We’re getting dangerously close to being two decades removed from the launch of the Nintendo DS and Sony PlayStation Portable. It was an exciting time. Would Sony do to Nintendo in handhelds what it had done in home consoles? What kind of wild games would arise from the beefy specs of the PSP and the unusual features of the DS? An exciting battle where everyone ultimately won, as far as I’m concerned. But I want to look at one micro-skirmish in those early years, because it is from this relative footnote that the inspiration for this game, Gravitas! ($1.99), was born. Let’s talk about Meteos.
Just a couple of years before the launch of this epic generation of handhelds, another major event went down. SEGA, having had its latest console’s clock thoroughly cleaned by the PlayStation 2 (a fate it would not suffer alone), decided to drop out of the hardware business and shift to being a third party. A pivotal time for the company, and one that would see a number of its key developers depart the company for various destinations. One such person was Tetsuya Mizuguchi, the producer of games like SEGA Rally Championship, Space Channel 5, and Rez. At the time a relatively young producer, he was fond of sick dance beats and raver culture, aspects that he had increasingly been incorporating in his projects.
When he left SEGA, he decided to start up his own independent company with a number of other former SEGA developers. Named Q Entertainment, its first order of business was to develop a puzzle game for each of the upcoming handhelds. Not the same one, either. Each handheld would get its own unique game from top to bottom. For the PlayStation Portable, Q Entertainment made Lumines, a rhythm-focused falling block puzzler that saw players rotating and placing pieces to match colors as the screen removed them based on the tempo of the constantly-changing music. The Nintendo DS received Meteos, a very unique puzzler designed by Masahiro Sakurai (Kirby and Smash Bros. creator) that used touch controls to manipulate falling blocks to make matches, which would send them rocketing into the sky and, if they had enough lift, clearing them.
Both fine games, and both did quite well. One did a lot better than the other, however, and to the victor go the spoils. Lumines received several sequels and a handful of ports, and can easily be bought on modern platforms today. As for Meteos? A somewhat ill-conceived sequel knocked it off the rails almost immediately, and it received only a couple more releases of any kind before effectively falling off the map from 2010 on. And look, I love Lumines. But I also love Meteos, and I’ve been hoping for it to make a comeback of any kind for a very, very long time. Preferably in a form closer to the original than that sequel.
Well, I don’t know if Meteos is ever coming back. And clearly, I’m not the only one who misses it. Developer Drew Smith has more initiative than I do, because he seems to have gotten tired of waiting and just went out and made his own Meteos. I’m not going to sugar-coat things too much here. Gravitas! wholesale borrows its mechanics from the original Meteos, almost to a tee. Each Phase sees you trying to send a set number of blocks off the top of the screen within a certain amount of time. You can slide pieces up and down each column (and not left and right), and matching three or more of the same pieces either vertically or horizontally will send all affiliated columns into the sky. How high? It depends on the gravity of the phase, whether the match was horizontal or vertical, and how many combos you have rolling.
Blocks will fall in one by one from the top, and sometimes you’ll get some power-ups in the mix. Send them off the top of the screen to activate them. There are also some garbage blocks, but they can be turned into normal pieces, often triggering a match when they change. Horizontal matches don’t get as much lift as vertical ones, and in theory this is your opportunity to make a combo by making further matches on the elevated pieces. This is a staple of Meteos, and it’s one of the ways where Gravitas! doesn’t quite hit the mark. It’s a real pain to make a match on those flying columns, and it ties into perhaps the biggest problem with the game on the whole: the fiddly controls on phones.
I’m not sure what the game can do about it, really. But I’m not here to fix issues, I just point them out. Anyway, the combination of the small blocks, relatively small display, and my chunky fingers means that it’s a little tricky to get the piece I want to go where I want it on iPhone. It often takes a few tries, and that can be fatal in the more difficult stages. It’s also what makes it hard for me to nail those floating combos. If I can’t move pieces accurately on a stable column, I have little hope of doing so on a moving one. Again, I don’t know how the developer could make this better, but I hope they can because I really like the game otherwise. Playing on the iPad is much more comfortable, and the game plays really well with the Pencil if you have it.
Like in Meteos, each Phase has a style of its own. The pieces look different, the background looks different, the music is different, and the gravity also changes. What impresses me here is that the overall look and feel is very “Q Entertainment”-core, if that makes sense. Sometimes more Lumines than Meteos, but always on point. It’s not quite as polished as something we would see from Mizuguchi and company, which is the main giveaway. But it looks and sounds really good, and some of the themed pieces are very amusing if a little hard to distinguish.
The main game consists of 20 Phases, and the difficulty curve is nice and smooth. Sweet at the beginning, very spicy by the end. You can also do a Quick Play, which lets you choose your favorite theme, how many blocks you need to clear and the amount of time you have to do it, and the difficulty level. A Marathon mode challenges you to keep playing as long as you can, with the difficulty rising as you go. Vs Match lets you play against another human player via local wireless or online (Hamster, take notes). That mode is very fun because the blocks you send off your screen end up cluttering theirs. Finally, your prize for beating all of the Phases of the main game is the Grav-Lab mode, which gives you the ability to play with whatever level of gravity you like. Neat.
Apart from the control issues and some minor roughness in the UI, I don’t have a lot of negative things to say about Gravitas!. I did have a crash here and there, which was disappointing, but the games are so quick that it isn’t really a huge loss on the rare occasions it happens. I’d love more Phases to play, but that’s just me wanting more of something I enjoyed a fair bit. If you’re playing on iPhone, it’s really going to come down to whether or not the developer can make those controls work better. As it is, I have to recommend it with the heavy caveat that you might have to deal with the frustration of frequent missed matches, and not being able to do much reliable comboing with the floating pieces due to the lack of accuracy is a bummer. Again, if you’re on iPad you’ll probably be fine.
Gravitas! is heavily inspired by Meteos, there’s no getting around that. But considering how much of Meteos was wrapped up in a very distinct style, it’s amazing just how close this game gets to evoking the same feelings as that classic. Given the low price of entry, anyone who misses Meteos would do well to pick this up on whatever device they own despite the control difficulties. General puzzle fans might want to give it a go too. It’s a couple of solid fixes away from a strong recommendation across the board, but I’m willing to invest in that hope.