Whether on CRT monitors, HDTVs, or the Game Boy’s monochromatic display, Tetris has long been a reliable source of entertainment (and jaw-clenching stress) for puzzle-seeking players. Its elegant simplicity has made it an enduring success, but with Tetris Effect, Monstars Inc. and Resonair shows that it’s possible to wring a few surprises from the classic game while respecting its primordial core. Tapping into their mastery of melding flashy audiovisual presentations with interlinked gameplay, the team has created a breathtaking interpretation of Tetris that makes the game feel fresh.
In Tetris Effect’s showcase mode, Journey, you travel through a variety of vignettes while playing Tetris. The sound builds and morphs as you play, accompanied by dazzling visuals. A wintry theme might incorporate the rhythmic sounds of crunching snow as you set blocks in place, with jingling bells sounding with their rotations. You delve deeper into a space capsule while you clear lines, as snippets of transmissions play in sync with the thumping soundtrack and your positioning of the blocks. The tetronimos change with each level, too, though those are just cosmetic adjustments. Functionally, a block is a block, whether it’s made of shimmering bubbles or rotating cogs.
It’s hypnotic and wonderful, and a fantastic partner to the “in the zone” sensation that accompanies particularly good games of Tetris. I found myself instinctively rotating blocks in sync with the beat, and while it didn’t offer any benefits as far as scores went, it pulled me deeper into the game. The beats build and recedes like a great concert, culminating in a final level that is nothing short of magnificent. The visuals are amazing on traditional displays, but having your entire field of view enveloped by exploding particles and warping backdrops adds to the immersion – something I never thought I’d be concerned with in Tetris.
The biggest tweak to the overall formula in Journey is the time-stopping Zone mechanic, which gives you precious time to fix a few blunders or to finesse your way to even higher scores. One of my favorite things about Tetris is how you can extricate yourself from seemingly impossible situations; effective use of Zone makes those moments even more frequent. You have to earn it first, however, by clearing lines the old-fashioned way. Still, it’s a good thing to have in your back pocket for when you need it.
A variety of other options offer further twists on Tetris’ core. In Sprint, you try to clear 40 lines as quickly as possible. Marathon mode challenges you to eliminate 150 lines, which is easier said than done. In Purify, you have to clear dark blocks from the field by clearing lines around them. Mystery mode is one of my favorites even though it made me want to punch walls; random effects like bombs, reversed controls, and other nuisances crop up as you play a marathon session. Even though you’re ultimately just clearing lines in all of these modes, they’re a fun and rewarding way to mix things up when you hit a wall. While I’d argue it would largely be missing the point, you can turn down the visual effects and music and just play a great game of Tetris, too, with a variety of customization options such as how many blocks appear in the preview panes and how rotation works once a tetronimo lands.
The fundamentals may be recognizable, but Tetris Effect feels like something new rather than another reskin of the same old game. The presentation is such a natural fit for the gameplay, and it adds an unexpected layer of emotion. Monstars Inc. and Resonair should be commended for taking a calculated risk and delivering its own unique take on a gaming standard.
This breathtaking interpretation makes the old favorite feel fresh.