What is it about falling blocks? Ever since Tetris came to dominate the world, designers have tried to squeeze more out of the idea something can fall from the top of a screen which players will enjoy tidying up at the bottom. But if you thought that after twenty years, all variations had been attempted, you'd be wrong. Meteos takes the Tetris theme to another level... well actually another solar system.
Because instead of blocks, Meteos' version of 'things dropping from the top of the screen' throws meteors into the mix. It's based around a typically bizarre backstory in which you must save an alternate universe from falling meteos, which left unchecked, will crush all life.
What this means in practice, is that spread across various game modes, you have to organise a flood of coloured blocks which fall from the top of the screen and start to form big stacks on your touchscreen. The way you get rid of them is by moving or sliding the position of individual blocks up and down their stack with your stylus (you can use the d-pad and buttons but the stylus is much better). Once three or more meteos of the same colour are lined up, either horizontally or vertically, they turn into rockets and blast up into space, taking with them the meteos piled on top. Depending on the gravity of the planet you're trying to defend and the weight of meteos, the entire block will either disappear into orbit and turn into stars (bless!), or shoot up for a bit, only to slowly fall back down. The goal of the game is to get rid of as many blocks as possible before one of the vertical stacks reaches the top of the screen and your planet is annihilated by the weight of meteos.
Sounds pretty simple doesn't it, but there are some surprising tactics. One of these concerns what to do once you have a block of meteos dropping back down. For example, if you can create another three colour line within it, you will reboost the entire block, which is usually enough to get it into orbit. Alternatively, if you manage to create a new three colour line underneath, this newly boosted second block will collide with the top one and join up. Then the process continues, with you having to work to get this combined block out into orbit.
Of course, while this is happening, more blocks continue to fall from the sky and even though you might be blasting big groups of meteos into orbit, it only takes one tall stack to reach the top of the screen to trigger annihilation. So you'll need to keep you wits about you and your stylus busy all the time.
And strangely, this is one of Meteos' problems. Unlike other puzzle games where you have one main strand of gameplay to overcome, it has at least two or three at any time. Like the circus trick of keeping plates spinning on a pole, you're always dealing with a potential disaster, which makes Meteos a very competitive and even stressful experience. For example, you rarely feel like you're in control or that the game rewards you for a particular skilful piece of play because more meteos are falling and there will always be one column that's almost risen to the top.
A related issue is scrubbing - especially with respect to multiplayer games - this is where you randomly rub your stylus as quickly as possible over the touchscreen in the hope it will create some space-bound blocks. Because there are only a certain number of coloured blocks, this does work but it's not particularly effective and not an enjoyable experience. But it does demonstrate something of the frustration of playing Meteos.
What the game does do well however, is provide plenty of different modes and features. As you might expect, the easiest is the Simple mode, where you can set up the game type of your choice, with options for which planet you'll play on, the type of meteos that will fall and the difficulty level. You can even set up multiplayer games against computer-controlled opponents. In this mode, when you get your meteos into orbit, you can launch them at another player's planet - something also extended to the four-player multiplayer wi-fi option.
Perhaps more pleasing for longer periods of gaming is the Star Trip mode. In this, you get to save a series of planets from the meteos invasion, by fulfilling different missions. You can either go automatically from planet to planet, or take a branching route, where you get to choose where you go next. There's also Star Trip mission route, where you have to fight multiple planets at the same time.
The other two modes are a Time mode, where you have a fixed period of time to launch as many meteos as possible or launch a fixed number of meteos as quickly as possible, and a Deluge mode, where you just keep going for as long as possible.
So Meteos is a comprehensively designed game. There's even a stats table, which records how long you've been playing for and the details of how many meteos you've launched. Yet the broader question of how much fun Meteos is less well defined. Certainly for a particular type of gamer who's addicted to besting their high score, it's a paradise of options. And even for the novice, the first couple of hours provide pleasure in unlocking collectible items and doing a Star Trip.
But as time goes on, there's just not enough focus. Games are often over too quickly, because of one silly mistake. And in this respect, the comparison to the Lumines puzzle game on PSP has to be made. Both created by the same Japanese developer, they are very different games. While Lumines provides you with the freedom and time to make mistakes and build up your style of playing, Meteos is a smash-and-grab affair.
Maybe it boils down to a comparison between the wide beauty of the PSP's screen versus the frantic controllabilty of the DS' touchscreen, but the difference is stark. Lumines is one of the greatest puzzle games, while ultimately Meteos is one of the better puzzle games for DS.Meteos is on sale now.