In it, coloured gems come down from the top of the screen in columns of three: you cannot change their orientation, but you can shuffle the three gems around in their column. The objective is to line up gems in groups of three or more, either vertically, horizontally or diagonally.
Compare Puyo Puyo, which also has the player matching same-colored falling "blocks" and would later be acquired by Sega.
Columns provides examples of:
- Adventurer Archaeologist: You play one in Columns III, looking for the treasure of the pyramids.
- Alternate Company Equivalent: The game was very obviously Sega's answer to Tetris. It even came as a pack-in with the Game Gear, similarly to how the Game Boy came packaged with Tetris.
- Artificial Brilliance: The AI in Columns III is noticeably better than it looks like, although it normally takes reaching the Mummy or the Sphinx to see the true extent of it. They are surprisingly decent at building chains at good speed for a game released in 1993, and they use their Crush Bar attacks and Magic Stones differently depending on how the match is going (even opponents with one-trick-pony AIs, such as the Scorpion, will change patterns when they are in danger of losing). Furthermore, they have a fairly believable reaction to the effects of Flashing Stones: they will wait until the whole piece is revealed when the Next piece is hidden (unless what they've already seen is useful), they take longer to move when the board is turned into grayscale, and they'll move slower when the board is upside-down.
- Combos: Jewels that are falling due to gravity can create groups of their own and create chain reactions that give you more points (as well as attack power for competitive modes). It's one of the first, if not the first, example in the Puzzle Game genre with this mechanic.
- Co-Op Multiplayer: Similar to the "doubles" modes of Tengen's Tetris and Tetris: The Grand Master, the Genesis port of the original game has one, although the well doesn't use extra-wide dimensions and players take turns dropping pieces instead of playing at the same time.
- Covers Always Lie: There is a guy on the cover of Columns 3 for no reason. Trust us.
- Endless Game: Expect to hit a lot of coincidental combos when you're getting near the top that send your blocks back down again. This game can go on for hours.
- Excuse Plot: The game tried to give the games a plot. Many versions even have a 'story mode.'
- The first game has some blurb in the instruction manual about it being a game played by jewel traders in the Near East or somesuch.
- Super Columns for the Game Gear had a plot about getting an amulet back from an evil merchant. You get past her minions by challenging them to the titular game.
- Columns III had your character as an Adventurer Archaeologist attempting to find the treasure of the Pyramids. You battle bats, skeletons, scorpions, and mummies... once again by playing a Puzzle Game.
- Falling Blocks: Well, falling jewels, but still. Some games allowed you to change the jewels, to such things as dice, fruit, or mechanical parts.
- Gainax Ending: In the true ending of Stack Columns, it turns out the protagonist's thought to be dead father is guarding some kind of ancient ageless baby. Upon defeat, this baby's cries end all life in the planet. The End.
- Hard Mode Perks: In the original Columns, choosing Medium (start at level 5) or Hard (start at level 10) difficulty will give you a head start of 20,000 and 50,000 points, respectively.
- Later Installment Weirdness: Columns III lacks a single-player Endless mode.
- Match-Three Game: The Ur-Example. Other concepts like a match-three game involving jewels, popularized by Bejeweled, or competitive match-three games involving extensive use of chains, which Puyo Puyo is better known for, first appeared in Columns.
- Multiple Endings:
- In Columns III, only by choosing the Hard entrance you get to the ending where your character finds the treasure hidden in the pyramid. In the other two, you leave empty-handed.
- The standard ending of Stack Columns has the protagonist unable to find the truth behind his father's death. A No-Continue Run sees him finding his father alive... and accidentally causing the end of the world by defeating a magic baby.
- Nintendo Hard:
- Detractors will be quick to point out that Columns is a beginner's game due to being able to make lucky chains through making the right match by accident. Now try setting up huge chains on purpose.
- While the first few levels are relatively tame, there's a huge Difficulty Spike near the final levels in Columns III. Starting from the Mimic, opponents play a lot smarter and faster than you.
- Oddball in the Series: Super Columns for the Game Gear allowed you to rotate the jewel columns into a row, as well as adjusting the order. The AI wasn't programmed to do this, giving you a bit of an advantage.
- Regional Bonus: The US version of the arcade original has an alternate gameplay BGM that can be used by changing one of the DIP switches. It went on to make a second appearance in Columns II, which was released in Japan only.
- Smart Bomb: A flashing gem column will break every instance of the gem it is dropped upon. In the competitive games, only the middle gem does this while the now pointy ends are for attack or recovery instead.
- Video-Game Lives: Columns III featured the Hourglass of Time. If you lost against an enemy, you shatter the hourglass to warp back in time, and try again.