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.

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