Tetris DS

April 9, 2006

When I set out to write this review, several questions about how one would even attempt to write a review of the latest [i]Tetris[/i] game occurred to me: 1) Are there people who some how have never heard of the now-20-year-old game, the father of so many imitators and permutations, both in and out of the actual [i]Tetris[/i] family? 2) Have there been any significant changes to the dirt-simple “clear lines by rotating falling tetrominoes that continually drop faster and faster” gameplay worth mentioning? 3) And if so, have these changes transformed the game into some sort of mutant that only bears a faint resemblance to Alexey Pajitnov’s genius?

As far as [i]Tetris[/i] DS is concerned, the answer to the second question is, amazingly, “yes: nearly half a dozen”; the answer to the third question is, oddly, “yes and no”. And if Nintendo has anything to say about it, the answer to the first question will soon be “not for much longer”.

Fortunately, what one does [b]not[/b] need to do when writing a [i]Tetris[/i] review is mention graphics, sound, play control, camera issues, or any of that other usual review content: [i]Tetris[/i] is [i]Tetris[/i] — the core of the game hasn’t changed in 20 years, because it’s pretty much gaming perfection. So all that’s left is to discuss the various modes presented.

Nintendo has taken the classic [i]Tetris[/i] that we all know and love (along with previous improvements like the ability to put a piece in reserve) and given it to us untouched, save for a fresh 8-bit nostalgia paint job that has nothing to do with gameplay. They call it, obviously, “Standard Mode”, which comes in “marathon” (can you clear 200 lines?) and “line clear” (how fast can you clear 25 lines?), and “vs. CPU” versions; I’m told completing “marathon” unlocks “endless”, but my best attempt so far is a heart-wrenching 197 lines. And for many, that would have been more than enough, although probably not to justify a purchase of yet another [i]Tetris[/i] edition.

So they added the ability to link with up to ten DS-owning friends and play head-to-head(-to-head-to-etc.) [b]off one [i]Tetris[/i] DS card[/b]. And then, just for kicks, they added the option for some Mario Kart-style madness, giving you some weapons to use against your rivals (or in a couple of cases, to help yourself out of a tough jam). In case you can’t round up some friends, they also opened up their wi-fi service for one-on-one battles (without weapons) or four-player melees (with weapons). Like [i]Mario Kart DS[/i], you can either connect to a similarly-skilled opponent randomly via the “worldwide” connection or exchange friend codes with your buddies for more private engagements. They also threw in an ELO-like rating system, and added a clause that gave people who disconnect credit for a loss just to cut down on jerks. For many, these editions might have been enough to justify a new purchase.

But Nintendo wasn’t finished. Those modes weren’t anything new, and online play isn’t so much an innovation as it is slowly becoming an obligatory requirement. Time to mix things up a bit…

Witness “Push Mode”: a one-on-one test of wits and skill that pits you and your opponent on opposite ends of the same double-length well of blocks; your bricks drop from the top of the top screen, and your rival’s from the bottom of the bottom screen. They even provide two single blocks as footholds for your bricklaying, as any piece dropped without a place to land simply “falls off” the other side without stopping. As usual, whoever lets their bricks reach their “top” of the well loses, but here’s the twist: for every multiple-line clear that you make, you shove the entire pile of bricks a few lines closer to your opponent’s danger zone. The strategy for this mode is intense, especially since the only way you can score a four-line tetris clear is usually for your opponent to provide the “floor” for your final drop; it’s not uncommon to see a one-block column of empty space being meticulously avoided by both players for as long as possible.

Oh, and you can play Push Mode online as well.

And Nintendo [i]still[/i] wasn’t done. They had [b]four more[/b] modes for your single-player experience: “Mission Mode”, which throws various timed challenges at you (“clear two lines with a z-block”, or “clear the line indicated”, for example) in either marathon or time trial versions; “Puzzle Mode”, which presents you with one of 200 situations and from three to five blocks with which to clear each one — you choose which block to drop in which orientation, but the location of the drop will be automatically chosen and must clear at least one line; “Touch Mode”, in which you either employ the stylus to slide (and on easier levels, rotate) pieces in a tower in an attempt to drop a cage of balloons to the ground or try to clear one of fifty puzzle objectives; and finally (and most bizarrely), “Catch Mode”, also dubbed “Metroid Mode” or “Katamari Mode” depending on whom you ask, which features you rotating your core of blocks to collect falling pieces in a 4×4 square — which then detonates either when you hit X or after ten seconds — while avoiding enemy Metroids, which will drain your health if they touch your core. “Catch Mode” is perhaps the biggest diversion from “true” [i]Tetris[/i], but it still retains more of a connection with its forefather than something like the N64’s [i]Tetrisphere[/i].

Finally, all six modes also feature a “how to play” tutorial if you need it, and each mode keeps track of your high scores (for each level of difficulty, when appropriate); Puzzle Mode (and the puzzle variant of Touch Mode) keeps track of which ones you’ve cleared in the mode itself. Your online records are also kept handy, naturally.

A tremendous application of old-school awesomeness with some new twists, perhaps the most amazing aspect of [i]Tetris[/i] DS is that all six modes are fun to play, and they all “feel” like [i]Tetris[/i] despite their wildly different approaches. If [b]that’s[/b] not enough to warrant a purchase of [i]Tetris[/i] DS, then odds are that you just don’t like puzzle games.

Score: 5/5

Questions? Check out our review guide.