If console makers are lucky, in every generation there comes a game that compels people to buy their hardware. For Nintendo's Game Boy, that game was Tetris — a ground-breaking cartridge for a ground-breaking system. It was simultaneously the first video game and the first gaming system I ever bought for myself, and yet we somehow never managed to publish a review of Tetris here on RPGFan. I replayed it recently, and was amazed at how well it holds up even today. Sure, these days, even my smart watch can produce more complex graphics than the Game Boy, but nothing on my watch has ever changed my life or touched my heart the way Tetris and its incredible story did.
We're well past the statute of limitations on that story, but I still want to avoid the biggest spoilers here, so don't expect to read about Tetris' ending in this review — I can't rob you of the enjoyment of learning for yourself the true reason L Piece and S Piece fit together so well. There are things I can still talk about, though, like the friendship between two of the most famous party members, Straight Piece and Square Piece. They start out like something out of a bad buddy cop movie: "Straight Piece is so by the book. He thinks he's the best, but he's really just annoying." "Square Piece just wants to clear lines as fast as possible, no matter how many friends he loses or people he leaves dead and bloodied along the way." And yet, as the game progresses and things fall into place faster and faster, they realize that they truly have to depend on each other and work together if they want to bring in the big score. All of the Pieces have their part to play, and things would truly fall apart if you removed any one of them.
In terms of gameplay, the sheer number of imitators and remakes Tetris has gathered over the years is all the testament you need to its greatness. Some of them have been pretty remarkable in their own right, but for me (and yeah, maybe this is nostalgia talking), the Game Boy version has never been topped. It's a roguelike that's different from any other I've ever played, and as you get to its highest levels, the only thing that will keep your party alive is your quick reflexes. I'll admit that there are times that the AI makes what seem like questionable choices in terms of the order in which it queues up your party members. In fact, you're guaranteed to feel like it is actively working against you from time to time, but if you can roll with the punches, there's a lot of joy to be had in figuring out how to succeed when a single attack from Straight Piece would take the heat off of the entire party, but he refuses to make an appearance (he's probably off doing paperwork).
And as fun as the standard gameplay is, Tetris was way ahead of its time in its inclusion of two modes: a story mode where you can play until your fingers fall off, and a mission-based challenge mode that doesn't directly advance the story but does give you extra cutscenes showing little slices of life for Tetris' NPCs. They build the world and make the challenge mode feel like it's not just tacked on — it's a way for you to truly get the most out of the experience.
I realize that not everyone is into action-based games for their story, but even those folks shouldn't neglect the challenge mode. During Tetris' fast-paced play on higher levels, even putting the game on pause can be a recipe for death when you unpause and can't get back into the groove quickly enough. And as with most roguelikes, when you start over, you're back to level 1, which means you don't get the practice you really need to succeed at higher levels. The true brilliance of the challenge mode is that it allows you to jump right in at a high level and even set yourself up with a handicap to mimic the experience of needing to recover at a high level from mistakes made earlier in the game, thus helping you improve your game so that you can reach the highest levels of the main mode and finally find out the rest of the story. I know airships are seen as kind of hackneyed these days, but it's only thanks to the challenge mode that I ever got to see the team's space shuttle.
Of course, for fast-paced gameplay to succeed, you need tight controls, and Tetris does not disappoint in that regard. It keeps things simple and responsive, which allows you to chain your party members together to unleash some truly devastating combos. Pulling off the game's namesake four-line blockbuster Tetris attack is mighty satisfying, but setting things up perfectly for T Piece, Square Piece, or either of the L brothers to knock out two or three lines at once feels pretty great too. Sure, when you inevitably mess up a command, you can blame the game, but you know in your heart that your own fingers are really the ones to blame.
And what would a review of Tetris be without a mention of its presentation? No review at all, that's what. As I said earlier, both graphical and audio fidelity have improved by leaps and bounds since 1989, but even if you played Tetris all the way back when it was first released almost 30 years ago, I guarantee that its music started running through your head the instant you started reading this review. It's catchy but not distracting, and when things are going badly and the music changes to its tense version, it just motivates you to truly focus and find a way to heal up until your party is back in control of the situation. The game even gives you a choice between three (equally outstanding) soundtracks! And while the characters are blocky and angular by today's standards, it's a stylistic choice that you can't help but respect. The way that the Pieces are united in purpose is mirrored in the way they are united in their visual design, giving you the surety that they can work together and come out on top no matter what adversity they face. It would be wrong to judge their technical merits compared to what the 3DS or Vita can produce, but they are crisp and have a charm that resonates even now.
Clearly, Tetris had a huge impact on me as a gamer, and if you played it, I'm sure it had a big impact on you as well. If you never played the original, you owe it to yourself to find a way to do so. After seeing the Pokémon re-release this year, I wouldn't be surprised to see Tetris come out again in 2019 for its 30th anniversary, but I hope you don't wait that long. This unbelievable combo of timeless music, solid art design, responsive controls, tight gameplay, and unforgettable story make up the formula that sold 118 million Game Boys all those years ago, and you really need to find out for yourself why. And when you play it, do me a favor: don't give up on Straight Piece just because he seems like a prima donna or on Z Piece just because he sometimes struggles to find his place on the team. They'll come around.
© 2016 Nintendo, Bullet-Proof Software and Nintendo. All rights reserved.