The best puzzle games are the simple ones. The immortal Tetris on the original Gameboy, Columns on the Sega Megadrive...both utterly simple in design, yet hugely playable and innovative.
Now we have Meteos. Forget the wonderfully slick presentation, colourful graphics and polished visuals - this may be a creation of the latest video game generation, but at heart it is purely old-skool. Like its predecessors, the concept of Meteos is refreshingly simple: different coloured blocks - 'meteos' - fall from the top of the screen. As they stack up, your task is to move the individual meteos up and down in order to form rows or columns of meteos of the same colour.
"But that's exactly what you do in Columns on the Sega Megadrive!" I hear you cry. "Wrong," I reply, and give you a slap around the face with a dead fish for your trouble. The difference between Columns and Meteos is that in Meteos, when three or more meteos of the same colour are lined up, they fuse together and are propelled upwards by a rocket blast, launching themselves and any other meteos stacked on top them towards the top of the screen. If there are only a few meteos on top of the fused ones, a single blast will often be enough to take them off the top of the screen and into space. If there is a large mass of meteos on top however, the large block of meteos might start to fall back down and another line of meteos will need to be lined up to initiate a second rocket blast and carry the stack clear. The gravity of the planet in question can also have an effect on how high the meteos can be propelled, and how quickly they fall back down.
And that, as they say, is that. Stack the falling meteos into coloured lines and blast them off into space. Let them stack up and reach the top of the screen, and it's game over. Better start flexing you fingers, because this game can get frantic. One mistake can mean the difference between salvation and, well, the end of the universe. You see, Meteos might be a simple game at heart, but it has more depth than the Atlantic ocean.
For a start, there are a variety of different game modes to choose from - the 'simple' mode (which is basically a custom game - you choose the difficulty, time limit, etc), a 'deluge' mode (where you are bombarded by meteos and have to see how long you can last) and then four different time challenges, where you either have a time limit in which to get the highest score you can, or a set number of meteos that you have to blast into space in as quick a time as possible. Oh, and you've also got the main game - the 'Star Trip' - to have a crack at as well, with three different possible routes and 5 levels of difficulty. And then there is the multiplayer option, where you and three opponents can square up and duke it out (in multiplayer, as in the single player main game, meteos that are successfully propelled off the screen are then launched at your opponents).
One of the most delightful things about Meteos is the length that the developers have gone to in order to create a gaming experience. Obviously realising that a neat puzzle game isn't enough to woo the modern gamer, they have really pulled out all the stops to add depth and variety. Not content with adding a slew of game modes, they have created an entire universe with an epic storyline. The evil planet Meteos, you see, is bent on the destruction of the universe. Only by fighting your way through a number of different worlds, propelling meteos blocks back into space, can you hope to bring salvation... Not very original, but it adds a whole layer of depth and allows for the existence of different planets (levels).
Each game of meteos - be it a level in the main game or an individual custom game - takes place on a planet. There are over two dozen different planets, each one with its own alien race (a variety of exotic animated icons). Each planet has its own backdrop, cutscene and description, music and meteos blocks, as well as different gameplay characteristics. For example, one planet is covered in water, and the meteos blocks move more slowly as if they are underwater...whereas on a planet that is windy, the blocks fall more quickly...and so on. This is a small touch but makes each planet a different challenge, and keeps things fresh, not to mention making you feel humiliatingly guilty when you mess up a level and see the cute little alien race bite the dust.
There is also a large amount of unlockable content - every single meteos that you blast off into space is stored in a 'bank' and you can use these as currency to unlock a whole load of stuff - new planets, music, rare metals and in-game items, such as bombs and hammers, which destroy meteos for you when used.
With all the effort that has been poured into Meteos, it would be a huge shame if the game was let down by poor controls. Thankfully, this is not the case. The game is played by manipulating the meteos blocks with the touchscreen stylus...and it works like a dream. You have absolute control and can make precise movements with a simple flick of your wrist, which is just as well because the going can get very, very frantic at times.
The visuals are nothing special but are colourful and bold, and some of the planet cutscenes are absolutely gorgeous to look at and suitably epic. As mentioned above, each planet has its own meteos blocks, and some are better than others, but the majority are fine and help to give each planet a unique identity. These individual identities are also helped by the music and sound effects - the desert planet for example has a Wild West theme tune, which is a nice touch, while the title-screen music invokes a sense of heroism and adventure.
There's a whole universe out there, and a load of tranquil planets with their native aliens that need your help...so what are you waiting for?
Better slip out your stylus and flex your fingers...the fate of the universe is in your hands.
Review by James Long © 2006. www.theorderofmidnight.blogspot.com