Version tested: PlayStation 3
The reward for success, it seems, is omnipresence, and the price of omnipresence is diminishing returns. Hence the trajectory of most videogame franchises: a slow, slippery, miserable descent into over-tweaking and yearly rebalancing, an attrition as wearying and inevitable as anything from geology, whittling away at a title until that gentle, sparkling river you used to love has become a dusty echoing canyon, and all joy has drained from the world.
Not so Lumines, though, which greets each new platform shift as an opportunity to keep its core game gloriously unchanged - and which, mostly, has the poise and style to get away with it. Despite the seismic, solar-system-rupturing subtitle, Supernova is largely the same puzzler you've been playing for years on the PSP, the PSP again, the PS2, Xbox Live Arcade, mobile phones, and possibly a couple of other formats I'm not aware of. Just last night, my girlfriend turned over in her sleep, and there, set into the back of her head was that familiar blinking, twinkling arrangement of falling blocks standing out against the steady swish of the passing timeline. I'd forgotten that I'd bought the cranial implant version.
If you've somehow managed to miss out on Lumines until now and can't wait until 2050- when an edict from World Emperor Mizuguchi will ensure that a playable copy of the game is tattooed onto the back of every newborn's right hand - here's the basic idea: two-tone blocks fall from above, and must be rotated and placed to form squares of matching colours, before the timeline slides past and makes them disappear. Chain squares together for big scores, risk everything to link up special blocks and take out buried strands of an entire colour, and try not to let your teetering stacks reach the top of the screen, at which point it's game over.
The twist? Because this is Q Entertainment, a company that made its name splicing sound and colour together in unlikely combinations, each level of Lumines has its own distinct skin: an audio-visual mishmash, part screensaver and part migraine, that changes the tempo of the timeline. It often forces you to drastically alter your approach to laying down chains while simultaneously sending the game's graphical style pinballing between rendering the play area as thick slabs of chocolate, say, and chiselled chunks of blue and white ice.
It was in coming up with the idea of gradually unlocking new skins that Q Entertainment truly struck the mother lode. Not only did the regular promise of sparkling new graphical treats keep people hammering away at the PSP version long after the handheld's criminally un-ergonomic design had ensured that they'd never play the piano again, but it also provided an easy justification for every subsequent sequel. Rather than risk everything on a new kind of puzzle dynamic - or introduce that fabled third colour - why not just feed some more marzipan and pixie dust to the art department, dig out some old trance records, and spin off another half-dozen paint-thin coatings of sugary happiness to keep a venerable classic ticking over nicely?
Cynical yet beautiful, this strategy continues to work. Supernova's new skins are nicely-weighted lumps of tasteful psychedelia, and provide more than enough reason to brave the falling blocks once more. While there's only a handful of entirely new offerings in amongst the forty available in the game's library, all of them are welcome: aesthetic follies pitched somewhere between the midnight dreams of tuna fish, a selection of texture samples from Liberace's disco-themed bathroom, and a toothpaste advert targeted at sexy robots.
And yet the presumed show-stopper, the LittleBigPlanet skin, turns out to be a surprisingly restrained affair: a muted row of Sackboys and a few familiar papercraft sound effects which make it quite hard to recognise for the first few seconds. It's fine, but it feels like a missed opportunity, given the tantalising prospect of Media Molecule's tweedy take on yesteryear colliding with Q Entertainment's slick sense of tomorrow.
Despite this slight disappointment, the best of Supernova's new efforts leave you unsure whether you want to eat them, wear them, or hang them on the wall. All have benefited from the increased download size available on PSN, which means there's no need for the perceived short-cuts of Lumines Live, with its nasty textures and faint air of cheapness.
Local multiplayer replaces the online option of the XBLA version, which seems hard to explain unless it's going to be sold separately - in which case it's simply hard to justify. Meanwhile, alongside the standard Puzzle, Mission, Time Attack, and Skin Edit modes, there are two entirely new confections. The first is Dig Down, which tasks you with clearing a path through twenty levels of half-filled play areas. It's a pleasant enough way to spend an hour, but one you're unlikely to come back to that often after you've completed it. The tantalising Mr Driller concept never quite creates the time-beating replayathon it promises due to the seemingly random tile deposits at the start, which turn some attempts into pushovers, while others are bloody-nosed grinding sessions.
The second and more intriguing addition is Sequencer, a tool which allows you to create your own soundtracks and then play a few rounds set against them. Sequencer is a bit of an oddity: with audio files to choose from on one tab and a musical timeline to stick them onto on another, it's cumbersome to get to grips with, and yet remains fairly limited at the same time. Despite a wide range of drum beats, bass lines, and various jangly effects to choose from, you're reorganising music rather than truly creating it. And no matter how much work you put in one end, Robert Miles tends to pour ceaselessly out of the other.
Although the new toys fail to entirely justify themselves - and if you can forgive the absence of online options, and look past what many perceive as the heresy of playing the game on anything other than a handheld - Lumines Supernova is probably the fullest incarnation of the game yet available. The franchise is clearly being milked, but when the milk in question is dazzling and neon and shot through with sequins and pear drops, it's hard to get too annoyed about it. That's probably because there's something about the best puzzle games - and Lumines is confidently among the best - that renders them timeless, their abstract nature eluding vogues, cultural bias, and the endless arms race of Moore's law.
Everyone loves a good puzzler: when aliens finally decide to make contact, we'll probably communicate with them not through words, but in the universal language of Tetris. They'll play a few rounds, we'll accuse them of keeping that long straight piece in the "hold" position far too long, they'll be affronted, we'll call them cheap, and there'll be a war. When the dust has settled, we'll most likely stick to playing them at Lumines. And that - if Supernova is anything to judge the enduring appeal of the franchise by - will probably be a good thing.
7 / 10