A shmup? Too intense.
An RPG? Too long.
A tactical game? Too much hard work.
An action game? Ugh. I can barely keep my eyes open as it is.
It’s at times like this, when I’m feeling so very tired I can barely keep my eyes open, when I don’t really want to play anything but I know I want to do something a little more “me” than doomscroll social media or point my eyeballs at the TV, that I always find myself turning to one very special game:
And not one of the fancy later versions either: When I’m running on tepid coffee and stubbornness I’m not interested in seeing the adorable cast of Sakura Taisen do their thing or in passing the time inside Columns III‘s pyramid, the only game I want to play is some form of the original gem ’em up, the one that wormed its way into everyone’s Mega Drive collections even though nobody can remember buying a copy, the one that used its colour matching gameplay as an early Game Boy-beating selling point in The Great Handheld Wars of the Nineties, the one I bought for my PC Engine GT because if there’s one thing a woman needs, it’s two slightly impractical and thoroughly ancient battery-devouring handhelds running slightly different versions of the same game.
But why Columns? Why not Tetris, Puyo Puyo, or any number of other more popular or eye-catching puzzle games?
I think it’s the simplicity of it that makes it so relaxing. Puzzle games are all simple on the surface – match the shapes or colours until you’ve had enough or until you can see them when you close your eyes – but Columns comes without any real baggage attached to it. Tetris has been analysed to a literally scientific level, and that game’s well-deserved ubiquity means everyone and their granny has a strong opinion on the version you’re playing, the version you should be playing, and how well you’re playing it. The terms “T Spin” and “Hard Drop” hover on the fringes of everyone’s gaming vocabulary, often a vague recollection of a skill unlearned. Puyo Puyo is more immediately welcoming yet also far more intimidating, the series’ cast of sentient eggplants, tea-drinking skeletons, and double-entendre dropping swordsmen more than happy to crush anyone who hasn’t mastered the enthrallingly complex art of chaining. Venture further afield to games like Baku Baku Animal, Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo, Dr Mario, Hebereke’s Popoon, Panel de Pon and they’re all just a bit too busy, noisy, or particular for the half-awake ten minutes of gaming I’m trying to have – they’re all a bit too… personal.
That’s it. That’s the real difference. Most games make a very understandable (and under normal circumstances very enjoyable) attempt to appeal to the person playing them. To be likeable. To have someone to root for. They’ll have a selection of characters for you to pic from, an entire cast to battle against, and if we’re very lucky there’ll be spoken catchphrases and an entertaining story mode too. When you’re awake these are exactly what you want to see, but when you’re nodding off with a controller in hand these are all extra choices you don’t want to make, stories you don’t want to fuss over, and challenges you’d rather leave for tomorrow. Columns on the other hand is straightforward and familiar Columns, the cryptic godlike beings beautifully created for the title screen as close as the game ever gets to having characters, a few button presses all that’s standing between you and an infinite supply of shiny 16-bit gems. Everything I can see is all there is, every game is its own quiet little universe where I’m not winning or losing, I’m not making great progress or consistently falling at one specific hurdle, and there are no advanced techniques to fuzzily remember a moment too late – I’m just playing for playing’s sake, until I don’t want to – or can’t – play any more. It doesn’t matter because there’s always more Columns just around the corner, every match exactly the same and completely different from the last.
And in that moment it’s the most perfect game in the whole world.
And in that moment I finally allow myself to fall asleep.