Friday 12 December 2014

Snes Review : Tetris & Dr. Mario (Game 066)

Standing on tip-toes my daughter holds a Lego brick as high as she can. She then slowly lowers her arms & places it precisely on the floor. Turning around she picks up another brick & proceeds to do exactly the same thing, holding the second brick high in the air then lowering it to put it neatly against the first. It looks like she is performing some sort of bizarre ritual so I ask her exactly what it is she's doing. "I'm doing the "tidying game" like you played". I didn't realise she had watched me playing 'Tetris' but now she explained it seemed so obvious. But what was most surprising about this all was how my four year old daughter had distilled 'Tetris' down to a two word description.
It's a game where irregularly shaped Blocks fall from the top of the screen and by rotating them you find a place to put these ‘tetrominos’ within a limited play space. Filling a line with blocks makes it disappear but the challenge comes from not all the blocks tessellating, as this leaves gaps which you can't fill owing to others blocks obstructing access to them. Leave too many gaps  and the blocks have nowhere to fall to and when the screen is full the game is over. It's a game about finding order in a world of chaos. It's about lateral thinking and space manipulation. It's the "tidying game".

'Tetris' therefore is a game that's so simple a four year old can understand the overall aim from just a quick glance. Perhaps it's because of this ease of access that Super Play magazine once called it "the world’s most popular game". Mario may well be the industry’s most recognisable character but not everyone would be able to name a game he is in or what he does in that game. Everyone knows 'Tetris' and they also know how to play it. This has a lot to do with a certain black and white version that came bundled with a Nintendo handheld. Indeed, some may argue that the GameBoy version has never been better in the 25 years since its release. Uncomplicated by gimmicks or even colours, it's the purist form of Alexey Pajitnov’s 'Tetris' there has ever been, which is perhaps why it's so universally appreciated. You have to pity any developer that has had to create a 'Tetris' game since, especially at a time when everyone owned a copy since Game Boys were still for sale. Designer Pajitnov himself has said the Game Boy version of ‘Tetris’ is his favourite version, so how can you improve on perfection? 

Nintendo consulted Game Boy designer Gunpei Yokoi to find a solution which lead to the idea of bundling 'Tetris' with another similar NES and Game Boy puzzle game called 'Dr Mario'. Like 'Tetris' this game had things falling from the top of the screen which had to be carefully placed. The goal now was not to clear rows of already fallen blocks though. Now the task for the player was to vaporise germs by placing pills of a matching colour on top of them.   The two games clearly share the same DNA, and as a result Nintendo saw fit to not only bundle them together but also to try and fuse them into one game called 'Mixed Match' where a player challenges an opponent alternating rounds of 'Tetris' and then 'Dr. Mario.' As is often the case though, this medley of titles is worse than the sum of its parts. Flicking between the two similar, yet different, games is confusing and not fluid at all. Every time the game switched between the two titles I had to pause while my brain took stock of what I was meant to be doing; should I be stacking these blocks or using them to clear others? It's made worse by the fact that each player advances to next stage regardless of what the other player is doing.
 The first player for example can advance a level and start playing 'Dr. Mario' while the second player is still in a 'Tetris' stage. Seeing a similar looking yet different game in your peripheral vision is disorientating. Also since they two players can be playing different games at any given moment what they do has no bearing on their opponent. Traditionally much of the multiplayer enjoyment in these sorts of puzzle games comes from your success punishing your opponent. For example, clearing multiple rows of bricks in your Tetris grid sends incomplete rows onto your opponent’s grid. They then have to clear this "garbage" while still dealing with their falling bricks. This makes the game feel like a competition, and without your success punishing your opponent 'Mixed Match' mode ends up being a simple race. If you're playing alone however it's a race with no active opposition as there is no opportunity to play against the computer in 'Mixed Match'. 
If the selling point of this compilation was this unique fusion of 'Tetris' and 'Dr Mario ' they were promoting the wrong thing. Like a Hawaiian Pizza two great tastes don't taste great together. Fortunately the games can be played in their original form and both games are better like this. The games are identical to the original NES versions with the exception of a 16 bit visual and audio overhaul. Both games offer their classic single player modes and a two player versus modes. Unlike the Game Boy versions multiple cartridges, systems and link cables are not needed to enjoy a multiplayer experience of course. Even, without a friend the computer AI presents a pretty intense challenge, even on lower levels. "Vs Com" matches across both games are best of three matches although there is nothing but a fanfare awaiting you should you win.

If you're playing alone though the single player modes should obviously be your go to. anyone used to playing more recent 'Tetris' games or 'Dr Luigi' on the 3DS, may be surprised  at how stripped back the original games are. Free from gimmicks or complicated game mechanics both games are simple and distilled. Playing them now reminds you just how pleasurable simple puzzle games can be. They prove uncluttered game play can be just as rewarding as feature packed special modes. You'd be wrong to think that either game is monotonous without their modern bells and whistles though. In 'Tetris' particularly, the simple original mechanics still allow so many the different ways to play. Do you play it safe and just clear lines one by one or wait for that long thin block that allows four rows to vanish at once. There's a reason these games are so well known; even in their purist forms they are just so pleasurable and addictive. Perhaps this is why, Official Nintendo Magazine ranked the original version of Tetris their fifth “Best Nintendo Game”, above numerous modern iterations.  

'Tetris & Dr. Mario' should really be looked at as a compilation of the two games and never the two should mix. Thankfully the only thing to have changed from the original Nes games is the music and graphics. This leaves you with a cartridge hosting two puzzle games that look 16bit pretty, but remain so simple and engaging that even a four year old will want to re-enact them.

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