Middle-aged gamer's collection #26-31 Tetris box set

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#26-#31 Tetris Box set

Tetris (Gameboy)
Tetris & Dr. Mario (SNES)
Tetris Plus (Saturn)
The New Tetris (N64)
The Next Tetris (Dreamcast)
Tetris Worlds (PS2, Gamecube)
Tetris Party + Tetris Party Deluxe (Wii)

Bobby Fischer was one of the greatest chess players ever - he became world champion in 1972 and could have been champion longer had he been of a more conservative disposition. Fischer was an American and the fact that he became world chess champion is like a beautiful flower growing up through cracks in a pavement. Chess champions tend to come from Russia or the old soviet block countries where chess players are discovered and developed within a system that is part of society - their champions are the inevitable outcome of that system. Fischer came from no such system - he was a maverick genius who came out of nowhere.

Tetris came out of the soviet system in much same way that Fischer came out of the US. Video games tend to come from Japan or the US with some input from Europe - but Russia is certainly no hotbed of game development. However one of the greatest games ever came from there - another beautiful flower growing through cracks in concrete.

The thing about Tetris is that it looks like a very simple game - all developers and game designers must have looked at it and asked themselves over the years why they can't think up such a simple game themselves. The truth of course is that they probably won't because it is NOT a simple game - it is the result of a piece of inspiration that hit Alexey Pajitnov - a Russian academic who had been steeped in puzzle games all of his life. Tetris is derived from a old puzzle game called Pentominoes - in which you must fill a rectangular frame with a set of different shapes leaving no gaps. Pajitnov's inspiration was to take the set of shapes and simplify them (to shapes called tetrads - hence the game name) , introduce the shapes one by one into the box (now sitting up on one end instead of laying flat) falling under simulated gravity, and then the real stroke of genius - removing complete lines - making space for more shapes.

This created a puzzle that couldn't really be made from physical material the way the original pentominoes was and thus was created the first true video puzzle game which up until then had mostly been just recreations of physical puzzles like mazes or board games like chess. A new genre was born.

Tetris has stubbornly refused to be improved upon. There may be a few games in the genre that are considered better by puzzle game enthusiasts (Puyo Puyo and Puzzle Fighter spring to mind - though I'd say they are not as approachable) but there are many Tetris-based variants around that simply are not as good as the original game. Over and above the addition of a battle mode and a few tweaks about seeing preview pieces, its best to leave the game alone.

There are hundreds of Tetris games around - it must be the most remade game, but I am going to keep to the reason for this blog and stick to those I currently own as legitimate physical copies.

I don't think I need say too much about Gameboy tetris - to many mainstream gamers this was their first introduction to the game and the licencing wrangling between Nintendo, Atari , Mirrorsoft and the rest is the subject of a very good BBC documentary which you might track down on the web. This is an excellent version of the game - its visuals and music are burnt into the memories of many who were around in the 1989-1990 at the time of the Gameboy launch. This was a perfect match of hardware and software - control is responsive and the game is unhindered by the limitations of the old GB display. It has been some time since I played this version and I don't have an original GB any more. I do have a GBA SP and a Super Gameboy for the SNES which allows me to play it on a bigger screen.

To be honest - up until the last year or so , this was still the best version around. Its closest rival was a version I played on a really cheap LCD handheld I picked up in Crete in the mid-90s. These games claim to have 99999 games on offer but they are mostly Tetris variants and a few other dodgy throwaway games. Most of these handhelds don't offer a good game of Tetris due to the cheap build of the controls etc. but this little device was sweet - it had great responsive controls and the basic LCD display was perfect for the game. I spent many , many hours playing Tetris on this and it even kept high scores on power off which the GB didn't. I seemed to have lost it - I hope it is still knocking around my house somewhere - it was a required holiday bring-along for many years with myself and the kids.

The Gameboy version introduced the 2 well known game types - type A is the classic mode and type B gives the player a pre-filled pit and you have to form 25 lines to clear the game. This is a nice quick alternative to the A game especially for those expert players whose A games can go on for some time.

Tetris & Dr. Mario on the SNES is a 2 game compilation. The Tetris mode has a decent 1 and 2 player battle mode and there's a vs CPU option but it doesn't really inspire much competition. The A and B one player game types pioneered in the gameboy version are supported too. Presentation is nice throughout though there's no highscore saves - and a word of warning to those PAL gamers - the PAL version of this has 50Hz lockout checks throughout the code so playing this at 60Hz will present problems. Frankly it isn't worth the effort as the 50Hz experience is good enough. The cartridge also has an unusual "mixed" mode that has 2 players facing off in split screen action and each player must complete a Tetris B level, a Dr. Mario level and then play Tetris A mode until the selected time limit runs out. The winner is the player with the higher score. Its an unusual and enjoyable mode and I recommend this cartridge if you find it cheap.

Tetris Plus was a multi-platform release but I have the Japanese Saturn version. Unfortunately this game is an example of the failure to improve upon the original formula. What it does is OK, and it is genuinely trying something new which is to be applauded, but it just isn't as good a game as the original. It also trips up because it doesn't manage to deliver a good original game. There is a classic mode but the control is a bit sticky and it doesn't feel right - and you don't get a straight Tetris 2 player battle mode either which was always the saving grace of any title that attempted to improve the plain game. Two players can play classic Tetris side by side but there is no "battle" element - they just play their own game. You do get a 2 player battle mode of Tetris Plus though which again is just OK.

Tetris Plus is played in a classic Tetris pit but there is a little character - depicted as an explorer - inside the pit who will try and climb up or down the blocks. He can only climb up one block at a time so if he is faced with a climb of 2 or more blocks he turns around and walks in the opposite direction. The aim of each level is to guide him to the bottom of the Tetris pit. To add to the difficulty there is a spiked roof that is gradually dropping down as you play. If the explorer touches this you lose. You can't lose by overflowing the pit as in classic Tetris, the spiked roof will chop any blocks that it touches - you only lose when the explorer hits the spiked roof.

This actually sounds quite good - and to be fair it is a nice variant on the game. There is even a level editor for creating your own layouts to try and beat, but the problem is it just doesn't play as good as it sounds. The 2 player battle mode plays this game in two pits and its an entertaining enough game but nothing special.

The graphics are nice and clean - but are distinctly 16bit despite being on the Saturn. I like the cartoonish look of everything but it isn't for everyone. Sounds and tunes won't offend - pretty forgettable which is no bad thing in a puzzle game but music can really add to puzzle games so its a bit of a shame. The main problem with the game is the control though - it doesn't feel right and feels a bit stiff - but it is perfectly playable - its just that it doesn't feel as good as the great versions of Tetris.

The New Tetris on the N64 is a good example of applying minor improvements to the formula. The main change it introduces is the ability to store a piece for use later which does add to the game even though you usually just use it to store a staright line. The game shows a ghost of the current piece - showing where it would land it dropped as an aid to the player, and there are bonus lines awarded for forming squares out of 4 of the same pieces. Where this game really shines however is in the multi-player and sound department. The N64's four ports are supported for a handful of 4 player modes and the music is by Neill Voss which sounds great. Puzzle games don't offer much scope for visuals so its great to see developers squeezing the sounds to make up for it.

This game attempts to draw you back by having seven "wonders" to unlock. Every line created in any mode goes toward a single total. There are seven totals to aim for which unlocks a little fly-by of an historic building - a Mayan temple being one example. The last wonder requires you to amass a half a million lines - it will be some time before I reach that. In a nice example of the N64's memory pack use - you can play for lines with your friends in the multi-player modes - the winner getting his/her lines saved onto his/her memory pack to take home and add to their total at home.

This was the last decent version of Tetris I have played until recently - the games I have played in the interim - Tetris Worlds for GC and PS2 and Next Tetris on Dreamcast are pretty forgettable efforts. The graphics aren't even pleasing - trying to draw 3D pieces and forcing them into a 2D game is a waste of time and these games just feel insipid to play. The great Tetris gameplay is in there but the modes that have been tacked on just feel like they are getting in the way.

The last game I purchased - Tetris Party Deluxe has restored Tetris as a great modern puzzle game. It offers several nice modes on top of a great classic version of the game. These modes are very interesting and are good games in themselves - just two examples are a race mode where players navigate a piece through a scrolling maze and a shadow mode where players have to place the pieces to match the outline of a picture in the background. All of the modes offer something different and all have on line and local multiplayer modes for up to 5 players. There is even a 2 player co-op mode and a balance board mode thrown in for good measure. The Deluxe version is the disc borne sequel to the WiiWare title Tetris Party - itself a great Tetris game. Deluxe adds some more modes (the great Bombliss mode for those who are into their Tetris) and enhances the online modes a bit too but there isn't much to choose between them. I highly recommend this one.

Bobby Fischer met with quite a sad end. Not to put too fine a point on it - he went quite mad and was caught up in all sorts of conspiracy theories and was quite outspoken on Israel, the US and Judaism. He died from an illness in early 2008. His reputation as a chess player while contraversial is happily intact however. It's nice to see an excellent modern version of Tetris that keeps its reputation as a great puzzle intact as one of the greats too.

Comments

Rob Daviau
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Joined: 05/19/2006
Wow

Great overview of a fantastic series!

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Valentin Angelovski
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Joined: 12/24/2010
Very insightful!

Having a real soft spot for the former soviet-bloc game I can tell you I thoroughly enjoyed reading your article and in particular how you detail the efforts by subsequent game developers to differentiate (or mutilate? ;-) this true classic (there were also tetris-esque games like SEGA columns etc.). I also appreciated the parallels drawn between a great chess genius and this brilliant game during their initial rise - neither will be forgotten to be sure. Well done!

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