It’s back! New year craziness and some technical issues brought the game podcast to a halt, and life found a way (to get in the way), but it finally feels like a good time to restart!
You’ll notice that the games podcast is going to have shorter episodes from now on, both to help make it fit into my schedule, and also because I’m only going to talk about one game at a time. However, it’s now fully scripted, so you can read along if you please! Bonus article!
This week, I’m trying to put into words the greatness of a new music-based block matching game called ‘Red White Yellow Cruising’ on the Nintendo Switch. Enjoy!
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My obsession with music-based games goes way back, and looking back now I understand why they took such hold. From a very early age, I was aware that I could “see” music; beats would often become pulsing shapes, rhythm lines swirling colours, and harmonies tiny beating lights in my periphery. For a long, long time, I thought this was a normal thing that happened to everyone, but it wasn’t until my early twenties that I learnt about synesthesia. This is where your brain muddles up sensory input, so you can see music, smell memories, or taste colours. It’s definitely become more muted as I got older, but I still love how my brain gets it wrong sometimes. Out of all of them, it’s music that has constantly affected my eyes as well as my mood.
It probably won’t come as any surprise then when I tell you my favourite game of all time is a famous rhythm action game, Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s Rez. The gameplay of sweeping across Tron-esque enemies and wiping them out to the beat of electronic music is something I go back to again and again, and Mizuguchi’s other games all exhibit his amazing talent to tap into – and actually use – synesthesia as part of the gameplay loop. The main reason I still have my PlayStation Vita charged is to settle in for an hour of Lumines Electronic Playground, hoping I manage to get an elusive ultra bonus just as the beat kicks in during Hey Boy, Hey Girl. I’ve never done drugs, but I can’t imagine it feels much better than that.
It makes sense then that a new music-based game will always catch my attention, though more often than not I’m left disappointed. It could be that the music isn’t the driving force that I need (even Mizuguchi had that problem in Child Of Eden), or the gameplay isn’t synced correctly to the beat, or the design treats the music as background rather than integral to the experience. The problem is likely two things: 1) my standards for the effect I want these games to have on me are incredibly, unrealistically high, and 2) it turns out that Mizuguchi is a genius, and tying music to gameplay is incredibly hard.
So the game I want to talk about this week is a Switch curio that has a riff on Lumines that is so compelling, that it’s taken me completely by surprise. It also has a mechanic that is so much the inverse of how games usually work, it actually took me ages to accept what it was trying to make me do.
The game is called Red White Yellow Cruising on the Switch (which is *such* a Mizugushi title), and you can buy it for a ridiculously cheap price in the eShop (here in Canada, it is a little over sixteen dollars). Now, the Switch eShop is an uncurated mess, so I guess it’s not a massive surprise that no one else is really talking about it, but I’m still a little surprised it hasn’t got much traction. It’s had no marketing that I could see, and it does little on its store pages to convince you to part with your money.
The basic premise is this: sets of blocks fall in shapes, Tetris-style, and each individual block is affected by gravity, so they’ll split and settle on the lowest point below them. The blocks can be one of three colours – red, white, and yellow, obviously – and when six of them touch in any configuration, they get shaded in as a group. They then disappear in that order to the beat of the music, every four or eight bars. So far, so Lumines.
The difference here is that, if you don’t have a touching area of six of the right coloured blocks by the time the music *wants* you to have them, everything stops. Well, when I say everything, what I really mean is the music; instead of the whole song, it dips down to a muted volume and plays a quiet loop of its most basic chords. It’s like someone dropped the speaker into a pool. It stays that way until you connect six blocks, then it suddenly bursts back into life. Of course, you’re so busy scrambling to make the colour set of six to enjoy it, and when I started playing, that fail state of jarring volume drops felt like it was presenting an impossible task, especially as not every drop contains all three colours. It felt really unfair.
At a bit of a loss as to what I was missing, I actually watched the brief tutorial. Yes, I know, but I’ve been playing games for so long that I usually skip that part as quickly as possible. Also, it’s a music-based matching block game, what could I possibly not know about those? Turns out, Red White Yellow Cruising had a twist for me, and it’s that twist that has absolutely got me obsessed.
It wants you, the player, to rethink perceived fail states. Of course, just like Tetris, it’s game over when the blocks hit the ceiling. That’s not new. But the dipping of the music when you fail to match six coloured blocks in time, that interrupted beat feels like someone has forcefully yanked out some cables. I spent the first hour trying to frantically match blocks in time, cursing at the lack of separate stacks (when it’s time, *all* six-matched blocks of that colour disappear) or a free play mode, as if being beholden to the beat diminished the game on a base level.
However, once it maps out the basic gameplay matching rule, the tutorial addresses these beat drops, but instead of treating them as a frustration, it presents them as an opportunity. The music is still there, after all, waiting patiently in the background. It picks up when you match six again, and it always tells you in its changing border what the next colour should be. So, what if you…avoided that colour for a moment? Instead of quickly completing the matching set, what if you stacked up *other* colours for their turn? Then, beyond that, what if you started paying attention to what will happen when *those blocks* disappear, and the blocks above fall onto the same colours below?
It’s a real Eureka moment, in that it suddenly makes you realise that what you thought was a fail state was actually a chance to prepare for the future of the song. The game invites you to take a breath and build, finding gaps to snake your six blocks through the space and stack others around that might tumble at just the right time. Then, often when you’re almost out of space, you can trigger the target colour and revel in the absolute euphoric delight of the song continuing uninterrupted, with all your building blocks triggering in sync. The game counts these and keeps a record of your combos. My highest is fifteen. Pure elation.
It also helps that the soundtrack is *great*. The game is actually a collaboration between indie game designer Takahiro Miyazawa and Japanese music producer Syunsuke, who makes the kind of easy summer electronica that you’d hear at a friend’s barbeque and immediately become enthralled. It’s not just the jazzy beats that are just the right amount of dreamy; there’s also lyrics like “I’m made up of pieces of the boys I’ve loved before/Maybe if I put them together I could love you more” that do a fantastic job of throwing you backwards into memory. And the game knows this; each drop of the beat is precisely framed and expertly placed so that when the music kicks back in, it’s a joyous explosion of positivity that feels like your own little remix.
And that’s it. There’s two game modes, Short Course (5 songs) and Long Course (10 songs) that loop around if you complete, pushing for laps of high scores that are recorded on the selection screen. There’s no playlist mode, no game variants, nothing else to do but dive in and hold on as the blocks gradually start falling faster.
I’ve become fascinated by this gameplay loop that asks me to reconsider failure as a moment to build something great. I’m utterly hooked by its effect on the music, both in the quieter moments and then when I cannot breathe when the combos start to stack. I’m constantly shocked when, for some reason, a missed red block set will suddenly plunge everything into darkness and silence, the sheer horror of that moment standing out until you desperately connect six and the sunshine starts again.
But most of all, I cannot shake the feeling that this is a riff on Lumines that actually works in itself, giving me the same highs as triggering that aforementioned ultra bonus. And saying a music game feels like it could have been touched by Mizuguchi himself is about the highest compliment I can give.
Red White Yellow Cruising is available now on Nintendo Switch
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