During the PSP's unspectacular first year, Lumines was the first word that sprang to mind if ever a defence of the system was called for. Even now the launch game sits comfortably atop both Metacritic's and GameRankings's PSP leader boards, with no other original franchise game in either top ten (save for a Jak & Daxter spin-off). Little wonder, then, that Tetsuya Mizuguchi's puzzler is often mentioned in the same breadth as Pazhitnov's Tetris; comparable as much in sheer quality as in its evidently perfect fit on a young handheld.
Both games also cast the same disconcertingly bewitching spell: shape-based gameplay that seeps into the subconscious like a soothing anaesthetic to the brain. Lumines II adds nothing and takes nothing away from its forebear's winning recipe of block-falling gameplay and dazzling ‘skins' (the playing grid's shifting audio-visual theme). In view of the identical mechanics, the new skin selection (now more manageably spread across 3 different difficulties rather than one great marathon) and the musical styles they frame are paramount in determining this sequel's worth.
Those who thought the inclusion of chart-friendly rock and pop would wake them up from the trancy hallucination that the first game's Rez-flavoured electronica jacked them into are to some extent justified in their concerns. It is certainly noticeable when, say, Black Eyed Peas appear behind the falling blocks, or when Gwen Stefani crashes the puzzle party pretending to be a cheerleader in high school; MTV regulars feel a little too conventionally structured and vocally brash to blend in with the respectfully zoned-out mood. But then it is also nice that some familiarity is injected into the lengthy play sessions, and those looking forward to the hits will find them a suitably fun progress incentive.
Thankfully, Lumines II supplements its aesthetic remix with enough new content to deflect cash-in criticisms. A new Mission Mode joins an extended Puzzle Mode in offering dozens of timed, single-screen challenges, both consolidated through extensive unlock structures to become major features. Also included is an excellent, user-friendly music sequencer that is every bit as playfully hypnotic as the game itself. There's a return for the brutal, quick thinking intensity of Vs CPU Mode and its multiplayer equivalent (Duel Mode); a demo for Mizuguchi's PSP interpretation of innovative freeware shooter Every Extend; a Skin Edit mode where you can create custom playlists of your favourite unlocked skins; and to top it off the player's stats are all ruthlessly tracked and rated just to demonstrate how hard it's going to be to scratch that Lumines itch once and for all.
But even though Lumines II is clearly the ultimate in travel bag time machines, it rises above the numerous other handheld titles that could make a similar claim simply because the core experience is so powerful. Fans might reasonably argue that certain new skins move away from the purer and arguably better-integrated feedback loop of the first game (some of the square-moving sound effects here are just plain annoying) and that the inclusion of mainstream acts takes the edge off of the first game's euphoric rave buzz. Others may well find the tweaked aesthetics a refreshing and subtle way of channelling that same buzz along slightly different neuron paths.
Familiarity aside, however, Mizuguchi's latest experiment in merging simple mechanics with mesmerizing feedback remains an invigorating success, and probably more compulsive and complete than any other he's conducted, even if it's not necessarily the final word on the subject.