When the rhythm-puzzle game launched alongside the PSP in 2004, it maxed out that portable system’s two coolest features: a big, bold screen and room for tons of high-fidelity techno songs on a UMD. ‘ striking aesthetic was largely thanks to the PSP difference, it seemed to declare, and it heartily one-upped anything on the similarly new Nintendo DS.
The EDM-loaded series has since appeared on pretty much every system imaginable, but this week’s is the first since the PSP original to cash in on new, unique hardware in dramatic fashion. The series’ return on current-gen consoles and PCs may seem unremarkable to some players, but a certain kind of Nintendo Switch owner is poised to get the most out of it.
More specifically, we’re talking about a kind of Switch owner—with spare Joy-Cons lying around and an outfit with tight-fitting pockets. Behold: gaming’s trippiest “rave” experience yet.
Before we get to that awkward-sounding stuff, let’s recap what has made a fan favorite for nearly 15 years.
is a deceptively simple puzzle game, in part because it borrows concepts and shrinks them down dramatically. The above images show a game with falling blocks, which you’re expected to clear off the screen before they reach the top line. This game’s four-block pieces are all squares made up of two colors. Players clear blocks by making two-by-two squares of the same color. The basic act of clearing squares is easy, but that fact nudges players into experimenting and discovering the game’s secret sauce.
The fun comes from the combo system, which rewards rapid block-formation while a timeline sweeps over the puzzle-piece playing field to the beat of each level’s music. Players get four bars’ worth of musical time to set up a perfect left-to-right spread of completed blocks, which also rewards players for piecing together connected two-by-two blocks of the same color (sometimes sharing individual squares). Forming enough blocks for one timeline sweep will add combo bonuses, but if you place a block right when the timeline passes over it, it won’t count toward a combo. This stress on speed leads to more mistakes and accidental block placement, which is arguably more fun to claw out of than similar mistakes.
Thus, aiming for a higher score requires locking into whatever rhythm is playing, and each song has its own full aesthetic treatment to learn and master. With every song, blocks and backgrounds change color and design. Every button tap and block-completion triggers sound effects synced to the tune. And new rhythms must be understood to capitalize on higher scores and bigger field clears. If the timeline takes too long to sweep with a new, slower song, for example, that means you’ll need to spread your piece-drops across the entire board to avoid an accidental game-over by making too big of a stack.
The touch, the feel of
has always aspired to offer a home version of a rave experience, as it was inspired in part by director Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s discovery of European dance clubs in the ’90s, when he was still working for Sega. That’s worth keeping in mind when wondering why the game comes with an extra vibrating-controller trick: because it’s trying to add a literal dance-club thump to the game’s sights-and-sounds experience.
Every version of (Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Windows 10, Switch) includes an options-menu toggle to turn on something called “trance vibration.” If that specific phrase sounds familiar, that’s because Mizuguchi’s other cult classic, , included a similar option, but ‘s is more nuanced. Turning this mode on will make any additional, powered-on controllers vibrate to the beat of the music—while your own controller can have that rhythmic buzzing turned off and instead rumble solely as a response to your own button presses and block drops.
How does it feel? The game’s pre-release Steam version is compatible with extra Xbox One and DualShock controllers, and my computer’s session recognized both without any headache. However, even with the buzzing set to a maximum level, this music-timed jolt was pretty minuscule, if only because those controllers are engineered to maximize their bump if your hands clasp the controller perfectly. The sensation honestly gets lost with those traditional controllers in a big, loose-fitting pocket.
I also have six (yes, six) spare Joy-Cons for the Nintendo Switch, which are maybe half the size of an old Wii remote. As a result, these are easier to arrange, and their flatter shape means it’s easier to feel their buzz-buzz in something like a pocket. I have since come up with a relatively simple system to test ‘s trance vibration: one in each sock; two in my pants pockets; and one tucked into each shirt sleeve. Yes, this is weird to write out, especially because you have to trust me when I talk about how this option is for a frantic, music-timed puzzle game.
The team at Mizuguchi’s new studio Enhance Games has taken great care to choreograph each song to this trance vibration feature, which means this is far more than a predictable 4-4 thump or a carbon copy of the subwoofer channel. The most danceable songs get a catchy beat that often runs diametrically to the music through your speakers, while trippier and arhythmic songs get subtler vibration. Best of all, the most memorable songs, particularly fan favorite “Shinin’,” include the kinds of subtle-to-pounding builds of vibration momentum that you’d expect from a seasoned club DJ.
Limited package, reasonable price
Now for the bad news.
focuses primarily on the original PSP game’s experience. That means no new songs or levels, nor can players access songs from other sequels like or . The mode selection is pretty much identical to the PSP game, with options such as the standard “play every level in our predetermined order” mode, a random-level mode, time-attack challenges, puzzle challenges (which make you form certain shapes out of the blocks you drop—harder than it sounds), and a ladder of increasingly difficult versus matches against the AI. (You can also make your own custom tracklists in a “skin edit” mode.)
That versus mode can also be played against a friend, which is good news because the mode offers a fun twist on puzzle-dropping versus games. Each time the song’s timeline sweeps, it adjusts both players’ controllable screen space based on how well each player did during that 16-note span. I much prefer this kind of “attack” than the standard Tetris-style move of dumping garbage blocks on opponents. Unfortunately, your friend will need to be in the same room, as no version of includes an online mode. You’ll have to settle for online leaderboards.
At launch, there’s also the matter of the Switch version suffering from occasional sluggish frame rates when it’s docked for TV play, which sometimes trigger when the game is transitioning between songs but can also emerge when a ton of blocks are being cleared at once. Enhance Games didn’t have an answer to our questions about whether a day-one patch will definitely fix that lagginess, but I was at least unable to replicate them while playing in Switch’s portable mode. (I’ll come back to this section whenever a day-one patch goes live.)
But I’m still choosing to play the Switch version, which says a lot about how tolerable its docked-mode hiccups are. Plus, I just can’t get enough of ‘s shameless synesthesia. lives and dies by its ability to transport players into an otherworldly, occasionally disorienting dance-music experience, so it is uniquely poised to take the world’s first-ever stab at a Switch buzz-and-beats experiment.
Should you not have a Switch, or scoff at the “vibrations on your body” gimmick, this is still a content-packed puzzler for a reasonable $15 price (as opposed to the obnoxious DLC-tagged for the 360, which got up to $33 for all of its content combined). And the original arguably had the best original songs of the whole series, so it’s good news to hear every single one of those 40-plus songs return with touched-up, higher-res visuals for whatever screen you want to play this on. I would understand if you don’t smother your body in vibrating controllers, but do yourself a favor and at least get some good headphones for a session or two.
Verdict: The series’ best stuff returns at a fair price. Buy if single-player puzzle games are your jam.