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Blockout
Geom Cube

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Blockout's Legacy

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by Corwin "wildweasel" Brence - November 19, 2012

Blockout - IBM PC, Genesis, Commodore 64, Lynx, Atari ST, Amiga, Arcade (1989)

Macintosh Cover

American Arcade Flyer

Japanese Arcade Flyer

Tetris is undeniably one of the most - if not the most - influential game concepts in history. Its legacy is clear to be seen; you can literally find Tetris on just about anything with a screen on it, and sometimes on things that don't have one. So it comes as no surprise to anybody that, while Tetris was taking the gaming world by storm, many developers sought to figure out ways that its core concept could be expanded. Some variants simply changed the rules, like Columns. Some opted to pit players against each other, like Puyo Puyo or Super Puzzle Fighter 2 Turbo. Others still attempted to combine the Tetris craze with another emerging phenomenon: gaming in the third dimension.

Blockout is the brainchild of two programmers, Aleksander Ustaszewski and Mirosław Zabłocki, and was published by a company called California Dreams (which was, incidentally, not actually based in California, but in Poland). Release date information on the internet is rather vague, but it seems acknowledged that Blockout was released just before Alexey Pajitnov's own 3D Tetris variant, Welltris.

The game presents players with a top-down view of a three-dimensional pit, by default 5 blocks wide by five blocks tall, and generally 8 or 9 blocks deep (though the number can be customized, and in the arcade version, varies as you advance in level). You have four buttons at your disposal. Three of them rotate the current piece along the three axes (in 90-degree steps, so as not to be too difficult), and the fourth drops the piece. The computer versions have three more keys which rotate along the same axes, but in the opposite direction. To compensate for the controls being quite confusing to newcomers, the piece in play drops quite a bit slower than it would in most Tetris clones; at level 1, a given piece generally only drops by 1 block every 5 seconds or so, giving players quite a lot of time to decide where to place their pieces. As with Tetris, the objective is to clear as many rows as possible by completely filling them; Blockout refers to these as "faces," and you are required to fill all rows and columns in one layer before they are cleared. It's not as complicated as it sounds, believe me.

With the third dimension naturally comes a lot more necessary planning regarding where pieces should go. This is an especially big deal on the more difficult settings, like the "Out of Control" setting, where pieces can actually be three-dimensional polycubes with anywhere from 1 to 6 blocks to them. The top-down perspective doesn't make it particularly easy to pull off the more advanced Tetris-style maneuvers, like sliding pieces underneath overhanging blocks. Making faces can also become quite difficult, since the solid nature of the pieces in the pit makes it impossible to see any holes left in the puzzle if they are blocked from view. Blockout does offer some concession, though, in the form of a "depth meter" on the left side of the screen, which indicates how high the puzzle is at the moment, as well as the colors of each layer (every layer has a different color, which makes it much easier to determine how tall a given column is).

Blockout originally launched for the IBM PC in 1989, with direct ports to other computers soon to follow, including Commodore 64, Amiga, and Atari ST. A port to the Sega Genesis by Electronic Arts came in 1991, and an Atari Lynx port arrived by 1992. Interestingly, almost every one of the computer ports had Ustaszewski and Zabłocki on staff, with the Atari Lynx port developed almost solely by them. The Sega Genesis version suffers from a poor frame rate and occasionally unresponsive controls, and it's generally not advisable playing that one if you have a choice. By comparison, the Atari Lynx version is actually quite good, despite the system only having two buttons. Rotation is handled by holding the Rotate button and pressing a direction on the D-pad to rotate the piece in that direction, or holding Rotate and pressing Drop to spin it along the Z axis. It's much smoother than it sounds.

Then there are the computer ports. The Amiga version was ported and published by Rainbow Arts in 1989, who are well known among European computer gamers for their other puzzle games like Logical. It has possibly the best graphics of the (official) PC ports, though surprisingly it lacks music outside of the title screen. The Atari ST version is largely the same as the Amiga's, except that the sound is a bit cheesier due to being played from Atari's POKEY chip. It feels just about the same as far as smoothness goes. The Commodore 64 port is best avoided, as it has the worst frame rate and the lowest resolution (except for the Lynx game). Finally, there is a version of the game for black and white Macintosh computers, which actually runs quite nicely, but since it is not in color, it can be difficult to distinguish layers.

Blockout (Macintosh)

But most interesting is Blockout's arcade version, which was developed and distributed by Technos, running on the same hardware that powers The Combatribes (in which there are billboards with advertisements for Blockout). The arcade version is handled similarly to Atari's original arcade Tetris. Instead of the game being one pit with a never-ending supply of pieces, with the objective being to survive as long as possible, Blockout's arcade version is instead broken up into stages. Each stage has a requirement to clear a certain number of faces, after which bonus points are awarded and the next level begins. It is possible to get further bonus points if you can manage to completely clear the pit with no blocks left over. When a stage is cleared, you are given a different pit with different dimensions (sometimes smaller, sometimes much larger) and a different set of pieces. Every few stages, you get a bonus level which is only 2x2x8 and gives you 30 seconds to complete as many faces as you can, which isn't easy by any stretch, since the pieces default to the fastest speed, but thankfully you do not get a Game Over if you die on this one.

But probably the most obvious difference between the arcade Blockout and the computer and console ports is this guy:

This is The Block Master that taunts you between levels. He always says the same thing ("You are formidable. But I won't lose the next game."), but his appearances are accompanied by strings of computer error messages like "A DEADLOCK WOULD OCCU", "NOT A TYPEWRITER", and "DEATH OF A CHILD." It's really a bit unsettling, and I must admit that my first time playing the machine at the age of 4 resulted in my fleeing in terror. This stone-faced grey...uh...face...appears between every level, always saying the same line, but will also appear if you've managed to erase every block on the grid. If you lose, you hear him say, "I warned you. Nobody beats me." He's nowhere near as scary as he was to my 20 years younger self, though.

Quick Info:

Developer:

  • P.Z. Karen

Publisher:

  • California Dreams

Designer:

  • Aleksander Ustaszewski
  • Mirosław Zabłocki

Genre:

Themes:


Blockout (IBM PC)

Blockout (Genesis)

Blockout (Lynx)

Blockout (C64)

Blockout (Amiga)

Blockout (Amiga)



Geom Cube (ジオキューブ) - PlayStation (1995)

Japanese Cover

American Cover

The last "official" Blockout port is a PlayStation title called Geom Cube, developed and published by Technos and released in 1995. It is pretty much like the arcade game, with slightly better visuals and some extra options and modes. The piece in play, formerly a wireframe, is now a semitransparent solid, and there is now a 3D display for the Next Piece, which none of the other versions have. There are a number of pit backgrounds you can choose from in the options menu, and the controls may be freely configured. Geom Cube has three modes of play for single player, and a Versus mode for 2 players. Infinite Mode takes more after the computer versions and presents one never-ending pit of blocks, while Finite Mode is closer to the arcade game, with each stage ending after a certain number of completed faces. Unfortunately, Infinite mode does not have as many customization options as the other home versions, since there are only three pit sizes, and you can't pick separate piece sets - the game initially only gives you the "Flat Fun" pieces, and steadily introduces the more complex polycubes as you play.

Solo players also get a new Vs. CPU mode, where you do battle against a series of 3D opponents that each have their own little intro animation. Technos actually did attempt to give them their own personalities, like Lisa who will twirl her piece around before deciding where to put it. The introduction sequences for each opponent have not stood up well to the test of time, and it is plainly obvious that the 3D renders for each opponent hail from the very earliest days of the 32-bit console.

And yet, Geom Cube is probably the best commercial Blockout, as we're about to see from the one other attempt at it...

Quick Info:

Developer:

Publisher:

Director:

  • Akira Kito

Genre:

Themes:


Geom Cube

Geom Cube



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