Blockout

Console: Sega Genesis

Grade: C+

Ranking in Sega Genesis Top 50: 49th

Publisher:  Electronic Arts

Year: 1991

Genre:  Gravity

Blockout is a puzzle type that basically plays like Tetris, except in three dimensions instead of two.  Keep in mind that Tetris was originally developed as a training exercise to test Soviet Cosmonauts’ understanding of spatial relations.  I’m not sure of the true origin story of Blockout, but if I had to guess, I’d imagine it involved a group of the smartest people in the entire world getting together for a relaxing game of Tetris, and coming to the conclusion that the game – the one used to train freaking astronauts –  would be pretty fun if only it were just a little more mentally stimulating.

Researching Blockout turned up the interesting fact that the two people who developed it, Aleksander Ustaszewski and Mirosław Zabłocki, were from Poland, so my new theory is that it’s some kind of revenge for the last hundred years or so of Polish jokes.  If so, then well done guys – from now on, when I hear the tired joke about the Polish Mafia making you an offer you can’t understand, I’ll assume it’s because the offer was made by two nuclear physicists and involved a lot of exponents and stuff.  I’m not sure why there would be scientists working for the Polish Mafia, but then again, I’m not sure why they’re designing video games, either.

I mean that – I really don’t know why two brilliant Polish scientists were making a better version of Tetris.  Poland was a communist country back then.  I’m no expert on these things, but my understanding of command economies is that  if you want to make a computer game, great.  But if you want to actually get paid to make a computer game, well, then the government has to tell you to do it first.  I have no idea why these countries were having some of their smartest people design puzzle games instead of, say, better military technology or functioning infrastructure for their socialist paradises, but you almost have to wonder if it wasn’t some kind of act of sabotage by some CIA operative within these nations’ governments.  In which case, good on you, American spies – not only did you bring down the Iron Curtain, you also got us some kickass games in the process.

But let’s talk about the game shall we?  Blockout is the same general idea as Tetris – different shaped blocks fall down, you arrange them in neat rows, and every complete row disappears, making more room for you to operate.  The difference here is that instead of working in two dimensions, up/down and left/right, Blockout adds a third dimension (closer/farther, I guess?).  This is perhaps best illustrated with a screenshot:

Pretty much all of the pictures are going to look like this.

Right now, you’re probably looking at that and thinking “Well, that doesn’t look too hard.”  In fact, it probably looks like it might be a bit easier than Tetris, what with all that extra dimension there to work otherwise inconveniently shaped pieces into.  But of course that’s on the super-easy, “designed for people in countries where they don’t have such a huge surplus of brilliant scientists that they use some of them to design games” difficulty setting.  Cranking it up to the more “normal” difficulty gives you pieces that look more like this:

What? Betrayed by the 3rd dimension again!

See, now that third dimension is starting to work against you a bit, as the pieces are no longer flat.  Accounting for that extra dimension is tougher than it looks, and the overhead view means that as pieces stack up, your view of the lower layers becomes obscured, until your board looks something like this:

OH GOD.

And that’s on the medium setting.  There’s a third difficulty level which forces you to work with pieces out taken directly from some kind of abstract-cubist’s fever dream:

I’m a tetrapolyhemagon, and I will eat your eyes.

By the way, the pieces are rigid, too, so if one little segment of a piece gets caught on another piece, the whole thing settles right there like some kind of physics-defying Jenga tower until that layer is cleared.  Assuming, of course, that it ever is.  To be perfectly honest,  I’ve never even cleared a single layer while using most difficult piece set.  This game doesn’t just want to fill your virtual well with oddly shaped blocks, it wants to beat you down, take your lunch money and make out with your girlfriend.  I take back what I said before about communist nations not using their best scientists to design weapons.  This game is the ultimate weapon, using the guise of a fun, family friendly game to secretly crush your otherwise indemonstrable American spirit and melt your brain in seconds.  It’s a damn good thing President Reagan had already singlehandedly won the Cold War before this thing reached US shores.

Fans of Columns are probably pretty confused right now, partially because they only exist within this sentence, but also because the main complaint we have about Columns was that no matter how much we played it, we never got any good at it, and each game quickly devolved into a blind panic of throwing pieces everywhere and hoping for a miracle.  If that was the problem with Columns, why is it acceptable for Blockout?  Well, the answer is that Blockout is hard because you have to have to do something really hard – figure out how to fit all those weird shapes together on the fly.  Columns has you do something a Kindergartener could do- matching colors – but forces you to do it at a speed that makes it almost impossible to look at the screen and find matches.  We play Blockout and think we would be a lot better at it if we just a bit smarter.  We play Columns and think we could be better at it if we could somehow put in on a computer that had a lot of slowdown.  Secondly, fuck you – nobody likes Columns.

Outside of the gameplay, there isn’t much to discuss.  Like most puzzle games, Blockout’s story is not explained in great detail, as there’s not much to work with.  Stuff is falling in a well… for some reason.  Go line it up nicely before it fill it all the way to the top.  You could maybe make a story out of that, but I doubt it’d be a good one.  The game menus are best described as “functional”, and the graphics and sound effects get the job done without being anything amazing.

Musically, this game was published by EA, and for whatever reason, the music in their games tends to sound pretty similar.  At first, I thought maybe the same guy did all the music for most of their games, but this isn’t the case.  So the most logical assumption is that Electronic Arts had a company-wide policy of demanding that all their composers use the same musical style.  And that musical style is probably best described as “a farting bass guitar”.  Try to imagine a remixed version of the Road Rash theme.  Or the music in Madden ’93.  Or any EA game, really.  It sounds kind of like that.

We picked on this game a lot, but obviously Stryker and I enjoyed it or it would have revoked its Seal of Quality by now.  Unlike so many puzzle games ripping off Tetris, Blockout is one of the few that actually feels like an improvement.  And with a bit of practice, we actually did get a little better at it.  You know, moving up from being really, really bad to just kinda bad.  Still not clearing any layers on the hardest difficulty, but on the medium setting I can get kind of far.  Not sure if playing the game is making me any smarter, but I can levitate small objects with my mind now, so that might be something.

Gauntlet 4

Console:  Sega Genesis

Grade: C+

Ranking in Sega Genesis Top 50: 50th

Publisher:  Tengen

Year: 1993

Genre:  Attrition

Mustache!

The original Gauntlet didn’t have much of a story – there was a dungeon full of monsters and treasure, and you were in it.  Everything else was speculative – did the dungeons belong to some evil wizard you were trying to kill?  Were you just an ambitious treasure hunter?  Some kind of medieval exterminator?  We didn’t really know.  We didn’t really care, either.  It was 1985, and games didn’t need stories – if there was something we enjoyed doing back then, we didn’t need to invent a reason for doing it other than it was fun to do.  This probably explains Bon Jovi’s popularity as well as why so much of the population was using cocaine back in those days.  Hmmm, now that I think about it, the latter in that example probably explains the former.

Eight years and a few sequels later (though I’m still unconvinced of the actual existence of Gauntlet 3 – honestly, have you ever actually seen Gauntlet 3 anywhere?  I suspect it was originally a trick by the game company, that now lives on as some kind of bizarre internet prank), and things are different.  Well, not too different, actually.  Gauntlet 4 plays about the same as the original, and the story is… well, we’ll let the story speak for itself:

So yeah, this is the story of “The mystery protected by the old castle towers”.  Just rolls right off the tongue, doesn’t it?  Anyway, as in the earlier Gauntlet games, you have your choice of 4 different types of characters.  Let’s meet them:

Warrior!: Best known for needing food badly, the Warrior is a slow, powerful character, who can take a lot of punishment because, according to the game, he has really tough skin.  While that may be true, it seems like a really poor excuse for running around all these dungeons in his underpants.  I mean, if tough skin is already preventing a lot of damage, imagine what covering said tough skin with some chain mail would do.  You’d be practically invincible.  Maybe it’s not quite as macho, but who is going to question the toughness of someone who’s charging into a magic tower full of ghosts, demons and multiple grim reapers, simply because he decided to do so while wearing a little armor?

You should play as him because: By sacrificing speed in exchange for increased attack power and damage resistance, the Warrior is the ultimate tank, capable of clearing most levels through sheer attrition.  And when it comes right down to it, “sheer attrition” is pretty much the most apt description of Gauntlet’s gameplay ever written.

Valkyrie!: The Valkyrie actually has the best damage resistance in the game, thanks in part to her battle armor and probably also to the fact that she’s some kind of Norse supernatural being.  Her ranged attack of whipping swords at people isn’t particularly powerful, but she is good in close-quarters combat, meaning that she’s the ideal choice for anyone using a controller with a broken “shoot” button.

You should play as her because: With a nice mix of power, speed and toughness, the Valkyrie is probably the most well-rounded character… oh who are we trying to fool?  You’re going to pick her so you can spend the entire game staring at her boobs.

Wizard!: The original Gauntlet described the Wizard’s motivation for joining the quest as a mystery, known only to him.  Considering his age though, there’s a good chance that the Wizard had gotten confused and was actually attacking his own tower.  Nevertheless, he’s here again in Gauntlet 4, bringing his signature combination of slow speed,  poor damage resistance, and moderately effective attack power.  Arcade operators like to refer to the Wizard as “the gold mine”.

You should play as him because: Despite being a weaker character in combat, the Wizard makes up for it with his prowess in magic.  Any potion the Wizard uses will completely clear the screen of enemies, making him a very powerful character, especially in a supporting role.  No, we’re kidding.  Potions come up once in a blue moon, and they usually get shot by accident before you can pick them up, anyway.  You should never pick the Wizard.

Elf!: The Elf is the character of choice for finesse players, sacrificing power for quickness.  Not only can the Elf run fast, but he also has a high rate of fire, allowing him to run and dodge, while wearing down his enemies with a quick succession of shots.  Yeah, good luck with that technique in the cramped, crowded dungeons of Gauntlet, where seemingly infinite monsters spawn constantly, and there’s rarely much open space to avoid them.

You should play as him because: Somebody else will probably have already claimed the Warrior and Valkyrie, and he’s still better than the goddamned Wizard.

Once you’ve picked your character, it’s off to solve the, er, “Mystery protected by the old castle towers”.  The gameplay will be immediately recognizable to anyone who played the original Gauntlet. This is especially true if you choose the arcade mode, which actually is the original Gauntlet.  Not that I’d blame anyone for not immediately recognizing a game that they probably hadn’t played since the Reagan presidency, during a time while they were quite possibly coked out of their mind.


The heart of the game, however, is in the all-new quest mode, which takes the gameplay of the original  but adds various RPG elements to the mix.  For those of you unfamiliar with Gauntlet, it’s kind of like a simplified version of Diablo.  And for those of you who are unfamiliar with both Diablo AND Gauntlet, well, I’m not sure what you’re getting out of this article, since you apparently aren’t that interested in old video games, but your readership is appreciated nonetheless.

Gauntlet has always been known as kind of an action/overhead shooter game, but that doesn’t really give enough credit to it’s level designs, which have always involved a fair amount of puzzle solving.  Admittedly, a lot of these “puzzles” involve simply killing monsters over and over until you find a hidden switch that opens up the path to the exit, but there have always been a fair number of head-scratching levels in each game that produce a satisfying “Aha!” moment when you figure them out.  That idea has actually been expanded in Gauntlet 4 thanks to the “tower” concept.  Now instead of just trying to figure out how to get from one level to the next one, you may have to travel back and forth between multiple levels in order to open up a pathway to the final area of each tower.  It’s actually a pretty cool idea, and not something a lot of other games were doing at the time.

Finally, the other thing that’s different from previous Gauntlet games is that you can upgrade the equipment for your characters, using all that previously useless treasure you’ve been picking up to buy better weapons and armor.  In the case of the Warrior and the Wizard, I’m assuming better armor means even tougher skin and less flammable robes, respectively.  How much satisfaction you get out of buying these upgrades is questionable though, as buying a new sword really just means “do more damage”.  People make fun of MMORPG players for what appears to be spending countless hours playing just so they can upgrade from the yellow armor to the green armor (overlooking whatever bonuses the green armor offers), but at least they get the satisfaction of a new look in addition to their upgraded capabilities.  In Gauntlet 4, each upgrade is really just a moderate boost to your stats.  Whether or not this is a big deal for you depends on just how brutally you need to kick the collective asses of a room full of ghosts.

But then again, who doesn’t want to really, really kick a ghost’s ass?