Games create unforgettable memories for players and non-players alike – and Matt Gardner was very much the passenger with Columns.

Columns may be my favourite game that I never liked. Rarely seen in cartridge form on its own – it seemed only to be exclusively packaged with Super Hang On and World Cup Italia ’90 as part of Mega Games I – this early classic was my first introduction to the puzzle genre, a good few years before I actively started to enjoy this kind of gaming.

You see, my late, great father was addicted to Columns – and he was an absolute master of it, too. Watching him play what was ostensibly a simple match-three puzzler made me realise that games weren’t just the bastion of young players like me, with our nimble fingers and lack of actual responsibilities, aside from making our bed or getting some fresh air, as our mums unfairly demanded we required.

My dad’s pure skill on Columns taught me to be better, and more adept, at what I committed myself to. Columns needed time, effort, practice and patience, and seeing him effortlessly boss this game by relying upon these factors not only underlined my ethic on gaming – it eventually helped me appreciate how the same attitude to life would also work in my favour.

Tetris lite

To business. The colour palette of Columns was basic and bright. Its music tapped into the ancient Greek theme it questionably offered, though was tinny and insufferable. Its most defining characteristic was its rulebook, which was beautifully simple:

  • Blocks are solely in a 1×3 configuration, and cannot be rotated, unlike Tetris;
  • You can move blocks from side to side, and force them down vertically, as per Tetris;
  • Colours within the block can be slid in one direction or another before landing;
  • You have to link three or more of the same colour horizontally, vertically or diagonally to make them disappear;
  • The action speeds up as you level up, before resetting to a slightly faster “base pace” every five levels, ensuring it gets faster and faster by default.

The facts

Platform

Mega Drive

Year

1990

Genre

Puzzle

Developer

Sega

Publisher

Sega

It was a mind-blowing concept to little eight-year-old me – so much so that I just didn’t appreciate a game like this. There were much more important things to focus on, especially in Mega Drive terms.

Sai it ain’t sho

In the early days of my Mega Drive, the console was hooked up to a 1980s Saisho TV with eight or nine channels, all of which were manually tuned from the front panel. If you missed the tuning by half a millimetre, you lost the signal. Play a game for longer than 50 minutes and you lost the signal. Turn it on fresh the next day and you lost the signal. There was a fine art to it, in the sense that you needed a lot of time on your hands to perfect it.

I got my Mega Drive in Christmas 1994, weeks after the release of The Lion King, a truly triple-A title that was luckily bundled with the console. Also packed with my new machine was Mega Games I – the very first of the mega games – and I felt spoiled for choice. No more half-hour boots via tape (or, in the case of the incredibly shit “classic” BC Bill, a four-hour loading time); you slammed the cartridge in, hit the on button, and away you went.

It was, for a long while, a family console – at least in the sense that between college, university or early job stints, my brothers would also get in on the action. They were partial to Super Hang On’s obscene career mode, with its even obscener 28-character passwords that contained both letter Os and number 0s. I, meanwhile, preferred the now seemingly unplayable World Cup Italia ’90, where you could only score diagonally, and Belgium inexplicably played in hot pink. I won a World Cup with England every day for the entirety of February 1995. I feel no achievement in telling you this.

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Level 3 code for Super Hang On

Prior to the Mega Drive acquisition, the only game on record my dad had really gotten into was a Breakout clone with “the wall” in the title – judging by my older brothers’ consoles, it was either The Wall on the Commodore 64, or Thro’ the Wall on the ZX Spectrum – most likely the latter. He’d been in the gaming wilderness for a good few years, either way, and had instead committed himself to cricket, writing letters every night on the dining room table, and/or answering myriad phone calls each and every night from people who needed his indispensable assistance on matters relating to, well, anything. He was a man of the people, to say the least.

It was my brothers having a rare showdown on Columns that peaked my dad’s interest; one of them gave up, my dad jumped on, and he rediscovered his love for gaming. And good lord, was he hooked.

And a cartridge made him carefree

In the weeks and months that followed that first fateful encounter with the simple three-buttoned Sega controller and the epilepsy-testing visuals of the bejewelled game, my dad was regularly perched on the end of my bed – the seat of choice in the back bedroom that the console was stationed in – playing Columns after a hard day’s graft at a cardboard box factory, where he’d worked for 20+ years looking after his loyal staff.

My dad essentially went from a personnel manager/man of the people in his job – for which he was made an MBE three years earlier, no less – to a classic teenager, sat in a bedroom playing games until my mum shouted up the stairs that it was time for bed. Admittedly, dad’s commitment to the Mega Drive delivered perfect respite for his wife of 25+ years – she got to watch whatever she wanted on TV, at least – and while it didn’t impact on his letter-writing obligations and countless phone calls (there was a pause button, after all), he’d regularly sit in the dark playing the game.

He favoured the split-screen “Arcade” mode. His explanation was that it was much more difficult than the standard one-player mode, where just one grid was on screen. Whether it was because of an actual algorithm in the game that made it more difficult, the fact there was a smaller playing area, the distraction of an unendingly flashing “Press 2P start button” prompt, or simply a placebo effect of sorts, he was adamant it was more difficult to play. My dad was a straight-talking, honest guy, so I do believe that he genuinely believed the mode he chose was more difficult. To be fair, it meant he could also start at level ten with a 50,000 bonus, which he universally opted for.

The first few minutes were boring. Hell, the first half an hour was boring. Dad dispatched blocks left, right and centre, planning combinations beyond regular human comprehension. “Sure”, I’d smirk, “he’ll never get past this trap he’s set for himself”. Then came a three-blue column and BOOM, eight blue blocks evaporated. The game caught up with itself, reforming the terrain and dispatching newly-formed rows left, right and centre. Dad didn’t flinch. It was all part of his plan, in a move I later learned 17 years later practising Dr Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine to beat the single-player campaign.

The game got faster and more difficult, and as the playing space got more cluttered with the visual noise of misplaced and orphaned blocks, the music cleverly got more frantic as dad tried to dig his way out of higher rows on the screen. It got faster and faster, and I could hear him muttering under his breath about how many switches he had to make before hurtling a free-falling block into a gap.

It was only later I realised that, despite a two-direction reordering system the game employed (the B button shifted the order of blocks upwards; C was down), my dad only used a single directional shift (down); an incredibly brave approach borne out of his understanding of the controller. His moves were lightning-quick to make up for this (and honestly, you really did need to make up for it at the level he was playing at). His temperament was calm and composed. He didn’t play the game – the game tried to play him.

My all-time favourite recurring memory of dad on Columns was when the “super block” reared its beautifully ugly head. Whichever block you placed this gaudy, glittery, Liberace-esque bastard on would remove all colours of its kind from the game. It was the Mother of All Blocks, annihilating the assembled masses as the pace got too much. The resulting chain reactions could clear the screen, and regularly did. It was a double-edged sword, though; the move would avoid certain doom, but the resulting combo score would level him up, speeding the freefall process and making it even harder for him to cope.

Dad would go from comfortable to embattled to comfortable to embattled to comfortable to overwhelmed to defeated. He’d sigh, shrug, smirk, and start again. He didn’t care. There were no histrionics about how unfair the game had been, or self-loathing about any perceived mistakes; his age and wisdom gave him an outlook I still struggle to have even now, over 20 years on. He was content with his decisions, and willed himself to do better next time. Most of the time, he was better that next time. The high scores just kept on coming.

The end of an era

By the time 1997 rolled around, the Mega Drive was showing its age. Despite buying the likes of Toy Story, completing it then immediately trading it in for Brian Lara Cricket ‘96 (which was as much a decision from my older brother as me – and the right one, too), the console didn’t offer much in terms of replayability. That Christmas, I got my Sony PlayStation. The Mega Drive was packed away.

In classic selfish 11-year-old fashion, I’d negated to consider the fact Columns was still a permanent fixture elsewhere in the house. I knew dad’s passion for it had waned in the preceding months – admittedly, the foot of my bed was a whole lot colder due to dad’s different job commitments – but his desire to improve his top score on Columns certainly hadn’t faded out completely.

Yet that was the lot for him, because of me. Instead, my dad adapted, and his love for crosswords got stronger. He had serious game on them too, aside from when he used to bother me to get super-hard answers on a Sunday on the internet, just so he could send his crossword off for the prize draw. The midweek ones he did in the Daily Mirror were a walk in the park for him, though the advent of the internet and my ability to use the Googles meant he never had to guess who the first Governor-General of India was (6, 8). Attention was mercifully shifted from 16-bit gaming to paper-based quizzes. Generations realigned to their assumed technologies.

Back on the block

Doing this write-up of Columns was tough, because I had to go back and play it to familiarise myself with the way the game worked. Given my dad sadly passed away in 2012 after a long and tragically unfair illness, it was hard enough to engage with something he was so dedicated to – but it also dug up a lot of memories that I’d simply forgotten. Maybe repressed.

Upon playing both modes, dad was right – single player mode is easier, or it’s at least less stressful. Yet I personally had a certain self-resenting acceptance of defeat that made things – past level 20, at least – more difficult in the context of the puzzle, and I gave up, feeling like I was delaying the inevitable. This simply didn’t exist with my dad. I’d seen him play one game for over an hour, slaving away at high scores under the highest pressure, only to deliver records that must still be on my surprisingly pristine Mega Games I cartridge.

I also remembered that around ten years ago, I had in fact asked him why he fell out of love with Columns – and many years of missed opportunities to spend passing time with my dad came back to haunt me. “Well, you put [the Mega Drive] away, son,” he said. “I just found other things to occupy my time.” Hearing that as a gamer was enough to elicit gut-wrenching guilt. And looking back now, knowing how much he loved that game? I feel like I chopped his arms off.

You see, for the last ten or so years, part of me – in a securely locked part of my mind, which comes out to peck at my inner monologue every few months – makes me think the split-screen “hard mode” my dad preferred wasn’t chosen because it was more difficult; it was because he just wanted me or my brothers to pick up the second controller and play alongside him.

I can’t stop thinking about that empty half of the screen, flashing “Press 2P start button” in faux-Greek text, while his silhouette sits transfixed on the screen, so content with the game, yet so lonely.

Five years since he passed away, a week doesn’t go by without me thinking about my dad sat at the end of my bed with his back to me, whether I was laying it or not, and setting high score after high score on Columns. Always, always with that empty screen beside his, and an unused controller on the floor.

I’d give anything to go back 18 years just to give him a game and retrain with the Columns master. Even just to enjoy his company, as we played his favourite game, in silence.

Pros

  • Colourful and simple puzzler – everything you need
  • Has a learning curve that’s brutal but effective
  • Surprisingly attractive, especially for its era
  • Addictive to the Nth degree

Cons

  • As far as puzzle games go, there’s just nothing special about it
  • Oh man, the music’s awful
  • Seriously, though, make the music stop

Matt’s take

We all have a Columns. It’s the kind of game you know so well because of memories, but don’t actually like. But you do, because you tie it to something – or someone – you love. The game was nothing special, and had a wide appeal because it really was, and still is, an incredibly vanilla puzzle game. And some people like it that way; I didn’t. But my dad did, it’ll always have a special place in my heart because of that, and you’re bound to have a game you admire for similar reasons.