Saturday, December 16, 2006

Dr Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine Post-Mortem

Dr Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine has a strange history. On the surface, it's a spin-off of Sega's Sonic the Hedgehog franchise. Dr Robotnik, the villain of the Sonic series, has a penchant for turning adorable widdle animals into hedgehog-killing robots. In Bean Machine, he's turned his mind to robotising the population of Beantown, who are (as the name suggests) anthropomorphic beans. It's up to you, as (presumably) Sonic, or, I don't know, some guy, to stop Robotnik's evil plan by manipulating falling sets of beans so as to combine beans of the same colour in a vertical playing field. In reality though, the Mean Bean Machine is actually just a re-skinned version of the Japanese hit Puyo Puyo, freshened up for sale to a western market.

Mean Bean Machine came out in 1993 for the Sega Megadrive (Genesis for you non-Australians), with accompanying ports on the Master System and Game Gear. The Megadrive version has also just been released for the Wii Virtual Console, and as a result I've now played through the game and finished it for the second time in 14 years.

The game's mostly just a Tetrisoid. Beans drop in pairs of two, in a range of colours. You have to stack them to connect same-coloured beans in sets of four, which can be in straight lines, square blocks, or arrangements that go round corners. Making a set of four beans clears them from the playfield, allowing everything resting above them to drop further down into the bean well. These dropping blocks can trigger further four-bean combinations, and so forth. If the beans reach the top of the playing field the game ends.

You can play the game in an "exercise mode", which sees you simply continuing to clear beans as the drops get faster and faster, much like traditional Tetris. This is fine, but the real meat of the game is in the two competitive modes - Scenario (you vs the computer) and Two Player (which as the name suggests pits you against another real person). In either of these modes, clearing more than four beans on a single drop results in the excess beans migrating to your opponent's playing field as un-coloured "refugee" beans, which can interfere with carefully planned combos and brings them closer to reaching the deadly top of the screen. Setting up the necessary combos to bomb your opponent is absolutely necessary to victory, but it can be deliciously difficult when your opponent is doing the same thing to you.

The Scenario Mode puts you into a series of 13 such matches of increasing difficulty, culminating in a showdown with Robotnik. Each match is against one of Robotnik's robots, who all have a different "personality", evinced by some cheesy character art and pun-filled dialogue. Winning a match rewards you with a password which you can use to resume play from that level. Getting through all 13 matches should take no more than a few hours, although there's a difficulty setting squirreled away in the options menu that you can turn up to increase the game's longevity.

Graphically the game looks like it could have been an 8-bit Master System title instead of the allegedly 16-bit offering that it is, but the star here is the gameplay so you won't be bothered. The sound is also very average for the era but does the job of not annoying you while you're playing. It's safe to say that you won't walk away humming any of the musical score.

Dr Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine is one of the better early Tetrisoid games, and players of all ages and skill levels would likely get some fun from it. The content of the game is short-lived but thoroughly enjoyable while it lasts. As a download from the Wii Virtual Console it's attractive but it's hard to recommend unless you've already bought and gotten tired of the vastly superior Columns (also available on the Virtual Console at exactly the same price).

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