A match [three] made in heaven

What do you get when you mix Columns with Sakura Taisen? You get something close to my idea of heaven – now on Dreamcast!

As you may have guessed from the large yellow “2” plastered on the box (and the title screen) Hanagumi Taisen Columns 2 is a direct sequel to the Saturn/ST-V puzzle hit of very similar name and every aspect of it, from the adorable animated characters waggling their (now Dreamcast) controllers in the middle of the screen to the intense gem-destroying action, is very much designed with the phrase “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” firmly in mind. You’d be forgiven for thinking the sort of mild tinkering on display here would feel a little disappointing but in practise this approach is exactly what you’d hope to find in a good follow-up to a good puzzle game: wild experimentation in this genre in particular always runs the risk of overcomplicating what was already a perfectly streamlined experience, losing – or at least diffusing – whatever magic the original had.

As a versus-style puzzle game it’s extremely important for two player matches to be as quick and easy to set up as possible – and Hanagumi Taisen Columns 2 passes that test with flying colours: Pick two player mode, select a character, adjust the difficulty level (independent of other player), and play! Once upon a time you could even battle online, [text] chatting away to your opponent in online lobbies before taking on someone in a different region of Japan too. For a game plastered with such strong branding and blessed with a large marketable cast it would have been all too easy to drown the actual game under a tidal wave of cute FMV clips of the women preparing for battle or delivering animated one-liners, so it’s something of a relief to see Hanagumi Taisen keep such a clear and uncluttered path between the person holding the controller and the actual puzzling.

The four single player modes available from the start ensure the game still feels as lively for solo Sakura fans as a versus puzzle game starring a Satan-bopping theatre troupe should, containing individual story modes that at a glance wouldn’t look – or sound, thanks to the generous amount of voiced dialogue – out of place in any one of the mainstream Dreamcast games. These short interludes between the inevitable bouts of Columns even come complete with their own LIPS sequences (if you’re unfamiliar with the series, imagine quickfire dialogue options that may change or disappear entirely if you’re too slow). Arcade, Puzzle and Endless solo Columns modes are also available for those after a less directly competitive sort of gem-shattering session, and further unlockable modes, difficulties, galleries, and other nifty extras give the package real long-term appeal even for those without a second Dreamcast controller to their name.

However you choose to play you’ll have to pick someone to represent you in this epic clash of talented titans (by default any one of the eight main cast members of Sakura Taisen 2, with four extra characters – guitar-strumming Kayama, the admin trio, Yoneda, and Kaede – made available after completing specific tasks), each with their own unique mix of attack/defence/delayed gem stats (those are the blocks that appear on an opponents side after attacking them, the ones that eventually turn back into ordinary gems after so many drops), and after that a strategy style, just like the ones used during battle in the main Sakura Taisen games. Off a fresh save that’s one from a choice between Earth, Wind, Wood, and Fire, with two more – Shadow and Lightning – waiting to be unlocked. Your chosen element determines your play style to a certain extent: Do you go for Wind, using its light but frequent attacks to keep your adversary under constant pressure? Or would you prefer the all-out offense of Fire? How about the simple but balanced Wood? Each style has its own quirks, but whatever you end up with the attacks (and defensive row-clearing moves) that come from them can only be performed when the vertical gauge sitting beside the “next gems” box has been filled by destroying gems (preferably in huge satisfying chains), prompting the game to ask if you want to attack, defend, or do nothing, keeping the energy in reserve for your next full bar. The neat twist here is that you can only use these challenger ending/life saving moves in that short moment when you’re offered the choice – you can’t keep a huge defensive move on standby for tricky spots and you can’t bide your time until the perfect moment to destroy your opponent comes along either, heaping insult upon misery.

What I like most of all is the back and forth this system creates. Attacks can only come so often, and when they do no matter what hand you’re dealt you know the blocks you’ve received will turn into auto-combing gems (so long as they obey the usual matching rules when they activate) so long as you can hold out long enough – and if you can hang on clearing the gems you’ve been given will more than likely fill up your own meter too, creating an opportunity to either give your opponent a taste of their own medicine or further clearing out your own mess of a playfield. Having a huge quantity of blocks dumped on you becomes exciting, a sort of “Alright! Let’s go!” mood rather than giving you a heap of immoveable junk to deal with, your failure to stack coloured objects as quickly and cleverly as someone else on the screen for all to see. Maybe that’s just good design. Maybe that’s the unstoppable positivity of the series it’s based on seeping through. Either way I do know it makes retrying challenging matches more of a pleasure than a chore.

In spite of its quality in many ways Hanagumi Taisen Columns 2 is an easy game to ignore: It’s the import-only sequel of an equally Japan-exclusive spinoff to a puzzle game series most people stopped paying any attention to back when it debuted on the Mega Drive. It’s also a genre that can look in screenshots to be just another case of Matching The Things, and who hasn’t got a load of Matching The Things games already? But it’s just so very good at what it does. All of it. Sakura Taisen fans will enjoy the individual story modes (an English translation patch is available), the nostalgic tunes, and the chance to see their favourite character play the role of Shonen Red. Those just hoping to play a decent puzzle game on their Dreamcast will find this GD-ROM to contain everything they need for a quick session, a long weekend, or a head-scratching challenge. It’s not even stupidly expensive! There are cute collector’s cards in the box! Short of coming with a free small animal of your choice and a box of your favourite treats the game couldn’t be more appealing if it tried.

[Ko-fi supporters this post! Without their support I wouldn’t have been able to get the game! Thank you so much!]

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