I've done it. I think I've finally been able to come up with a way of describing Meteos in a nutshell. It's the videogame equivalent of a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster. For those of you not familiar with The Hitch Hikers' Guide To The Galaxy (all two of you), a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster is described by the guide as being like having your brains smashed out by a slice of lemon wrapped around a gold brick. That's what playing Meteos is like, except rather than a slice of lemon, it's more like a serving of wasabi, and rather than just one gold brick, it's more like the world's largest Duplo set falling from orbit onto your cranium. Okay, so maybe the analogy breaks down a little there, but you get the idea...
At this point, you'd be forgiven for thinking "Hang on a minute, I don't like the sound of that!", but wait, because I've got another analogy for you. The first time you drank alcohol I'm willing to bet that you probably didn't like it very much, unless you're a girl who only drinks vomit-makingly sweet things like WKD. If you were a real man with hairs on your chest, you probably stuck at it and acquired the taste, because alcohol, as we all know, is FANTASTIC. You see, alcohol is another one of these things that inevitably makes you feel like your brains have been smashed out all over the floor and served to your cat as an offal breakfast, but that still doesn't stop millions of people all around the world going out and drinking it, because, deep down in their hearts, they know that the headaches are worth it.
You should bear all of the above in mind when you first start playing Meteos, because when you first start playing it's quite stupendously hard. It's the very definition of an acquired gaming taste, because I know of people who've bought it, played it for five minutes, and then traded it back in because they've hated it. Well, I say they're lily-livered alcopop-drinking lightweights.
Okay, I admit, the first time I played the game I was approaching sensory overload in about 60 seconds. There's so much going on within that tiny screen, it's almost impossible to not to feel overwhelmed. It's just as well that the game is simplicity itself to play. The control method is perfectly optimised for play with the touch screen. As blocks fall from the top of the screen, you use the stylus to create rows of three or more of the same colour, which then turn into thrusters propelling the blocks above them up the screen. The catch is that you can't move blocks left to right from column to column, only up and down the same column. It's also important to note that these rows of matching blocks can be oriented vertically or horizontally. This becomes a key game mechanic when you realise that some planets will reward you for making vertical rows more than horizontal ones. It's all part of the game balancing. Making horizontal rows shifts more blocks, but the downside of that is more weight above the thrusting blocks. Therefore, whilst vertical rows shift less blocks, the likelihood of them getting off top of the screen is much higher, due to the smaller weight involved; easy, right?
Alas, it's not quite as simple as that. Other factors, such as the gravity on the planet and the thrust power of the blocks (which varies from planet to planet and from colour to colour of block) all make you think about how you should be trying to clear the screen. There are 32 planets in all (including your nemesis in the Star Trip mode, Meteo) and as you unlock more and more, the variations in gravity and block thrust power become more evident and make the game more challenging. Later planets require you to make combos (which multiply thrusting power) before you can even get blocks off the ground, and other planets favour vertical rows (blasting them off the top of the screen before you can blink) over horizontal rows (which crawl up the screen like an asthmatic snail). So a lot of experimentation is required to find the best tactic to survive as long as possible under the relentless torrent of coloured bricks. Some planets require you to concentrate on shifting blocks of one particular colour, for example, and some favour you if you manage to chain together combos while large sets of blocks are still in the air. It's this that gives the game such tremendous variety (especially when you factor in the stylised planetary avatars and music), and the manner in which you unlock new planets is sure to prolong the game's longevity and keep you coming back for more.
Every block you clear from the playing area is logged and stored in the player's profile. These blocks can then be redeemed for new planets, power-ups, precious metals (very rarely occurring blocks which you need to unlock new planets later in the game) and even new musical theme tracks for your planets. It's a very elegant game model: the more you play, the more you can unlock, which adds more variety to the game, which in turn makes you want to play more. This can easily lead to a spiralling level of obsession, as you repeatedly play the challenge modes to quickly rack up the capital in your block bank. Meteos could, in fact, be categorised as a Class A drug, it's so addictive. The more you play, the better you get, and the better you get, the more you want to play. Should you eventually exhaust the single player game - and believe me, it will take months of dedicated play to unlock everything - you can always get your next fix from the multiplayer mode.
Like most DS titles, you can play wirelessly with just a single cartridge, and Meteos will also allow you to download an enticingly well featured demo. With up to four people able to play from the same cartridge, multiplayer battles are like peasant life in the Dark Ages: short, ugly and brutal. Even with just two players going head to head, the action is positively manic. Tactics, again, play a key part: specifically being able to keep enough blocks on your screen to be able to do damage to the other player, but not keep so many that you can be wiped out by a particularly good combo from the other player. Meteos is essentially a game based around speed of hand and speed of eye, but it also rewards those with speed of thought, too. As the screen starts getting full to the brim, a relaxed, more considered approach pays dividends far more often than a panicked screen scrub.
The only real flaw with Meteos is the formidable initial learning curve. For some it'll be a bit like giving absinthe to a five year old - just too strong for their taste buds. It is worth trying and persisting with, however, because there's nothing else in the puzzle game genre quite like it, nor quite as good. The game rewards persistence and once you get over the initial sense of information overload, you'll find the game almost impossible to put down. Meteos is a must-have title for the DS and one of the great game experiences of recent times. Once you've been smitten, you'll never be able to look at Duplo bricks in quite the same way again.