn stars or B) fail out of the song by dropping pieces before they are set to make combinations. In other words, when the game falls apart, it splits exactly on genre lines.

I can't help but be reminded of my initial experience with Tetris. On the surface, Tetris rewards neatly packed tetrominos and clearing lines as quickly as possible. But as you clear levels the pieces fall faster and faster until it's literally impossible to move pieces into place before they hit the stack. No matter how good you are, the game cannot be beaten. So you need to adjust to the goal of getting a high score, which rewards actions like hard-dropping pieces and clearing four lines at once (getting a "Tetris"). To me, building in such a way that deep pits form in order to drop an I tetromino appeared the antithesis of packing pieces properly. For years I gave up my Tetris addiction rather than change my play style. Playing the more advanced levels of Groovin' Blocks requires an equivalent paradigm shift. In this case, you must drop blocks more or less randomly on beat to build a multiplier and then capitalize on it by clearing blocks more or less methodically.

If you like 8-bit or electronica music, the set list is solid but short. After beating my head against particular songs, my enjoyment of the music started to drop off. Now that I've breezed through the lowest level, I'm stuck on the first set of songs in the middle level. Unlike most puzzle game that can be muted, in Groovin' Blocks you are competing against the music to pass a particular level. Turning off the sound deprives you of a key clue toward getting a high score. On the other hand, the visuals provide enough cues (rolling beat bar and pieces flash to the rhythm) that playing muted is (barely) possible. Also deserving mention (and commendation) are the calibration and colorblind options, which ought to be standard for rhythm games, but aren't.

I should point out that I was given the game code via the developer, Empty Clip Studios. There's very little chance I'd have bought it with my own money and I don't think I'd recommend anyone else paying for it unless they absolutely love the soundtrack (which can be sampled via Google). If you think you can handle hearing these tracks as many times as it takes to crack the scoring goals needed to move forward, then I'd recommend the game to you. (I should add that I did not try the multiplayer mode, but it seems unlikely to have potential to sway my opinion.)

Entertainment value: a short sudoku book with a chiptune soundtrack.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Least played Wii games

Kotaku has balanced their most-played list with a least-played list of Wii games. Sadly, I own two of the least-played 25:

13. Samba De Amigo - 4 hours, 16 minutes
2. M&M's Kart Racing - 2 hours, 5 minutes

Samba de Amigo Various

Low playtime on Samba de Amigo suggests that few people had the patience to learn the controls or that they just gave up based on (unfair) negative reviews. Oddly, I could not find any screenshots of people failing the game until I searched for the Dreamcast version. Perhaps the game was commonly bought or rented by people nostalgic for the original version who didn't really intend to spend serious time with it. Maybe it was brought out for parties and not touched otherwise. Whatever the case, this entry saddens me.

M&M's Kart Racing truly stinks up the Wii's library. My copy logged about 2 hours just so that I could verify that it was as awful as it seemed. I didn't want to review it unfairly. Unlike the rhythm game, this kart racer looks and sounds terrible. Clearly the bulk of the games development budget was spent on the box art, which seems to have paid off commercially if not critically. It was well-designed to be bought by a loved one as a hated gift.

And for the most part the rest of the list probably could be categorized with one or the other of these game: high presentation games that didn't play well and terrible games with great box art. These are a virtual rogue's gallery of bargain-bin denizens. While there are plenty of terrible games with terrible box art, they just were not successful enough to rack up 50,000 total hours of playtime. Even the worst of the worst that don't quite rate 2 hours per registered user would need to have been put into over 25,000 different Wii systems since their release. That's a pretty impressive number of unit sales.

Given my positive experience with Samba de Amigo, I'd be willing to try out a few of the less-iffy seeming games on this list:

25. Donkey Kong Barrel Blast - 5 hours, 1 minute
22. Cooking Mama World Kitchen - 4 hours, 41 minutes
21. Blast Works: Build Trade Destroy - 4 hours, 40 minutes
20. We Love Golf! - 4 hours, 39 minutes
17. Top Spin 3 - 4 hours, 35 minutes
11. Wild Earth: African Safari - 4 hours, 12 minutes

But only if:

24. The Price is Right - 5 hours