It's really amazing to see that Tetris still has legs nearly 20 years after its creation. This puzzle design not only kickstarted the "falling piece" genre, but even after countless times of trying to out do Tetris, no one's really been able to topple the king. As long as there are videogame systems, Tetris will be there to play. The latest rendition could be the design's best outing yet: Tetris DS might change a few things to the game that many of us grew up on, but it's still Tetris. And it rocks.
Though the game outdates the Game Boy by a couple of years, Tetris is always going to be synonymous with Nintendo's handheld. Whether the original Game Boy has Tetris to thank for the system's success, or Tetris has the original Game Boy to thank for the game's success is a debate left to the ages. But the two went hand-in-hand back in 1989 and the rest is history. The game design was incredibly simple in concept: stack "tetriminos" (clusters of four tiles) into a pile at the bottom of the bin - form a solid line from left to right and those tiles disappear with the rest of the pile settling into the bin. The strategy is a balance between mind and action, as the idea is to sustain an empty bin by stacking pieces without making gaps in the stack. Even with such a simple concept in place, the game has the ability to really grab and hang on even when all you're doing is the same action over and over again. The game has unbelievable staying power, which is why Tetris remains as one of the greatest videogames ever created.
The last time a Tetris game hit a Nintendo handheld was in THQ's Game Boy Advance version of Tetris Worlds, which was a nice job but failed to even reach the original Game Boy and Game Boy Color's level of presentation due to a lack of any sort of statistics save. Everything from cellphones to digital cameras have had versions of Tetris since then, but Tetris DS is a fantastic rendition and retains a ton of the classic charm while offering up some new challenge ideas and kicking ass with some truly amazing multiplayer features that absolutely must be experienced.
The shell of Tetris DS is pretty close to the classic design, though evolution of the property has definitely changed things up. Most of the changes do a great job of changing strategies: adding a "Hold" bin where players can swap the live piece for the one in storage every turn can definitely work in your favor, especially in competition - or it can just be another piece that just won't fit into place. But one change is a carry-over from Tetris Worlds: players have the ability to keep a piece alive simply by repetitively spinning it. In single player, this makes the game's Marathon "endless" mode a little too easy since you can simply take your time and find a spot to place it
or use that time to swap it out for the hold piece which might give you a better option.
The "spin to win, keep the piece alive" strategy doesn't really work in multiplayer, thankfully, since players have to deal with opposing competitors throwing trash blocks into your bin if you decide to take your time. Plus, in multiplayer, the piece will automatically lock into place if it's kept alive for too long anyway to ensure that players on their last legs don't simply spin their piece to stay in the game.
And while we're on the subject of multiplayer, let's just get this right out of the way: this is the reason to get Tetris DS, hands down, no question, case closed. Tetris DS is brimming to the rim with multiplayer options: player vs. player basic Tetris, competition Tetris with unique power-ups for up to ten players locally, two and four player Tetris competitions over the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection service for worldwide play, and a new game design, Push Mode, that's one of the coolest and most intense variations of Tetris we've ever seen. Even better, all the local multiplayer modes can be experienced with only one copy of the game - though every DS owner should buy this game, the ones who pass can still play against any owner of Tetris DS through the Download Play option.
The Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection mode is easily one of the biggest highlights to the Tetris DS design and works flawlessly. Imagine the connection feature set in Mario Kart DS and you've got a good idea of what to expect from Tetris DS's interface - if you've got your friend's Friends Code you can set up a game easily, but if you decide to do the Worldwide Mode you can only search for the random assortment of players looking for the same game mode you are. There doesn't seem to be a way to play the "weapons mode" options with two players, and we also noticed the stats tracking in Wi-Fi to be a little on the wonky side - several wins were not recorded to the player ranking saved to cartridge. Hopefully these will be ironed out when the onslaught of players happens on March 20th.
Oddly enough, the new features to the Tetris design can't be turned off during play. So if you wanted to play a game of Tetris without the Hold piece, for example, you're just going to have to resist hitting the trigger button. In multiplayer, though, good luck trying to institute this handicap against the opponents - it ain't gonna happen. Same thing with the long foreshadowing string of "Next" pieces - Classic Tetris stuck with one "Next" piece, but with Tetris DS you can see six tiles ahead of the current move. But you cannot bump that back down if you want to go old-school.
The DS version of Tetris also has an awkward habit of cropping the current piece at the top of the bin when it first comes into play. Unless you A) have the Ghost Piece handicap turned on, or B) remember the piece when it was in the "Next" box, you won't be able to see the current piece until it drops two ticks from the top. It's like playing blind for a fraction of the game, and makes playing multiplayer - and more importantly, the new Push Mode - a little clumsier than previous Tetris game designs. It's something that you'll just have to accept in this Tetris evolution.
On top of the traditional Tetris gameplay, Nintendo also created a series of modes unique to the Nintendo DS experience. Catch Mode is the most drastic of the designs, with players clustering falling Tetris pieces and rotating the cluster to arrange them in grids of four by four titles or greater - honestly this mode is a take it or leave it option, and while fun in its own right, it just doesn't have the addictive qualities of the classic. There's also a Touch Mode where players slide Tetris pieces along the touch screen to form combos and to drop the goal to the ground. Again, another neat idea, but the rotation controls are a little sloppy and the overall challenge isn't all that great. There's also a puzzle option where players select Tetris pieces to remove a bin of tiles from play - this one's clever and challenging, but a little frustrating since the game forces the specific placement of the tiles instead of giving that control to the player.
Wrapping all this together is a very Nintendo presentation that celebrates the company's videogame history - each level and challenge has its own Nintendo-game theme, from Super Mario Bros. to Zelda to Balloon Fight to Yoshi's Cookie. It's a clever use of some great old-school references, but I have to admit that this retro inclusion is completely out of context. If you're into Nintendo franchises, awesome - you're going to love it. But I can see some of the casual gamers getting confused on why there's a screenshot of "Our princess is in another castle!" plastered in the background of the Tetris bin.
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