Review: Tetris: Axis

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The last time I played a game of Tetris, I came away ready for the series to “just go away already” and leave well enough alone. A year later, I’m hooked on Tetris like the good old days of 8-bit NES blocks and the even cruder black-and-white Tetrimino dropping seen on the original Game Boy. It’s funny how things can turn around so quickly with a simple change of venue and a few key mode additions.

Tetris: Axis, developed exclusively for Nintendo 3DS, ticks off all the traditional Tetris boxes. Tetriminos float down the screen in various shapes, sizes and colors, and, using the D-pad to move and face buttons to rotate, it’s your job to manipulate them into complete lines to clear blocks before they pile up too high and fill up the play area. The longer you play, the faster the blocks fall and the more challenging it becomes to survive death by a thousand falling shapes. Come on now, do I really need to explain how Tetris is played at this point?

The twist giving the game its ‘Axis’ subtitle, is the new ability to pause the game and use the Circle Pad to tilt the playing field (known as the Matrix) on its axis. In combination with the 3D screen, this allows you to set the angle in positions where it can look like the Tetriminos are falling towards you or into the screen. But for the most part it’s a pointless feature, as trying to fit shapes together at an off angle is hardly ideal if you intend to score big points. Similarly, the two included AR (augmented reality) modes are more gimmick than functional. Being able to play Tetris on a Matrix hovering above your coffee table is fun for a one-shot, but it’s too tough to line things up while also having to physically move your body around the AR card to maintain perspective and battle the 3DS’ slow, finicky, and unreliable real-time camera tracking.

On the whole, the presentation isn’t anything to write home about – I still long for a return of the retro NES game themes from Tetris DS – but the colors are familiar and appealing, there are some fetching backdrops of starry skies, nighttime cityscapes and snowy forests, and your Mii avatar boogies away on the bottom screen as the remixed Tetris theme and other classical tunes soothingly strum into your ears. Before you start a mode, you are free to set the music, background, block appearance and frame style, and your Mii can be customized with different outfits and dance moves. His/her constant groovin’ may become distracting for those with a wandering eye, but for the most part you should be too focused on the puzzle grid to notice.

I actually do like how the game uses 3D in certain modes. In Shadow Wide mode, for example, the objective is to stack Tetriminos in line with a shaded background template of different objects, such as a UFO or a cute little piggy. While the image is coming together on the 2D Matrix, the polygonal object slowly builds before your eyes on the top screen like a Picross or LEGO sculpture, and with the Circle Pad you can rotate the 3D object in real time. Small things like this are what give existing modes a shot in the arm.

In terms of modes, Tetris: Axis matches last year’s Tetris Party Deluxe almost identically, and then adds more to it to give you over 20 different ways to slam Tetriminos on top of each other. The mainstay Marathon mode is back for classic endless play, and modern mode variants like CPU Battle, Stage Racer, Bombliss, Tower Climber and Sprint return from previous outings on DS and Wii. For multiplayer, multiple mode options are available across local, single-card download, and online play for upwards of eight players. The online portion doesn’t seem to be as populated as the Tetris Party games in the early goings and the Duel Spaces mode has been trimmed out, but the performance has been solid when I’ve found other puzzle geeks to battle.

These modes are great as always, but it’s the new content that gives Axis the edge on any other Tetris game ever released. Yes, I said EVER. At the top of the list is Fever mode. In Fever mode, the Matrix shrinks down to only six grid cubes wide (I believe 10-12 is the traditional width), and you have 60 seconds to clear as many lines as possible. At the end you are rewarded with coins based on your finishing score, and between rounds you can use these coins to purchase power-up items to help give an extra boost as you play onward.

It feels familiar, but the quick timing and limited space add a sense of urgency I’ve never experienced playing a Tetris game before, and because the rounds come so fast and furiously, it’s hard to stop until you’ve one-upped yourself again and again. Seriously, good luck tearing yourself away once you get started – the “just one more game” cycle will have you playing obsessively into the wee hours of the night, dreaming of Tetriminos dancing around in your skull when you finally do manage to hit the power button and go to sleep.

Survival mode is similar to Fever in that it too takes place on a narrow Matrix, but instead of playing to a timer the task is simply to fight off a game over for as long as you can, all the while the playing field fills up from both directions. Again, it’s a fast and addictive twist on a familiar mechanic.

Another new mode I like is Jigsaw. As the name suggests, this mode has you putting together images that have been broken into jigsaw pieces shaped like Tetriminos. The completed image is shown on the bottom screen as reference, and as the pieces fall you have to look at the picture and quickly fit them into place on an empty grid. If you misplace a piece, a 10-second penalty is applied to the countdown. There are 20 image puzzles total, and you can even have a photo stored on your 3DS turned into a puzzle. A worthwhile party mode indeed.

Fever mode by itself has completely changed my outlook on contemporary Tetris, and once again the legendary puzzler that just won’t quit has become an unshakable obsession of mine. Yes, the look of the game is a bit stale compared to past versions, but the sheer volume of content is staggering, the newly introduced modes add greater substance than expected, and things like achievements and global score rankings only prolong the addiction. If you have the cash, Tetris: Axis most definitely has the stash.

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Pros:
+ Great new modes like Fever, Survival and Jigsaw
+ A ton of modes and options overall
+ Smart use of 3D throughout
+ Newsflash: Tetris is addictive!

Cons:
– Presentation is pretty stale
– Axis and AR features are all gimmick
– Another yearly Tetris game may be hard to stomach

Affiliate Links:
Buy from Amazon or eStarland

Game Info:
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: Hudson Soft
Release Date: 10/2/2011
Genre: Puzzle
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Players: 1-8 (local, download play, and online)
Source: Review copy provided by publisher

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About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!