Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Dr. Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine (Genesis) (1993)

Here is a puzzle game that will haunt your dreams and send your synaptic processes tumbling down around you like a collapsing building. "I'll just play for a few minutes," you assure yourself at 9 pm. But then some sort of time warp occurs, all of a sudden it's 3 am and you're standing on top of the couch, sweating profusely and screaming obscenities at the TV.

Released in Japan as Puyo Puyo (ぷよぷよ) in 1991 for the Famicom Disk, the game was ported as a Sonic the Hedgehog spin-off (with no Sonic!) for the North American market, and released on the Sega Genesis in 1993. There are a few graphical differences, and of course a different set of characters, but none of that matters because much like Tetris, this is a pure-gameplay type game. There is zero storyline, simple graphics, no distractions or side tasks...just you in an all-out war against your own mind.

My roommate bought an officially-released collection of Genesis games for the PS3 (Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection), and honestly most of the games are complete garbage. Notable exceptions are Gain Ground, Shinobi III, Ecco the Dolphin, Streets of Rage, and obviously Mean Bean Machine, but holy shit. I grew up with Genesis so it's a bit hard to admit, but the SNES has withstood the test of time quite favorably, whereas the Genesis...

Let's talk about Mean Bean Machine, though. After a misfire with Columns, Sega really hit on a true mind-bending puzzler with this release. Combining elements of Tetris and Dr. Mario, it blows away both of those (classic) games, both in terms of intricacy and strategy. I won't say it's more fun, because your idea of fun might not be kicking over your living room table in frustration, but to me at least, it's more fun. Let me put it like this: I love Tetris, but I can routinely get above 200 lines (level 20) on, and sometimes I just want a harder drug.

It's definitely a falling-block game, like Tetris and Dr. Mario, in that the goal is to make units disappear by grouping them, but the twist is that the first group of beans don't give you many points at all, it's only chain reactions caused by that disappearance that get you ahead in the game. Let me explain that better: like Dr. Mario, the units are little two-ended jelly beans, with each end being a different colored bean (there are five colors in total, compared to Mario's three). You spin them around as they fall, and arrange them in patterns at the bottom of your screen. Four beans of the same color disappear, and in turn make the beans lodged above them fall. If you can get these beans, as a result of falling, to group themselves into another group of four, and so on, you will have seriously screwed your opponent. That's right, because in contrast to Tetris, Mean Bean Machine is always played as a competition, either against a computer or human opponent. Developers always struggled with the concept of making the competition between two players interactive, and Mean Bean Machine addresses that (and makes the game much more difficult in the process) with its garbage-bean mechanic. If you put together a good combo, useless clear garbage beans will fall on your opponent's screen, screwing up anything they were putting together on their side. These beans can only be removed by making combos adjacent to them, which gets increasingly difficult to do as time and space are constricted near the top of the screen.

It might sound quite confusing on paper, but the premise is actually rather simple once you're playing. The strategies you need to use, while equally indescribable, are similar to the multi-tiered "think several moves ahead" processes one uses in chess. In fact, it takes a great deal of chess-reminiscent "if -- then" logic to arrange a multi-level chain reaction, and you are severely time-limited. Add in the extra factor of falling layers of garbage blocks from your opponent, and it's like speed chess with an ever-changing board.

I may have made the game sound like a hopeless exercise in frustration, and it is. But the challenge is simply what makes it so rewarding. After performing some remarkable feat of mental gymnastics, you will feel a wave of euphoria as you watch your opponent's screen fill to the brim with garbage beans.

If you want your cognition to be pushed to the breaking point, this is your game. Even if you are naturally good at math and logic, the upper levels of Scenario Mode are so sped-up that I guarantee you will find a very significant challenge. If you've deluded yourself into thinking you're good at puzzle games, shut off Tetris and come play with the big boys.


  1. Just posting to say I got to Robotnik (Level 13) tonight (the code is Purple, Yellow, Orange, Clear), so I am officially way better at this game than Zach.

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  3. Just posting to say that Peter did not reference his totaled number of losses to said "Zach" and in doing so, ignores the fact that he has lost significantly more than he has won directly against "Zach."