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Block Out (Classic Game)

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      17.08.2006 09:55
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      Tetris with a Z-Axis (1989, 1991).

      “How shall I fill the final places? How should I complete the wall?”
      Roger Waters, ‘Empty Spaces’

      When California Dreams had the bright idea of making Tetris with a Z-axis, they were probably convinced that their creation would make them gods of the video game realm. Instead, it’s remembered by most as quite an enjoyable Tetris clone that provided a bit of fun, but was too difficult to make any real progress. To me, ‘Block Out’ is yet another frustrating and addictive puzzle game to help waste my life away.

      Released on Sega MegaDrive under license from Electronic Arts in 1991, ‘Block Out’ is easy to get to grips with, but fiendishly difficult to master. Unlike many games where extreme difficulty was merely a way to compensate for lack of originality, this three-dimensional puzzle game could easily spawn an elite group of players, who have mastered the three-dimensional logic. The average player will probably take a while to get past level 3.

      The game screen is disorienting at first, until you orientate yourself properly. The player effectively looks down from the top of a Tetris grid, and pieces fall from directly in front of the line of sight to meet the wall at the far end. Gameplay is identical to Tetris: the pieces are constantly moving, and increase in speed as the levels progress. The player needs to position the pieces on screen, which often involves rotating them to fit, and they can then be hurtled towards the far wall to slot in-between the other bricks.

      The bricks are mostly the same four-cube ones seen in Tetris, but the game is a little more lenient and introduces a couple of two- and three-cube variants, especially useful for corners. The classic ‘straight line’ brick is replaced here by shorter versions, as a length of four would do some serious damage on this game’s smaller grid. Each brick is initially red, until the player shoves a block out into the Z-axis, where it becomes orange. Each wall can only be destroyed when every square of the grid is filled, which can become frustrating if you accidentally block off a couple of holes with a block in the far foreground.

      After orange the colours cycle, logically, through yellow, dark green, light blue, dark blue, purple and then back to red. In the standard game, the foremost ‘game over’ blocks will be light blue. Leaving the title screen alone, a helpful demo begins to demonstrate gameplay. Unfortunately, it does deceive viewers into thinking the game is a lot easier than it really is, as the level count never increases, and the player thus has no problem completing his red walls.

      “He’s intelligent, but not experienced. His pattern indicates two-dimensional thinking.”
      Spock, Star Trek II

      Bricks can be rotated with the joypad’s A, B and C buttons, although it takes a very long time for the controls to become instinctive, and there’s going to be a lot of guess-work and mistakes early on. The C button is the least mind-bending, rotating pieces nice and easily through 360 degrees, but A and B are more complicated, rotating pieces in what would be the X and Y axes… if the game wasn’t seen sideways-on. The best strategy is to build flat, two-dimensional walls for as much of the game as possible, only venturing into the third dimension when a piece doesn’t perfectly fit. In these instances, players should rotate pieces until the furthest block or blocks plug the remaining hole(s), and the back wall will vanish, leaving only the remainder of the final brick.

      It’s a fun game and fairly addictive, although the difficulty will eventually dissuade most players from trying again. The game becomes speedy as early as level three, and I’ve never survived past level six. In most cases, it’s clear that a couple of botched blocks in the later levels equate to a point of no return, and the remaining seconds of gameplay can be spent having some destructive fun, sending blocks hurtling towards the furthest wall, which gets closer and closer each time. The game has a score counter, which is only really useful if you wish to compete with someone by taking turns, but unfortunately there’s no ‘next block’ indicator, common to many Tetris-style games, which would prove handy in aiding short-term strategy. As it is, the game is completely down to on-the-spot thinking.

      For anyone crazy enough to venture beyond the standard game, ‘Block Out’ boasts some real hardcore options. The ‘3D Mania’ option features three-dimensional bricks – I’ll clarify: that means bricks that can never be placed flat on the back wall. Oh dear – and ‘Out of Control,’ featuring similar blocks to the regular game, but extended variants consisting of up to six cubes. Oh dear oh dear. There’s also an option to build a custom level, choosing the block type and dimensions of the grid. It seems that the game designers were generous with the pre-set level, as it already uses the maximum depth of 12. The standard 5x5x12 level is undoubtedly the most rewarding, as the maximum possibility of 7x7x12 just takes too long.

      If you ever compulsively played Tetris and wondered what it would be like to stand at the top and chuck blocks down, ‘Block Out’ may give you some idea. There’s a free online clone at http://www.3dtris.de/ which manages to be even more confusing than the original, but the MegaDrive’s custom joypad makes for a far superior experience.

      It would be interesting to encounter any other strange attempts to change the viewpoint of classic video games. I’d suggest ‘Point-of-View PacMan’ and ‘Far Away Frogger.’

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