Even if you’re a relatively new gamer, it’s more than likely that you’ve heard of or played some variant of Tetris. From authentic games to knock offs, we’ve seen countless iterations of the classic on all sorts of platforms, which is certainly a testament to the game’s success and staying power. Tetris is heralded as the definitive puzzle game to bring its genre into the mainstream 26 years ago and, through its success, falling blocks have become synonymous with puzzle gaming.
Tetris: Axis is the latest version of the classic and its home is Nintendo’s 3D portable, the 3DS. There’s no doubt the game will be fun (unless of course they mucked the core mechanics somehow) but with multiple other versions of the game already playable on the 3DS, are there enough added substance to warrant spending the extra dough for this title?
If you’re familiar with any recent Tetris game, you should know that the biggest draw aside from classic Marathon gameplay, is the plethora of other modes that create other forms of Tetrimino manipulation for your enjoyment. Take Tetris DS, for instance, with its slew of unique gameplay options both enjoyable and forgettable as well as the introduction of a strong online Tetris multiplayer (we’ll compare this game to Tetris DS mostly because it’s the other most viable option on the market for 3DS Tetris gameplay). Tetris DS found a niche on the original Nintendo DS through its high polish, retro Nintendo style of presentation, and the aforementioned gameplay additions, especially including the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection gameplay.
Tetris: Axis has an even larger selection of modes from the forefront, boasting over 20 modes of gameplay. However, Tetris: Axis also understands that though a variety of options is necessary with any new Tetris game, a few of the modes should stand out as classics or true innovators. Thus, from the moment you turn on the game, you’re immediately given the option on the title screen to jump straight into the gameplay to start playing the classic Marathon Tetris, the new Fever mode or experience one of the two AR modes (something most everyone will be first testing out). I found it to be a nice touch to show gamers the true meat of the game’s additions without having to wade through a series of menus to find it yourself.
So, about those menus, they look nice, but the case of form over function is something that plagues everything from electronics to gaming and this is also, unfortunately, the situation for Tetris: Axis. The menus aren’t inherently bad, as they do feature a flashy appearance that shows off the system’s 3D capabilities. However, I found it quite difficult to navigate the menus at first and even after I knew the whereabouts of every game, I still found the menus to be cumbersome. You can press A to skip the animation but just choosing the game you want afterwards is a bit bulky. Finally, actually choosing the multitude of options that govern the round is also a poorly designed menu mechanic. Pressing X brings up the different options (which is great that there are so many for each specific mode) but afterward, there is no quick-button to start the round (such as START), and rather you have to scroll all the way back up to an awkwardly placed “play” command to start the round. None of the menus break the gameplay but the sum of the negative parts make for menus that aren’t easily navigated and take away from the flow of the gameplay (one of the cardinal sins of any puzzle game).
As for a breakdown of each mode, we’ll start with “Featured Modes.” These include Marathon, Computer Battle, Fever, and Survival mode. Marathon is, as you would expect, a lengthy session of classic Tetris that can be chosen to end at either 150 lines or to be endless. Purists will be happy that the endless spin only works for a set amount of time according to the current level you’re on (if you’re playing at a high level, it will hardly work at all). And, you’ve got your typical array of additions added to the mix including the ability to hold a Tetrimino until later in the match as well as the quick drop (by pressing up) to instantly drop your piece.
Next, computer battle pits you against a lineup of 10 Bomberman themed opponents (not quite the glamor of Tetris DS’s cast of Nintendo characters, most of them being strange bastardizations of the original Bomberman character). The goal is to knock out the other opponent by forcing him to build up to the top of the screen. Trash is thrown by clearing lines and items can be obtained by destroying flashing blocks and can be used by pressing X. The items are pretty cool but I found them to be more of an annoyance than anything and some of them were cheap (for instance, one item allows you to swap boards with the opponent instantly). I believe the difficulty level increases, as the later opponents seemed much more difficult to finish off, but the AI is only mildly intelligent, unfortunately (they pretty much use any item they get instantly, which means there is no thought process involved with switching boards, and you’ll often win the match because they trade their nearly cleared board for your hellishly stacked playing field).
As for Survival Mode, it’s basically the same rules as endless, except the width of the playing field is only 6 blocks as opposed to 10 and blocks constantly rise every few seconds. Finally, Fever mode seems to be the main new game added to the lot which gives you a 60 second time limit to accrue as many points as possible. In Fever mode, you can also choose to purchase items before the round, which appear randomly throughout the match and help to clear tiles more quickly. Also, throughout the match, you’ll enter a fever mode, depending upon the colors of the lines you destroy, which pushes you into a bonus round where you can clear an entire field of lines quickly using the same pieces. I found Fever to be a nice new addition to the Tetris universe because it acts as a nice balance to the game’s other classic Marathon mode, where Fever is about maximizing score in a short, set amount of time, and Marathon is an all-out endless match.
The next category of modes are “Party Modes” though there really isn’t much distinction as to why these are inherently different than the “Featured Modes” (though I will say most of them involve different forms of gameplay, but a few stick to the tried and true line clear formula). Amongst the Party Modes include Jigsaw, Shadow Wide, Fit, Tower Climber, Bombliss Plus, Stage Racer Plus, Capture, Master Mode, and Sprint.
Jigsaw changes the appearance of each Tetrimino into a jigsaw piece and your goal is to put them together properly to create the picture within the quickest amount of time. Next, Shadow Wide has you place your Tetriminos into a silhouette to form a shape. Fit is very similar to the Japanese game show Brain Wall, where a wall slowly approaches, and you have to place the blocks accordingly to fit through the hole in the wall. Tower Climber involves guiding a climber up a tower by placing blocks to create a pathway to the top. Bombliss Plus is a twist on the classic line clearing gameplay where bombs appear randomly on the pieces and must be used to destroy blocks. Stage Racer Plus has a number of courses and pieces to control and the goal is to get through a course by guiding the piece through conventionally and jumping over difficult obstacles. Capture mode flips the stage back and forth and forces you to collect stars by placing pieces on them. Master Mode is Marathon Mode on the highest speed, where blocks essentially drop as soon as the previous one is placed. Finally, Sprint is a race to clear 40 lines as quickly as possible. All in all, most of the party mode games are fun diversions from the main game and many of them had me playing for a few hours apiece (while others such as Bombliss and Capture are not so enjoyable).
The final set of 1-Player modes available are the AR Modes. These use the AR capabilities of the 3DS along with the Question Mark Block card that came with your system to project Tetris into the real world. There are only two modes that utilize this capability, which are AR Marathon, and AR Climber. The initial wow-factor of AR gaming is always an excitement but both of the games require you to move around the room and look at the card from different directions throughout so you’ll need ample room to play either game (and you probably want to do it when nobody is around if you don’t want to be made fun of ;-)
Multiplayer was a huge part as to why Tetris DS was such a great success. From battling foes across the world to keeping track of online leader boards, it was the first game to make online Tetris successful on a handheld. Tetris: Axis follows suit by giving players a number of multiplayer options. First and foremost, players can play local multiplayer via multi-card play as well as single-card download play. And, let’s not undermine the greatness of the game’s download play: up to 8 players can play using only one cartridge, which is a great way to have a party, provided you can find enough friends with 3DS’s.
Next, online multiplayer also features up to 8-player multiplayer. While waiting for a match, you can practice play until somebody enters your game. I found it a little difficult to find an opponent usually, since the game just came out and there probably aren’t a lot of people who own the game currently. However, once the match began, gameplay was seamless, without a hitch though the moves of the opponent were a little delayed. In order to make sure you’re facing opponents that are similar in skillset to you, each gamer starts with 5000 points the first time they play online. After pairing up with another opponent with around the same amount of points, the winner of the match steals points from the other opponent. The amount of points rewarded depends upon the amount of points you have compared to your opponent. Thus, if you defeat someone with a large amount of points higher than you, you’ll get many more points than they would if they defeated you.
The other major feature of online functionality is the leaderboards. These are great for any score or time based game, and they work very well in Tetris: Axis to give you goals as well as personal achievements. The game also gives you an incentive to submit your scores, as every day that you do so, you’ll receive 1000 free coins to spend on the Fever Mode game. However, despite the fact that there are a large amount of leaderboards, one for each of the games and modes within games, updating scores is a bit of a pain since you have to update scores individually rather than as a whole. Seeing as there are around 50 different scores kept track on your game, you’ll probably only want to submit the scores on games you do extremely well on.
And, to make matters worse, if you want to submit several scores, there are only a certain amount that you can submit before being blocked from doing so for the next 10 minutes (to preserve bandwidth I presume). This is easily worked around by playing a quick match but it’s annoying to have to go in and then out again just to update a lot of scores. Thus, it’s great that there are leaderboards and that there are ones for each game, but their inaccessibility makes them less than ideal and almost an afterthought for the majority of your scores.
One of the better parts of Tetris: Axis is that it does 3D very well. From the menus to the game, 3D looks great and the ability to change the camera angle to increase the effect is another cool addition. Also, AR is always a neat addition to any 3DS game. Unfortunately, however, playing Tetris in 3D is the first time that I’ve had issues with the 3DS’s stereoscopic 3D effects bothering me. It’s probably due to the fact that playing Tetris on a high level requires you to play instinctually with lightning fast responsiveness and this can only be accomplished by taking in the entire screen and using your peripheral vision to plan your next moves (other puzzle games require this as well along with DDR and Guitar Hero). You can probably understand that trying to use complexities such as peripheral vision are nigh on impossible when the 3D is toggled, and thus, I found myself turning it off indefinitely after experiencing it for a little while.
Graphically, I wouldn’t have expected the game to be spectacular. However, it would be nice to at least get some charm out of the graphics/presentation like was the case with Tetris DS. The fan service of old Nintendo classics was a great way to give the game life and it carried what could have been mediocre graphics and sound into being classic uses of old-school references. Tetris Axis’s fan service is in the form of Miis, and the charm is a little less enduring. It’s cool to see your Mii in the game, but its representation is quite cheesy. You can choose from 14 outfits, 15 hats, and 5 dances, but the visuals remind me too much of the Avatars from Xbox Live (which I found to be quite lame) and less like the Miis from any Nintendo system. Plus, the over-the-top dances that your character performs on the touch screen throughout gameplay are equally as tacky in my opinion.
Finally, the music features 13 different Tchaikovsky tunes to choose from. Unfortunately, the instruments sound like bad quality synthesizers and the resulting music is not up to par for the 3DS or the Tetris series for that matter. The main tunes are there but they aren’t as enjoyable to listen to as previous Tetris soundtracks and I often found myself either playing the game in silence or listening to something else.