Tetris Ultimate

It’s 2015. Who doesn’t know about Tetris by now? The game has been ported to dozens of platforms since its 1984 debut, from computers and cell phones to calculators and web browsers. Some inventive individuals even managed to play it on a building. There’s a good chance that whoever reading this has experienced the puzzle game at some point in their lives. Tetris survived this long because of its addictive simplicity. Like Bust-A-Move, the game is easy enough to play but as the levels increase, the more challenging and addictive it becomes.

Reviewing a Tetris game is difficult because its design is so simple, no one in their right mind would do anything to screw it up. It withstood the test of time this long, why fix what isn’t broken? On the other hand, I think now, on it’s 30th anniversary, Tetris needs a shakeup. Pac-Man found a new audiences after its radical design revision in Championship Edition DX version, why not give Tetris the same treatment? A heavy remixed soundtrack with “phat” beats, bright flashy colors, and variations on the original game can go a long way to make Tetris Ultimate less of a snooze-fest.

To be fair, the Tetris part of TetrisUltimate isn’t to blame. The gameplay retains the endearing spirit of Alexey Pajitnov’s original vision. Largely an endurance trial, the game dares to the player to play as long as they can in a game where strategy and momentum can shift at the drop of an ill placed tetronimo. Ultimate offers little variation on the theme spread across different modes that can be enjoyed privately or with other players. Battle mode pits four players in a feisty competition where one’s cleared lines become another’s obstacle. Battle Ultimate is a fascinating reversioning of the game that incorporates brand new status effects. I’m surprised that Battle Ultimate doesn’t get top billing. It should have been highlighted because the status effects do a lot to differentiate it from the original game. There is barely any pre-game information on how these new and potentially devastating tetrominos behave, leaving you to discover them on the fly. This is annoying because how else your you going to know when your opponent deploys the special piece that hides everything on your screen?

Classic Tetris can be found in Marathon, Sprint, and Endless modes. I don’t quite know why Marathon and Endless were separated out, as they’re essentially the same style of game, only Endless challenges you to reach level 30. Endless is locked out from the beginning and can only be opened by reaching level 15 in Marathon. Tetris Ultimate does some intriguing things with online co-op. Instead of giving each player their own separate grids, they share a larger play space and must work together to create solid lines that span from wall to wall. Coordination and communication are a necessity because it is not enough for one player to rely on filling up their portion of the grid. Co-op and competitive modes can be played online and I hit a big snag when trying to do so. WHile waiting for the game to match me with other players, a “Time Estimated” indicate that I apparently had to wait two hours to get into a game. Thinking that to be an error, I closed the session and started a new one, where I was then told I had to wait three hours. I waited for ten minutes before giving up. In lieu of online play, there are several AI bots to play against, each with their own “experience” level, that are fine to use in a pinch but no substitute for human cleverness and ingenuity.

The game Tetris Ultimate is based on hasn’t changed, but there are a suite of tweaks that makes the experience far more interesting. There’s an option to allow the holding of tetrominos for later use, control the randomness of the tetromino generator, and limit or outright disable the ability to spin pieces. These aren’t exactly the sort of serious game changers Tetris needs but they offer something different from the norm.

The major downside of the game is its criminally underwhelming presentation. Released to celebrate the game’s 30th anniversary, Tetris Ultimate should be a lot more wild, energetic, and bombastic. I wanted something similar to Pac-Man Championship Edition DX but got Tetris on valium instead. There’s only one piece of music that plays throughout the entire product and its a lame, ethereal “Music from the Heart of Space” rendition of the classic theme song. The game grid is placed in the middle of what appears to be a blueish purple void devoid of any life except for an amorphous glowing cloud that just floats about without meaning. To me, it resembles a poorly made Winamp visualizer. Clearing lines causes orbs of energy to fly towards the vaporish manatee that, when struck, does nothing but continue to float silently, pondering the meaning of its own questionable existence.

The core experience in Tetris Ultimate is fondly familiar and as enjoyable as it was thirty years ago. As a product created to honor its legacy, however, it is lifeless and bland. The 1989 GameBoy version, with its monochromatic color scheme and three song soundtrack, was way more hip and exciting in comparison.

Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.