Review: Tetris Ultimate

TetrisUltimate_3DS.jpg

Happy birthday, Tetris! You’re the big 3-0. It’ll be interesting to see if you hit your mid-life crisis at 40 like many humans go through, but that’s another 10 years away. For now you’re still going strong, as evidenced by yet another new release.

Tetris Ultimate, out now on Nintendo 3DS with PC, PS4 and Xbox One versions on the way later in the year and a Vita version planned for 2015, is the latest iteration of puzzle gaming’s G.O.A.T. (Greatest Of All Time), and the first major release since the excellent Tetris: Axis in 2011, also a 3DS game. For this new edition, many of the gimmicks and mode variants have been trimmed back to present a slightly leaner, meaner Tetris that’s refocused on the skill and purity of stacking Tetriminos. A quality over quantity approach, if you will.

The rules of Tetris have not changed: geometric shapes known as Tetriminos drop from the sky at an increasing rate of speed and must be rotated and moved from side to side in such a way that they fit together like jigsaw pieces and create complete horizontal rows. Rows created without any gaps are immediately removed from the playing area known as the matrix, and the cycle continues until an objective has been reached or blocks stack up to the top of the screen to cause a game over, depending on the mode. After three decades of Tetris games, I think everyone knows the drill by now.

While mechanically Ultimate plays no differently than any other Tetris, compared to the other recent versions this game does seem slanted heavier towards advanced Tetris play. In-game tutorials are available for players who need to brush up, but the game pretty much expects you to be able to pull off quadruple line clears, back-to-back combos, and T-spins like a Tetris Jedi Master. Sure, the game is a blast regardless of ability level, but if you aren’t an experienced player, you’re going to have trouble unlocking modes, earning badges and holding your own in the competitive multiplayer arena.

For Ultimate, all of the what might be considered fluff modes from previous installments, such as Fever, Shadow, Tower Climber, Stage Racer, Bombliss and Jigsaw, have been dropped, which may be a good or bad thing depending on how much value you found in those modes. (I’d still love to have Fever, Jigsaw and Shadow, but I really don’t miss the gimmickry of the others.) By comparison, the more than 20 modes in Axis is now a tidier 10 modes, including standard Marathon and Endless play, two battle modes–one with power-ups, one without–for multiplayer or versus CPU, a Sprint mode to clear 40 lines as quickly as possible, and Ultra mode, which simply challenges you to score as many points as possible in a fixed time limit of three minutes.

TetrisUltimate_3DS_1.jpg TetrisUltimate_3DS_2.jpg

Built primarily for advanced play, Challenge Mode offers four other variants: Rotation Lock, which drops random Tetriminos that cannot be rotated; Invisible, which causes Tetriminos to disappear after being “locked down” in the matrix, sort of like playing a game of Memory with puzzle blocks; Escalation, which increases the number of lines that need to be cleared per level; and Master, the ultimate test of Tetris skill in which blocks instantly hit the bottom of the matrix rather than steadily falling down the screen like usual.

Only a few of the modes are available at first boot-up, while the others are gated behind a progression system which requires achieving certain goals to unlock additional features. For the standard mode types, you typically just need to accomplish something in one of the other modes. For example, unlocking Endless Play requires clearing 15 levels in Marathon. Challenge modes, on the other hand, are unlocked by earning Badges, the Achievements/Trophies of the Tetris world. Even beginners should be able to earn at least 15 or so of the 50 total Badges in relatively short order, but from there the challenge requirements become pretty tough.

Alongside the Badge system, Tetris Ultimate attaches your Mii avatar to a stat and accomplishment tracking system called “My Tetris Self.” My Tetris Self keeps tabs on highs scores for each mode, line per minute average, every conceivable stat related to the methods of clearing lines, as well as an overall play time and completion percentage. As progress is made, your Mii’s ranking rises on a similar trajectory as earning colored belts in Karate class, from yellow belt all the way up to black belt, which is a neat touch. (Currently, I am a green belt, the 5th ranking on a scale of 8. Not too shabby, but still middle of the pack.)

Given the skill-based focus multiplayer naturally is a huge draw, and fortunately competing against others in the art of Tetrimino stacking is where the game excels. When you’re able to find other people to play with, of course. Ultimate has the capability of supporting up to 10 players offline or 8 players online, but currently the game does not have a huge online player base. Finding matches can be a bit of a crapshoot, but I have generally been able to find at least one other random person to face off against whenever hopping online. I have yet to get into a completely full match, but matches of three or four players going at once isn’t too uncommon at optimal hours. I’ve personally had greater success finding matches during the day more so than late at night for instance. Everyone seems to play standard Battle mode as well, as not once have I seen a multiplayer session going in any of the other modes.

When live matches aren’t available, the next option is to download replays of other players’ high scores and see if you can beat them by playing against their ghost. Locally, replays can be delivered from friends or other random players in your area via SpotPass and StreetPass, or you can hop online and download the replays from anyone on the leaderboards that has opted in to have their high score data uploaded. Playing against one other player’s ghost doesn’t deliver the same level of competitive frenzy as four or five players simultaneously online, but it’s still a great way to see how your skills stack up when no one’s available for true multiplayer action.

TetrisUltimate_3DS_3.jpg TetrisUltimate_3DS_4.jpg

The weakest link in this block puzzler package is the presentation. By no means does the game look bad, it’s just a matter of limited variety. It doesn’t matter which game mode you choose, the color scheme and background setting, aside from ever so slightly different visualizer effect patterns, remain the same. Similarly, there are only maybe two or three different audio remixes, and not a one captures the hypnotic catchiness of the original Tetris theme song. It’s a shame the customization options from Axis, which allowed for manually selecting music and visual themes before starting every game, are no longer available.

Audiovisual customization may be nonexistent, however gameplay customization options are impressively abundant. Heading into the gameplay options menu reveals a broad range of tweaks that can be made to suit your preferred style of play. Rule sets for how Tetriminos are locked down, randomized or rotated can be changed. The Hold Queue for manually stashing a single Tetrimino to pull out when needed can be turned on or off. The number of Tetriminos that appear previewed in the Next Queue can be set from 0 to 6. Even left/right movement speed and sensitivity sliders can be toggled. That’s the kind of stuff serious players will totally appreciate.

Every time there’s a new Tetris, I find myself saying, “I swear this will be the last one I ever play,” because honestly, once you have one Tetris game it always seems like there will never be a need to switch to another. And yet again, the franchise continues to find ways to not necessarily reinvent itself, but change enough to renew the addiction. Just when you think you’ve kicked the Tetris habit, there it is again, calling out to you for just one more game. I wouldn’t call Tetris Ultimate the ultimate version of Tetris, as in the best version of the game there’s been, but it’s definitely up there. While the 3DS already has Tetris: Axis, a great puzzler in its own right, I think serious Tetrimino maestros will find more to like about this version even if by the numbers there is less overall content.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Same Tetris gameplay, same Tetris addiction
+ Modes and progression structure reward skilled play
+ Fun multiplayer (when you can find matches) and replay ghost battles
+ In-depth gameplay customization options
+ No tacked-on 3DS gimmickry

Cons:
– Lacks audiovisual variety and customization
– Online multiplayer games can be hard to come by
– May not have the broad beginners appeal of previous installments
– Smaller mode lineup may be seen as a downgrade by some players

Game Info:
Platform: Nintendo 3DS (also coming to PC, PS4, Vita and Xbox One)
Publisher: Ubisoft
Developer: Ubisoft
Release Date: 11/13/2014
Genre: Puzzle
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Players: 1-10 offline, 1-8 online
Source: Review code provided by publisher

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!