Five of the Best is a weekly series about the bits of games we overlook. Things like crowds, potions, mountains, hands. Things we barely notice while we’re playing but can recall many years later because, it turns out, they’re fundamental to our memory of the game. Well, now is the time to celebrate them!
Today we’re celebrating…
Blocks! Or do I mean cubes? Don’t! We had a whole argument about this. Cubes are a kind of block, as far as I’m concerned, and so are other shapes like the lower-case L Tetris block. If we confined ourselves only to cubes, we’d have to talk about the Companion Cube from Portal, again, and then I’d be forced to counterbalance it with Peter Molyneux’s Curiosity cube just to be mean. But no, I’d never be so cheeky as to put a red herring in the list…
Be sure to share your best blocks in the comments below. Happy Friday!
I’d like to talk about the T-Spin. This is, quite simply, placing a T-tetromino (a Tetris block to you and me) into a T-slot, then rotating it before the piece is Locked Down. Locked Down in Tetris lore is a proper noun, and therefore must be capitalised and I am very much on board with that, because it makes me say the word in a sort of fist pump kind of way and as any Tetris aficionado knows, Locked Down is the full stop on your sentence. There’s no going back.
T-Spins are tricksy kinds of things, but they’re so satisfying because they, in most Tetris video games, give you bonus points of some kind and, let’s be honest, if you do one you’re showing off. In competitive multiplayer Tetris games they often do wonders to mess up your opponent(s). And as we all know, the meaning of life can be found in the act of winning while showing off.
They are also magic in that very special Tetris way. Tetris is a game that turns simple blocks – the kind of blocks I have bought for my children to play with as babies – into multifaceted, multi-purpose puzzle cogs. Even on the face of it, the T-block is simply just a T shape that’s doing a squat. It is one of the most versatile, useful blocks in the game, because it can fit so many gaps. T-Spins evolve the T-block into the block’s final form.
T-Spins even change the way you think about the screen. Normally, you build up a layer of blocks to fill most of the screen, leaving a single line free for, hopefully, Tetris after Tetris. Setting up T-Spins involves mentally dividing the screen up into three, building a block with a gap – almost like a chip off the old block – on the left-hand two-thirds, and placing a Z-block on the right hand side. Then, as your T-block falls, inevitably, towards the gap, rotate it to slide it in. Boom. T-Spin!
So, here’s to the T-Spin and the T-block. Name a more iconic duo in video games. Take your time. This one isn’t Locked Down yet.
That Minecraft would make the list is unquestionable. The question is which Minecraft block to single out? The dirt block, the brown one topped with green? It’s definitely the most famous Minecraft block. It is Minecraft. But is it the coolest block? The obsidian block is pretty cool – literally it’s cooled lava. And it’s black, and all cool things are black. And you need it to get to the Nether, the hellish other realm in the game. But no, it’s a bit too obvious.
For me, it’s a simple wood block. I’m a plain kinda guy. I like Captain America. Seeing a wood block has a strong effect on me. When I see one, I see humble beginnings and new adventures. A wood block makes me want to start again, to get back to using wooden tools to make my Ikea cabin in a picturesque location – in the woods, down by a lake, on a mountain top – and concern myself only with staying alive. No mining, no metal, no complications.
It doesn’t last, of course, as the hunger for progress inevitably always takes over. But for a while, the simplicity is bliss.
There’s probably a name for it, but for me it’s the Fuse block. It’s a special block in Lumines, which is a game about clearing blocks from the screen by matching their colours. The idea is that blocks of two colours fall and you rotate them and place them so that they form squares of one solid colour. Then a timeline sweeps through and removes them and you get on with your life. Beautiful!
But the Fuse block is special. It allows you to clear blocks of the same colour that aren’t in squares. This in turn means that you can sort of thread colours through the growing mountain of blocks, waiting for the Fuse that will trigger them all. Voila! All your greens disappear in one go – all the greens that are touching, anyway. This in turn causes a collapse in all the oranges, say, and then they go next in a great thundering wave.
The Fuse block encourages you to take risks rather than play it safe. Fine. Loads of puzzle games do that. But it also turns a game about falling blocks into a game about dynamite, and for that I love it, love it, love it.
There’s an artform to using the Fake Item Box. It’s not a showy weapon. It’s a sneaky one. And when it works? Gosh. It’s the most immensely gratifying thing in the game.
It’s not just that you’ve caused someone to crash. Anyone can do that. It’s the proper placement of the thing, clustered amongst real Item Blocks, hiding like a cuckoo egg in the nest.
It’s the knowledge your opponent drove into your Fake Item Block unaware of what was to come, perhaps until the last second, perhaps only when they began tumbling over, wheels spinning, careening off the track. It’s the sequence of emotions you sense is now playing out in their head – their hope of a useful item turned into a shock of realisation, despair, shame. ‘Why hadn’t I seen it coming?’ you can almost hear them scream.
And the satisfaction you caused this all.
Fake Item Boxes were last seen in Mario Kart Wii. Then Nintendo took them out. Cowards.
Alan Wake is sort of a puzzle game about blocks. But only because it’s a game about a writer with writer’s block. Poor Alan’s gone on holiday and can’t do his work. Then I think his wife goes missing. Or maybe she doesn’t. And maybe there are creatures made of darkness and a bit with a lighthouse. No matter! He can’t do any writing! Writer’s block.
Writer’s block is a lovely phrase. I get it: they’re blocked and the words can’t flow. It’s sort of plumbing-based. But I love that word block. It makes me think of an object on the floor of a room you’re passing through and you’re not looking where you’re going – of course you aren’t; you’re a writer – and you trip over it. Writer’s block. That hot gaseous feeling inside the head. The eyeballs are angry and grainy and seem to be boiling. The nose feels thoroughly stuffed. No words are coming. Poor Alan.