Sunday, 15 August 2010

EDGE 200 - #108, Tetris

Prestigious UK-based gaming magazine EDGE celebrated their 200th issue last year with the world's first split run of 200 different magazine covers. Only 200 editions of each of the 199 images (plus a subscriber-only LittleBigPlanet cover) were issued; I ended up getting an original 80s OutRun cover. Even better, they released a limited postcard set of all 200 covers to new subscribers, which I couldn't resist. Now I've played my fair share of games, but with so little time and a semblance of a social life to also try and manage, there are many titles that have passed me by. To make up for this I'm using the postcard set as a framework, and am going to try and play through all (or as many as is possible) of the games featured in the list of 200 that I have yet to experience. The order I get through them is random, but it'll be interesting (and hopefully fun). However there aren't actually 200 individual games, which will make the task slightly easier (some games run across several postcards - Final Fantasy VI has four images to its name, for example).

For a full list of the EDGE 200 images click here.

Name: Tetris DS
Developer: Nintendo

"But really, to understand puzzle games you only need one word: Tetris" - Steven Poole.

I, like many gamers and non-gamers alike, have of course spent many hours of my life transfixed by Alexei Pajitnov's masterpiece of design. The Nintendo Game Boy Tetris, despite the plethora of variants, remains the definitive version. Not just for aesthetic reasons (though Tetris will always, to my eyes, be a game coloured in various shades of grey), but because Nintendo's inspired decision to bundle the game with the console prefigured their appropriation of such 'non-traditional' software as Brain Training for the Nintendo DS, to similarly stratospheric levels of success, some 16 years later. In 1992 alone Nintendo sold 32million Game Boys - virtually an entire generation was raised on this epic of raining blocks.

So it's somewhat apt that in 2006 Nintendo released, for their latest world-conquering portable console, what is now commonly regarded as one of the best versions of Tetris - handheld or otherwise - since that seminal 1989 'original'. It's this version of Tetris that I write about here; Tetris DS may not perfectly fit this feature's criteria - playing games as yet undiscovered, according to the framework of EDGE's special 200th issue postcards - but it feels fresh. Which, for a game so ingrained in our psyches, is quite some compliment.

The standard Marathon mode embodies the game's winning 8-bit spirit. As you play Tetris on the bottom screen, scenarios based on Super Mario Bros play out in parallel on the top; starting from the idyllic World 1-1 of green hills and ? blocks, progress in accumulating lines sees Mario venture further into his own game. By the time you're pushing in excess of 100 lines, Mario has made his way into the depths of Bowser's Castle. The speed at this point is frantic, the music recognisable as that which plays when the timer in Mario drops to below 100. Stop to think about the way Nintendo have extracted such natural synergy from two of its biggest properties, and you realise that no other developer can play on nostalgia and quotation with quite the same impact. It's also very very addictive, but then with Tetris that should go without saying.

But Tetris DS's genius is that the extra modes that surround this core game are crafted with an intelligence that not only make the most of the unique host hardware, but they actually make you think about Tetris as a game in new ways. Push Mode, for example, could only exist on DS. In this game type you have to make two or more lines simultaneously on the top screen to push the field of blocks further down into your opponent's bottom screen. It's basically Tetris tug-of-war, in which you're allowed to use double the standard play area, and where considerations of depth and the necessity of a base upon which to build lines becomes crucial. Touch Mode uses the touch screen, and here the emphasis is on exploiting space, as you drag the pre-stacked blocks to fill gaps, create lines and therefore decrease the tower's height until a cage of balloons touches the ground. By taking away the pressures of time and unstoppable momentum that are hallmarks of Tetris, Touch Mode puts value on patience and asks you to analyse the relationships between the pieces, whilst subverting the entire concept: you're building lines to reach an eventual goal, whereas you could argue that pure Tetris is ultimately a futile battle in which the goal is only to fend off losing for as long as possible.

Puzzle Mode is an extension of the ethos of Touch, in which you are given a puzzle on the top screen and a limited selection of pieces (or Tetriminos, to give them their official name) on the bottom. Here the focus on the relationship between space and shape is given an extra nuance, in that every piece you use from the limited options available must clear a line. Not just that, but the puzzle screen must be cleared by using all the Tetriminos on offer. Puzzle Mode again removes the constraints of time, and also allows you to consider the way shapes relate to each other. For example, the later puzzles require a degree of forward-planning, as using unconventional Tetriminos first often helps pave the way for the remaining shapes. It's not about whether the straight line or the square can clear the lines fastest, but which will be better placed first to then allow the second move. This also makes you aware that one of the keys to getting good at Tetris is to think several steps ahead. The most instantly gratifying decision is often not the best, and by using one shape at a certain point you can often set yourself up a lot better for subsequent moves.

Of the two remaining play styles Mission (standard Tetris, albeit one where to proceed you need to complete a succession of missions such as "Clear 3 lines at once!" that are communicated via the top-screen) is a frantic if somewhat compromised take on the standard game whilst Catch is the least successful feature. In this Metroid-set mode you control a core around which squares of 4x4 need to be built, thereby detonating and earning points/clearing enemies. In itself it would be a complex take on the falling blocks mechanic, but its presence in Tetris DS feels a little out of place given the revisionist takes on the pure concept elsewhere.

By focussing on the key aspects that contribute to the magic of Tetris - spatial awareness, the pressure of time and speed, relationships between shapes, the cohesive and continuous nature of the game space - the highlights of Tetris DS extract the essence of the beautiful game, and act as de facto lessons in mastering the art of falling blocks. The design of the menu screen is cyclical, which in hindsight is perhaps intentional. Having worked through all of Tetris DS's modes (most significantly Push, Touch and Puzzle) I arrived back at the classic Marathon mode. With everything I had learnt my first play saw me almost double my previous record*, a record that - prior to exploring the rest of the game - I had spent nearly two hours trying to beat. To understand Tetris it would seem you only need one game: Tetris DS.

*For the record: Marathon, High Score: 118022, Max Level: 13.

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