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The Pop Culture Wing of Hot Corner Harbor

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Remembering Meteos: A Retrospective

The other day, there were plenty of people on social media who were discussing their “Gamestruck 4”. For those who missed it, the inspiration for the conversation was the day before, when movie streaming service Filmstruck started a hastag asking people for to name the four films that “defined them”. From there, other people began applying the thinking to other mediums, hence “Gamestruck 4”.

With that background out of the way, I decided to think about it some. Video games have been a large part of my life, so which four could be the ones that most “defined” me, whatever that meant? There were a lot of contenders. Super Mario World, as the first video game I played, was a starting point. I’ve probably put more hours into the Super Smash Bros and Mario Kart series than any other games. I’ve written about my love for series like Mario, Pokémon, and Backyard Baseball in the past, all of which had major impacts on my formative years. There are more modern titles that remind me of why I love the medium, like Super Mario Odyssey, A Hat in Time, and Undertale (which I’ve wanted to write about for years, but still have no idea where to even start). Or, I could pick games that are highly representative of genres I like, or which line up with my aesthetic tastes.

There were some interesting titles there, some of which included games that I hadn’t thought about for years. Golden Sun was a big one, an old Game Boy Advanced RPG with a sprawling fantasy epic at its core centered on a group of magic users traveling the world. I spent a lot of time on that one, but of course, I already had a potential RPG representative in Pokémon. Then, there’s games like Tetris and Tetris Attack; I love puzzle games, but especially ones like that.* But what about something that could combine those aspects?

*I have no idea what the official subgenre name is. “Match Three Games” seems like the style, but name that doesn’t really apply to Tetris. Wikipedia suggests “Tile Matching”, which seems the most accurate even if I’ve never heard it used before. Of course, I’m also fond of my mostly-buzzword-yet-technically-not-wrong descriptor, “rougelike puzzle games with permadeath”. 

And that’s when I remembered Meteos.

For those who weren’t fortunate enough to try it, Meteos was a 2005 Nintendo DS puzzle game created by Q Entertainment (and under the design lead of the brilliant Masahiro Sakurai, of Super Smash Bros and Kirby fame) in the same genre as Tetris. But whereas Tetris felt (to young me, at least) like something basic and ancient, even primal, that had always existed in some form or another*, Meteos felt distinctly new.

*And to be fair to young me, Tetris predated me by nearly a decade, so it was pretty close.

It came out early in the DS life cycle, at a time when most developers weren’t quite sure how best to utilize the new touch screen, and so they haphazardly fused on mechanics that interrupted the flow of the game or made no sense. Meteos, in contrast, felt designed around being a touch-based puzzle game*, centered around frenetic rearranging of columns as possible matches crossed your eye (here’s a random gameplay sample from YouTube, for those who need a visual).

*Although some later versions were made for systems without touch screens, so it is possible to adapt.
Of course, Meteos brought more to the table than just a new control scheme. At every turn, it felt like the game added twists to the genre and its conventions, starting from the most basic points. Unlike Tetris or Tetris Attack, completing the required match would not immediately clear out the blocks and drop everything else down a row, but rather transform them into rockets and shoot them to the top of the screen, carrying every block above them. Combos also moved from skill moves to absolute necessity: if the upward momentum from those new rockets didn’t carry the stack off the top of the screen, they’d start to fall back to the ground and undo your progress unless you followed up with more matches to restart the rockets.

There were other innovations, though. For instance, Tetris Attack and its successors like Pokémon Puzzle League added a character select for players, but those had minimal effect on things. It was nice, and changed up the visuals and music, but otherwise, not much happened. But Meteos took it a step further; the variety of planets you could play as actually functioned very differently, with variation among the gravity and other rules regarding removing blocks, as well as different sets and ratios of blocks to clear.

And even the act of clearing blocks built onto other new ideas, as the game had a sort of combination of crafting and RPG leveling included; different blocks you cleared would be added to a bank, which you could then withdraw and combine to unlock new planets to play on. There was a joy in trying to unlock all of the new planets, measuring out which types of blocks you needed to look for and clear (say, for example, did you need to focus on playing on planets with red and purple blocks, or maybe go all out collecting yellows?), and then testing your new spoils. It added more to the game than just another story mode.

Although, even in the story mode, the game was experimenting on its predecessors’ formula. There wasn’t just a single story mode, but multiple ones, each providing a different play experience. One new focused on branching into different combinations of opponents, while another posed unique challenges to allow players to complete the hardest path beyond just winning against computer opponents. And while the story that was there was sparse and not too ground-breakingly novel, it was incredibly atmospheric, giving enough to feel mythic in its retelling of galactic good versus incomprehensive interstellar evil, and what it left untold was to maximize the feeling of a mysterious and unknowable universe.

Plus, there were nice little bits of gameplay adding to the story and narrative feel, like the block bank and story nodes fleshing out the backstories of the planets you could play as, or final boss Meteos’ design looking like the Space Eye of Sauron and sending you blocks containing trapped creatures from the other planets you played as. And then, there was the soundtrack, which set the mood remarkably well and stood out especially among its handheld peers of the time. The different planets’ tracks, in addition to their inhabitants composed of simple geometric shapes and lines, did a decent job of fleshing the worlds of the game out.*

*For those unfortunate souls who never played the game need some examples, there is a fan Wiki with pages for each planet.
So, what happened after the bolt of brilliance from out of nowhere that was Meteos? The game got a number of accolades and sold pretty well for being a new series, and was also eventually ported to PC and mobile markets. There was also a pair of true sequels. Meteos: Disney Magic, also for the DS but coming two years later, applied a Disney coat of paint to everything and switched up mechanics in a significant way by allowing the player to move blocks horizontally in addition to vertically. In my opinion, both of these were for the worse; even young me realized that the art direction was a major point in the original game’s favor, and the additional axis robbed the series of a little of its simplicity and basic mechanics. A more traditional sequel, Meteos Wars, made its way to Xbox Live Arcade the year after that, returning to the original formula plus adding a few more planets, while also bringing couch multiplayer to the series and stripping the gameplay of the touch screen element that had somewhat defined it.

I have no idea if that lack of touch screen worked for the Xbox, as I never played it, but as confusing as Meteos without touch controls feels, it gives me a degree of hope. Because the game series has been pretty hard to come by these days, given that it’s latest edition is a decade old and I’m not sure that a modern game solely reliant on touch controls would make it outside of the mobile market (a place where one Meteos port has already vanished from) today (technically, some of those mobile games have made their way to the Switch, but being touch-only means they face some limitations).

Knowing that a non-touch version is feasible means that a remaster or true Meteos 2 could happen. Adding to those embers of hope is Lumines: Remastered, an upcoming Switch version of another mid-2000s portable puzzle game that could be thought of as a sister series to Meteos. Both series were by Q Entertainment, and while Meteos started as a Nintendo DS exclusive, Lumines began life as an exclusive for that system’s handheld rival, the PlayStation Portable. If one is seeing a new version in 2018, what’s to say the other couldn’t? And a return to Nintendo on the Switch would definitely serve the series well, as it feels like a good fit for the runaway hit system. At the very least, the series was strong, fun, and creative enough to deserve a new version for modern audiences to enjoy. Here’s to hoping for another star trip across the galaxy.

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