Lumines creator Tetsuya Mizuguchi on the designing the puzzle classicJuly 13, 2018
The PlayStation Portable was a technological marvel when it came out in 2004. With its huge 4.3-inch screen and unprecedented processing power that was capable of running near-as-dammit PS2 games, it felt like an almost-pocketable vision of the future. Ambitious games like Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories and Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII delivered on the promise of the palm-sized console experience, and the PSP built up a credible library of impressive software, even while competing with the wildly successful Nintendo DS.
But despite the PSP’s considerable brawn, no title on the platform was quite as brilliant or enduring as a little 2D puzzle game called Lumines.
Developed by Q Entertainment, Lumines was another example of Rez and Space Channel 5 director Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s exploration of the relationship between music and gaming. As a puzzle game, it’s aggressively minimalist: 4 x 4 blocks made up of two colors fall from the top of the screen, and you have to clear them by aligning each individual square into single-color 4 x 4 blocks. The twist is that they don’t clear until a line sweeps across the screen, and the twist to that twist is that the line moves in time to an eclectic soundtrack, and all your block rotations and drops contribute to the auditory experience. When you clear enough squares, the game moves on to an entirely new “skin,” with different music, visuals, and sound effects.
There have been a lot of Lumines games since the series debut on PSP, but none are as resonant as the original. And for the first time on modern platforms, you’re now able to play that version through a revamped edition called Lumines Remastered for the Nintendo Switch, PC, PS4, and Xbox One.
I recently caught up with Mizuguchi to discuss this new version as well as the story behind the creation of the original. Mizuguchi is always a compelling guy to talk to. He has a serene, considerate conversational style that drifts in and out of Japanese and English, and we conducted the interview accordingly.
Mizuguchi says the inspiration for Lumines came from the original PSP hardware. “Sony introduced the PSP as an interactive Walkman,” he recalls. “I’d made Rez and Space Channel 5 on the Dreamcast and PlayStation 2, but they had no headphone jack. The PSP was the first games console with a headphone jack. So for me, making music-based games, I felt, ‘This is my time, finally!’ With the PSP, you could play a game any time, anywhere, any style. Now, you know, we have many things like that, but at the time, I felt it was a big innovation.”
With the shifting skins, music, and visuals, Lumines really did feel like an “album” for the PSP, a multiformat experience that made perfect sense for the hardware. Its design started with Mizuguchi’s desire to make a PSP puzzle game. “I imagined what kind of game you could play with a headset on the PSP and with music, but not like Rez. Rez is too deep,” he says. “With the PSP, many people could enjoy music casually, and that kind of image led me to think I should make a puzzle game because everyone can play them. But puzzle games aren’t easy to create. We needed to design the game from scratch. FPS or racing games have basic mechanics, but puzzle games you have to create from zero. I wanted to combine the puzzle gameplay and music, so we tested many prototypes with sound effects and music, like Rez. And we brought in the timeline that erases blocks as you set them with music and decided on that kind of mechanic.”
Despite Lumines’ audiovisual pyrotechnics, minimalism was a key principle from the beginning of its gameplay design. “I don’t know if Lumines is a good game or not, but I think good games have simple mechanics,” Mizuguchi says. “We got rid of other elements, and played with simple sounds, and felt like, ‘Oh, this feels good.’ Then I thought we could make it feel more gorgeous if we added the musical elements and visual elements.”
The way Lumines blends action, music, and visuals, however, is notably different from Mizuguchi’s work on the seminal techno-shooter Rez. In Rez, every shot you make is automatically timed to the music, giving you a sense that you’re playing the song as you progress through the stage. Lumines’ fusion of music and gameplay is looser, and frankly, it isn’t likely to sound good to anyone not playing the game. Sound effects are played as soon as anything happens, like when a block rotates or falls. That means things can get a little cacophonous during high-level play, but it allows you to play the game more naturally.
“I think [Lumines] is like a mix of the left and right brains. There’s a logical part and an emotional part,” Mizuguchi says. “Rez is much more right-brain: intuitive, abstract, and emotional. The game is simple; no logical part is stimulated. But with a puzzle game, I think the logical brain is much more active. We’re thinking, ‘How can I drop this block here or here?’ and thinking about the future. You can feel the music more when you play Rez, but Lumines has a different type of fun. I’m always thinking that games are like the architecture of human instincts and desire.”
Despite this, Lumines is known for its genre-spanning soundtrack, which was mostly produced in-house but features some standout licensed songs from Japanese electronic megastar Shinichi Osawa under his Mondo Grosso alias. “It was almost the same process as making a music album,” Mizuguchi recalls. “First, we decided the progressions and the mood, but it felt like something was missing. We needed much more spice. We wondered if there might be some external music that’d work better — like music that had already been released — and started to look. And that’s when we came across “Shinin’” by Mondo Grosso, and I really love that music.”
“I went to Okinawa one summer, and I was camping with friends by the beach. We were watching the sunset, and “Shinin’” just came on. And I thought, ‘That’s it!’” Mizuguchi decided that “Shinin’” would be the perfect opening track for Lumines, and he asked Osawa for four pieces of music that would fit with the sequencing planned for the game — a musical journey intended to evoke a party from sunset all the way through to sunrise, which was represented by Eri Nobuchika’s emotional, Osawa-produced “Lights” as the very last skin.
This is a big part of the value in a remaster of the original Lumines: the soundtrack is the game. There have been subsequent Lumines titles with identical gameplay, but the first Lumines is sequenced like an album. And you’re not getting the same experience without the same music. Lumines and its remaster is a singular work that, like any band’s debut album, should be preserved as a moment in time that can’t be replicated or, in a way, improved on for what it is.
“I don’t know if this is the best Lumines or not, but it seems like a lot of people think so,” Mizuguchi says. “And truthfully, the original is my favorite, too. Lumines II, with music videos and so on, that was a challenge. But yeah, I think I like the original best. But we do want to take on new challenges and experiment. This time, we’re just bringing back Lumines for all the people that have said they want to play the original.”
However, Mizuguchi says he needed motivation or a technical resolution to go back to Lumines — like how Rez has been improved on through subsequent releases with HD resolution and VR support. This came through Nintendo’s announcement of the Switch. “My impression was that the new haptic HD rumble is very attractive,” Mizuguchi says. “This is new, and I love that kind of mix — visual, audio, haptic as in Rez Infinite, with trance vibration. So this is very good timing to make a remastered version of Lumines. And also PS4 Pro, Xbox One X, and PC are getting 4K support.”
I’ve been playing Lumines Remastered on the Switch and PS4 Pro, and I would agree with Mizuguchi: HD rumble is a really compelling selling point for Lumines Remastered, and the implementation is probably the most convincing demonstration of the technology yet. The haptic feedback you get is so much more advanced than any traditional controller vibration. You can feel the throbbing pulse of a bass drum at the same time as sharper, higher notes made by dropped blocks. 4K support is nice but not especially transformative for a game like this. Between HD rumble and portability, I’d say the Switch version is the one to get. It’s the definitive version of a truly unique, seminal puzzle classic.
Lumines was tightly designed around the PSP, and Mizuguchi never imagined it would spread to the type of hardware we have today. “At the time, it was enough to think about the next two to three years,” he says. “But now, I can see forward maybe 10, 20 years, so I think technological improvement and innovation is getting faster.”
Shortly after our conversation, his latest project was announced: Tetris Effect, a mind-blowing, VR-enabled PS4 version of Tetris that feels like the most Mizuguchi-esque project imaginable. “I think VR opened a new era that’s just beginning, but in the next 10 to 20 years, many things will change,” he says. “And I can’t stop imagining that kind of future vision. It’s amazing and exciting, so this is the reason I can’t stop creating games.”