Review: Electronic Arts Tetris
As launch day buyers of Nintendo's original 1989 Game Boys, we're on record as being long-time fans of Tetris, the Russian block-dropping game that helped to spark a portable gaming revolution and created an entire genre of similar puzzle titles. We've also enjoyed many of the game's official sequels and semi-sequels, particularly the excellent titles Bombliss and Tetrisphere, but none of them have stopped us from going back and enjoying the game that started it all. Now the iPod has its own version of Tetris ($5), and there's somewhat good news for newcomers to the series. [Updated July 23, 2008: We have added a new section to this September 25, 2006 review with information on the iPhone/iPod touch version of Tetris, as well as updated rating information. Please see the end of this review for the new details.]
Developer Electronic Arts has given Tetris a sweeping audiovisual overhaul. Strong blue menus and cool translucent overlays make the interface attractive, while the in-game art - famously rendered entirely usable on the Game Boy’s black and white screen - is detailed and colorful, with vibrant blocks and clean backdrops. The 10 by 20 block well is clearly illustrated block-by-block for strategic block placement, while the blocks have highlighted edges that look ever-so-slightly three-dimensional. EA has also remixed the classic Tetris music, adding a more modern techno air to the the old Russian soundtrack, though you can no longer select from several songs at the start - a sad omission given the game’s musical roots, and the iPod’s.
The only bad news here is, like Pac-Man, in the controls. Rather than trying to emulate a joystick or joypad with two buttons - the default way to play Tetris since its inception - EA lets you move left and right by sweeping your finger in a rotary fashion on the Click Wheel, and rotates blocks with clicks on the Click Wheel’s left and right sides. Down drops the block instantly to the bottom, while the Center action button moves the block downwards at a pace faster than gravity but slower than the down button. In a phrase, this control scheme is sub-optimal - rotating with buttons and moving left and right with a rotary controller really doesn’t make sense - and begs for user-selectable control schemes. For no good reason, this default control scheme takes time to get used to, and still doesn’t really feel right once you’ve spent time with it, though we found it more tolerable overall than with Pac-Man.
In our view, Tetris is a gimme of a game title for virtually any system, particularly when it’s been blessed with improved graphics and music, but on the iPod, its great looks and sounds are undercut by an unnecessarily mediocre control scheme. If you’re willing to adjust the way you’ve played Tetris before - something we wouldn’t do - you’ll get more enjoyment out of this title than we did.
iPhone/iPod touch Version
Out of all the revised Click Wheel iPod Games we’ve tried on the iPhone, Electronic Arts’ Tetris is definitely the best. Unlike Scrabble and Sudoku, which the company ported with little thought or attention to the iPhone platform, Tetris has received a huge overhaul from the original iPod game. The Tetris well is now bigger, more detailed, and more colorfully framed than before, with cool little touches of animation during level-to-level transitions; similarly, the music is better, more upbeat, and interestingly composed. We miss the original Nintendo Game Boy Tetris’s user-selectable music—a hint of the best old tune appears in a nicely animated introduction to EA’s iPhone version—but what’s here is actually quite good.
The big news here, however, isn’t audiovisual; it’s the gameplay. EA should really have considered christening this title with a new name like Tetris Touch, as it’s a few steps beyond the original game in terms of interactivity. You can play the classic block-dropping game as everyone knows it, or you can enter Magic mode, where a collection of new touchscreen-friendly powers have been added to the game: one transforms the whole board into bubblewrap to let you pop problematic blocks, another lets you draw the block of your choice to replace whatever’s currently dropping, another lets you shake the iPhone to eliminate empty spaces, and still another drops wrecking balls around to crush whatever you shake them into touching. These tricks add a lot of fun to the classic Tetris formula, and a Holding area—a place where you can store one block for deployment at a time of your choice—further improves the experience.
If there are any issues with the new version of Tetris, they’re two: the touch controls and pricing. EA’s gesture-based control over the blocks works wonderfully most of the time—better than the ill-fated original version of Tetris for the iPod 5G—but there are times when you’ll accidentally quick-drop a block when trying to bring it down gently, thanks to overly similar finger motions that should be differentiated. Additionally, the $10 price remains pricey given the range of great $5 iPhone titles out there. But given how much EA has done to really make good use of the iPhone and render a once-great title even better for this device, we think the premium here is as close to worth it as we’ve yet seen. The new version of Tetris is highly recommended.