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Nintendo 3DS Review: Tetris: Axis

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Tetris is the most recognizable videogame puzzler of all time. Since its introduction in the ’80s, it has appeared on nearly every console. It was launch title for the original Gameboy and was considered that system’s first “killer app.”

Does Axis live up to its pedigree? It certainly tries its best by cramming as much as possible into one cartridge. Ultimately though, it is hampered by the 3DS hardware.

The basic game of Tetris is the same here. Differently shaped colored blocks (called tetrominos) fall from the top of the screen. Creating a solid horizontal line out of the blocks clears that line from the screen. Over the years a few tweaks have been added, but I don’t think any are new to this version. A piece can be held to be used at a more convenient time. Spinning a piece into place right before it locks is called a spin. If a spin clears a line, bonus points are given. HudsonSoft, the game’s developer, has not messed with what works. The basic gameplay is as fun and as addictive as ever.

The game’s menus are split into Featured Modes, Party Modes, AR Modes, Nintendo 3DS Local Play, Nintendo 3DS Download Play, and Internet. The Featured Modes include the most basic versions of the game. The four offered are traditional Tetris, a time attack mode, a versus CPU battle, and a survival mode. In the battle and time attacks modes, items can be earned. The items affect your strategy in interesting ways. For example one item flips your screen with your opponent. One stratagem is to deliberately mess up your play field and then switch with your foe.

Party Mode is not a collection of two-player games but rather a collection of puzzle modes, extreme tweaks to Tetris, and mini-games that use the tetrominos for entirely different things like racing. Different people will have different favorites but I found the Picross-like mini-game particularly charming. You are given a picture to reference then challenged to recreate it with the falling pieces.

There are two AR modes. They require the AR cards that came with the 3DS to play. There is AR Marathon where you try to clear 50 lines as quickly as possible and AR Climber where you stack pieces in a cylinder to advance a stick figure to the top of it. Both are incredibly frustrating. The AR card must be placed on a well-lit flat surface that you are able to move completely around (360 degrees). The blocks fall from all angles so unrestricted movement is important. It is an interesting idea but it is impossible to keep the AR card at its proper viewing distance while moving. It is doubtful many people have a surface allows them to play these AR games easily.

Nintendo 3DS Local Play and Nintendo 3DS Download Play let you face off against a friend with a 3DS. It takes quite some time to connect systems, but once you do there is no lag between them. VS. Battle and some of the odder multi-player variants are included here. VS. Battle is an effective way to play two player Tetris and using items is much more fun against a friend than against the computer.

The Internet option lets you play against friends or strangers over Nintendo Wi-Fi. The World Battle is the ranked version of online play. If you turn items on in World Battle you can play up to seven other players. Without items it is a one-on-one affair.  Like previous Nintendo Wi-Fi titles, you are given 5000 base points to start with. The higher you finish the more points you are given, and if you lose you have points taken away.  Online play is responsive, but most players will quickly tire of it. The games don’t always fill up and simply adding or losing points gives very little incentive to keep playing.

The graphics are crisp, clear, and sharp. The colors are pleasantly bright and there are a number of customization options. You can change the block style, change the background, and choose the frame around the playing area. Your Mii is shown on the side and you can even change what clothes it wears. Tetris doesn’t need a lot of visual bells and whistles but the extra bits don’t distract from the gameplay.

The 3D pops the playfield in front of the background and it pops the status bars (next pieces info, held items, etc.) in front of that. Having the playing field in the forefront would have been preferable; when it gets hectic you’re not looking at the next list anyway. The 3D adds nothing to the game mechanics, but does make the overall experience more immersive.

HudsonSoft didn’t take any drastic departures in the sound department either. The sound effects are what you expect Tetris to sound like. Over 10 background music tracks are available to choose from. They are not orchestrated but they are digitized well enough and are catchy enough to bore into your brain.

The developers have done a good job of giving a Tetris fans everything they would possibly want in a Tetris game. Unfortunately, what holds Axis back from being the definitive version is the 3DS. The d-pad on the 3DS is small, shallow, and inflexible compared to other d-pads. The face buttons are also small and too shallow. Playing in long stretches causes uncomfortable cramping in your thumbs. If you could also rotate pieces with the circle pad that would alleviate this complaint but you cannot. The d-pad is the only way to play. I oftentimes had to put the 3DS down earlier then I would have liked because my hands hurt too much. While that has happened in previous versions of the game, that was after hours of play not minutes.

HudsonSoft did so much right with this product. This could have easily been a sloppily executed cash-in that relied on the Tetris license but it’s not. The game is polished, the bevy of game modes are well thought out, and the customizations are welcome. For Tetris fans this is a must buy. For everyone else though, the 3DS hardware severely limits the possible enjoyment they could get out of it. This is a near killer-app for the 3DS, which is ironically hurt by being on the 3DS.

Tetris: Axis is rated E (Everyone) by the ESRB

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About Mark Kalriess