Alright, I’ll level with you: Tetris Attack doesn’t appear near the top of many “Best Games of All Time” list.
I know, right? I was surprised, too. But here’s the thing: look at just about ANY list of that nature, and you’re bound to notice something. Something about Tetris. How about this? Or this? Or THIS? (Yeah, that last link is ugly, but it goes to prove my point.)
Tetris is widely considered to be among the top five games of all time. Sometimes it’s given the top spot. This almost certainly has to do with the fact that the authors of these lists usually take into account both a game’s continued playability and its influence on the medium when choosing rankings. Tetris, being both the progenitor of the puzzle genre and the single most ported game in the medium (It’s true! Look it up!), rightfully scores high in both of these areas. It has cemented its place as a classic for all time.
I’ve played Tetris, though. Who needs a review of Tetris? You don’t need to tell me whether or not you should go back and play Tetris: You already have. We all have. It was bundled with the Game Boy I got for Christmas when I was six years old. Technically, it was the first game I owned.
Tetris Attack isn’t Tetris, though. Tetris Attack has about as much to do with Tetris as Bejeweled has to do with being a real jeweler.
Alright, maybe that’s a little disingenuous. They’re both puzzle games. They both involve making rectangles disappear. They both rely on a growing sense of panic and urgency to drive the player mad as their speed increases. But it turns out that Tetris Attack is just a title that Nintendo slapped on the game because they know no red-blooded American was going to buy something called “Panel de Pon.”
There’s something about puzzle games, though, as a genre: because they’re not shackled to expectations of narrative or graphical fidelity, they rely entirely on the gameplay and the feel of the game to engage the player. While pretty colors and happy sounds can definitely enhance an experience (and here I tip my hat to Peggle, that irrepressible nugget of charm), the reason we as gamers approach these titles is for the mechanics. Part of the reason that Tetris feels so timeless is that the mechanics haven’t aged.
Tetris Attack has exceptionally good mechanics. Yes, the aim of the game is to match three like-colored shapes, and yes, that’s pretty simple. But Tetris Attack abandons the frequent puzzle trope of having things fall from the sky–instead, the tiles rise from beneath your stacks, and you are tasked with unloading the pile before it reaches the top of the screen.
Oh, big deal, you say. Things rising instead of falling. Like that changes anything.
Well, actually, it kind of does. The player’s need to anticipate what piece is coming next is a staple of the puzzle genre, and games like Tetris, Columns, Dr. Mario, Puyo Puyo, and heck, even Yoshi’s Cookie create tension by dividing the player’s attention between the field of play and the little window that tells them the future.
Other puzzle games, like Puzzle Quest and Bejeweled, remove the tension of timing altogether and allow the player to concentrate on a static field of objects to manipulate.
Tetris Attack is the best of both worlds: there is a constant (oftentimes nerve-wracking) pressure to keep making moves, to flip tiles around, to do something oh god OH GOD–but because the tiles are always coming up from the bottom of the screen, line by line, you can always focus your attention on where you’re playing. When you rack up combos, the rising tide of tiles halts for a few precious seconds as you take in the screen, sometimes staring through the colors altogether, trying to find the next move you can make before your brief reprieve is over.
Tetris Attack occasionally feels like Bejeweled with a timer, but at the higher speeds and difficulties it requires a zen-like focus and the same sort of reflexes that make the original Tetris so exciting. The last level of the single-player “campaign” (if you can call it such a thing) took me so many tries that I was nearly ready to give up, but when I finally succeeded it was in such a state of absolute concentration and awareness that upon the completion of the level, I realized that I had been holding my breath.
So: Should you go back and find a copy of Tetris Attack to play? If you have more than a passing interest in puzzle games, I’d have to say yes. Tetris Attack is definitely one of the best I’ve played, and it has a distinct feel that is worth experiencing.
You have a couple of different options: It’s a delight to play in its original SNES incarnation (provided you have nothing against the cast of Yoshi’s Island), especially against a skilled opponent. This is the version I played, and I enjoyed it thoroughly… though it might be hard to get a hold of! Apparently there was an N64 version of the game, reskinned to feature everyone’s favorite pocket monsters, titled Pokemon Puzzle League. I’ve still never put more than forty-five minutes into anything with the Pokemon name on it (gives me a chance to write about it here!), but Wikipedia tells me that the N64’s processing power makes the gameplay go down even smoother. Pokemon Puzzle League is up on the Wii’s Virtual Console if you’re willing to plunk some money down on it. Maybe you’re a fan of the Pokemans! This could be right up your alleyway, so to speak.
Something tells me, though, that your best bet might be Planet Puzzle League for DS or the somewhat truncated Puzzle League Express (available in the DSiWare shop). Puzzle games fare really well on handheld devices (there’s a reason the original Tetris was a pack-in for the Game Boy), and I could see myself losing some serious hours to a Panel de Pon port if I could carry it with me. If Nintendo didn’t have such a monolithic philosophy and was willing to release a cheap port of Panel de Pon to the smartphone market, it could make approximately a bajillion dollars. Playing versus mode over bluetooth? Sign me up.
Ah well. We can dream. If you’ll excuse me, I think I might go play just one more round…