I can’t quite remember how or when I first played Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine, but my memories of it were fond enough that I went out of my way to flesh out my collection of (legally) emulated Genesis/Mega Drive games in order to play through it again. Not all happy gaming memories mesh with the expectations of a modern gamer, however, and that was the case with this game; where I was expecting the entertaining, fair puzzle game I remembered, I instead found myself suffering through one of the weirdest difficulty curves I can recall seeing in a game. That’s not to say that Mean Bean Machine can’t be fun, of course. There are just too many longer, better puzzle games available out there to possibly recommend this to anyone outside of the very curious or very nostalgic.
Some familiar characters
From what I can tell, Mean Bean Machine is actually a Mario 2/Doki Doki Panic situation where an original game (in this case, Puyo Puyo) had its cast replaced by more established characters. This was back in (or at least around) the days when there were two Sonic television shows, so many of the characters in the game are actually straight from Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog. Having had the memories of both shows eroded to almost nothing in the decades since it was airing, the characters still were vaguely familiar and kind of enjoyable in a quintessentially 90s way; before each stage, the character you’re facing has a few lines of dialogue where they talk tough, with their pun-filled bravado being enjoyably awful. They may be mere window dressing for the gameplay, but that’s still enough to give the game a real sense of personality.
Matching colors and making combos
The gameplay here is simple: colored “beans” (really, they’re more anthropomorphic blobs of color than anything) fall from the top of the screen, Tetris-style, and you have to match colors up in groups of four to make them disappear. Not only that, but creating matches causes colorless “refugee” beans to appear on your opponent’s screen. Refugee beans can only be removed by making a match near them, and can easily become a huge hassle. Holding off on creating every match you see and instead setting up chain reactions so that causing one match creates others amplifies the effect, though, and depending on the size of your combo, you can drop anywhere from one refugee bean to half a screen of them on your opponent. Playing, then, becomes a risk-versus-reward thing as you try to set up chain reactions quickly enough that you don’t end up with a screen full of refugee beans blocking you from setting everything off.
It’s easy, then maddening, then easy again
I played Mean Bean Machine on the default “normal” difficulty, and while there are two harder difficulty modes in the options in addition to an easy difficulty, I’m perfectly content leaving all of that alone because of how random the difficulty proved to be on normal. The first couple stages are fine, of course—the second stage goes fast and can be difficult, but it’s nothing that can’t be attributed to the normal growing pains of learning a game. It’s the mid-game stages that become downright cruel. Stage 4 is a pretty steep difficulty spike that I still struggle with even having finished the game, and if you get lucky and avoid getting stuck there, stage 6 will undoubtedly put you in your place. What makes this so bizarre is that it doesn’t stay difficult; by the time I reached stage 10, I was beating down every opponent with ease, and even facing Robotnik in the final stage only took a couple attempts. Since I was playing the game through an emulator, I went back to saves of earlier stages immediately afterward to try and determine whether the difficulty was off or if I had simply become a more proficient player, and I got beat down.
I think this comes down to speed
Just like Tetris and other puzzle games of the time, the beans fall faster the longer you play. Their starting speed is also sped up from stage to stage until they’re practically a blur, and this forces you to play more with instinct than forethought. The game also becomes quite a bit easier as it speeds up, and my theory for why this is comes down to opponents having less time to sabotage you. For example, in stage 6, I found myself watching the pieces fall at their normal pace while planning out large combos rather than actively speeding them up, which gave my opponent plenty of time to submerge me in refugee beans and undermine anything I was working on. Contrast that with later stages, where beans fall so quickly that we were playing at the same speed, giving them less time to set up large combos. If that ends up being the case, however, that would mean that the difficulty is set up to punish those who let the beans fall at their normal speed instead of rushing, and that just seems wrong. On the bright side, you’re allowed to retry stages as many times as you want, and there are no annoying lives to worry about, so you can fail 20 times in a row if that’s what it takes to get lucky and pass a particularly troublesome part of the game. Older games were rarely that accommodating.
They’re a relic of a bygone age, sure, but I happen to find password saves weirdly charming. They may not be as effortless as more modern saving systems tend to be (though “effortless” and “good” are often depressingly far from one another given how many developers have a hard-on for autosave-only and similarly terrible schemes that take control out of player hands), but the fact that I can post a screenshot of the end of a stage and someone on the other side of the planet can use the code to start from exactly the same position is really entertaining.
Decent sprites, screechy music
Obviously you can’t go in to a 1993 puzzle game expecting mind-blowing art, but the sprites are colorful and the expressions of your opponents change depending on how well they’re doing. The animation, on the other hand, is a bit too simplistic when it comes to character animations. It works for what it is, I suppose, but it’s still worth mentioning that games that came out even earlier on the same system boasted better art and animation. Same for music, which is really where Mean Bean Machine becomes incredibly grating. The early levels are fine enough, but there’s this synth sound in the later levels that’s so ear-piercingly bad that I had to take off my headphones just to keep playing. We’re definitely not dealing with a Sonic-tier soundtrack here, or even anything remotely memorable or pleasant.