Over 30 years later, Tetris is still a game that holds its own
Many years ago, I got a Nintendo Game Boy for my 16th birthday. The huge grey brick was still very new, and the thought of playing different games anywhere was magical.
The Game Boy came with Tetris, arguably the greatest game ever made. The simple gameplay allows players to enter a Zen-like trance, where only you and the tetrominoes exist. Clearing rows of blocks is a satisfying experience, and the inherent ‘Try Again’ challenge still works, even today.
Bring on the Tetris Effect
Such was the popularity of the original Tetris (no matter the platform you played it on), people started noticing something odd. People started to report dreaming of tetrominoes and seeing interlocking patterns outside of the game.
For example, people started seeing how items on a supermarket shelf could be stacked differently to form single shapes. You may look at some buildings off in the distance, and imagine the shape you ‘need’ to complete the rows.
Generally harmless, it nevertheless started research into the phenomena that playing Tetris for 30 minutes a day could help with cognitive skills. Take that video game objectors!
Of course, while all this is interesting, it doesn’t explain why Tetris was so popular. All I can really tell you is that for me, Tetris is a kind of competitive jigsaw puzzle.
Think of any game that challenges you, and that feeling when you complete that challenge. Never scored over 100 in Ticket to Ride before? Got through the High Road in Crash Bandicoot without dying? that feeling of satisfaction is addictive, isn’t it?
And this is where Tetris for me on the Game Boy sat. As my score got higher and higher, I was rewarded with dancers and larger and larger rocketships launching. It was fun to watch, and when I finally got the Space Shuttle, I was in heaven. I still remember running around Lake Eppalock looking for my parents to show them.
Getting higher and higher scores was satisfying, but I could also play at lower speeds longer and just enjoy relaxing with the puzzle that is Tetris. I could challenge myself or just sit back and relax, it was the game I needed it to be at the time.
The more things change…
I am happy to say, at its core Tetris Effect is the same game I fell in love with almost 30 years ago. There are a couple of new mechanics and game modes, but Teris is just Tetris, and I love it for being that way.
But don’t think if you have played Tetris before, you shouldn’t play Tetris Effect. While the feel of the game has remained the same, so much more has happened here with the latest iteration.
But I don’t have PSVR
You can play Tetris Effect just on the PS4, and it is a great experience. But you will be missing out on quite a bit.
For example, looking at the pictures I grabbed for this review, you can see a pretty game with various backgrounds and layouts. What you can’t hear is the amazing soundtrack that goes with Tetris Effect and becomes part of the experience.
And that is what defines Tetris Effect – it’s an amazing experience. Playing in the dark with headphones on will allow you to immerse yourself and enjoy, but playing Tetris in VR is just special.
The PSVR difference
VR allows you to immerse yourself in new worlds – this has been discussed before. But in Tetris Effect, with good headphones and the headset, you become part of a magical tapestry.
It sounds arty and full of hype, but this is one of the few times I really can’t explain the feeling any other way – Tetris Effect is a great example of gaming as an art form, with art in the traditional visual and/or audio context.
Playing a level with Dolphins swimming is beautiful. There are no other words for it. Then the music pitches as you clear rows, and the Dolphins react playfully cheering you on.
The sensation is distracting because you are playing a game but just want to watch the dolphins play. But you keep playing to watch what else the Dolphins do.
The sensation of zooming through the waters or skimming on top of the ocean is indescribable – you need to experience it yourself.
The main mode of Tetris Effect is called Journey mode, and it is fitting. Traditional gaming wise, you can consider it the campaign mode. Each level has it’s own visual and audio style to go with it.
The very first level has you playing at the bottom of the ocean, with neon sea creatures swimming around you as you progress.
Complete 36 lines and you are taken to a ‘cyber Egypt’ level. Rather than the bottom of the ocean, you are in a darkened room with the illuminated outline of the playing area before you.
As you progress, outlines of hieroglyphics form and travel towards you. Complete this, and you are whisked to a red Zen world where your movements create sound.
No two levels are similar, and each is an amazing experience. The Journey moniker is well earned indeed.
While visually each level is different, there are changes and modifiers in each level or world as well. Some will increase the speed of the blocks as you progress, either in score or number of lines.
Some levels will suddenly increase the speed insane levels. Sometimes this is permanent, sometimes you just have to ‘survive’ the wave. Each level is truly unique, but just like the visuals and audio, you need to learn how each level behaves.
Many players and I describe the Zen-like trance that you fall into when you get into a game of Tetris. Tetris Effect adds to this with a new mechanic known as The Zone.
It’s pretty simple – create lines and fill up a Zone meter. When you activate the Zone, it begins counting down but tetrominoes stop dropping, giving you a much-needed breather.
Each line you complete drops to the bottom of the pile, also allowing you ‘fix’ some previous errors. This also has the benefit of allowing you to create groups more than Tetris – Decahexatris (16 lines) is my current max, but I hope to improve soon!
No time for Journey? Enter the Effect mode
Tetris by itself is already a challenge, and the different modes on display through Journey mode are different. But sometimes you just want to play Tetris, and this is where the Effect modes come in to play.
The description is ‘play to suit your mood’, and it’s very apt. Want the challenge of clearing 150 lines offered in Marathon, but can’t quite get there? Practice in Chill Marathon, that just clears the stack and starts again.
Only have a few minutes? See how many lines you can clear in three minutes, or go for your highest score in the same time.
The most masochistic I have gotten is a mode where the tetrominoes drop in time with the music – you have no control over it.
A gorgeous example of Yin and Yang
Tetris is a great game to calm and challenge yourself. Everything in Tetris Effect rewards you in some way, but those rewards can also be a negative.
Made enough lines to see the horses gallop across the plain? It’s beautiful, and they gallop right in front of you.
Get about 4-5 levels into Journey mode as a first-time player, and get used to the increased speed factor over time. Then to have the speed triple or quadruple without warning can cause veterans to rage quit. It really is just a case of learning the levels and their little quirks, but first impression wow it feels like a cheap loss.
But this is truly a first impression issue. If you know that the game will occasionally lull you into a false sense of safety then thump you, then you can prepare for it.
I also wish there was a soundtrack released for Tetris Effect similar to Beat Saber. I could listen to the first level for hours – it’s truly hauntingly beautiful.
So while it may sound like Tetris Effect will frustrate and annoy, it does so in a way that only dangles the challenge carrot before you – and you will want to keep going. And going.
I haven’t really talked about the gameplay of Tetris, as the gameplay is pretty much a part of our culture now.
While there are some frustrating aspects to the gameplay, perseverance and practice will help you overcome – and you will want to.
Tetris Effect is more than just a game – it’s a project of beauty and love that offers more and more the deeper you go. If you have only heard of Tetris, give this a go – you will thank yourself that you did.
Until next time,