After 100 iterations, Tetris largely remains the same. Which is to say, near-perfect. While some new variation, adaptation or port is released each year, the concept — arranging a series of blocks to neatly fit into tight spaces — hasn’t needed an upgrade since its inception in 1984. Rather than spoil what works, updates to the franchise have instead tried different aesthetics and new optional modes to make the game feel fresh.
The history of Tetris is largely redundant. The main idea behind Tetris has stood the test of time despite fancy graphics and superfluous campaigns. So yes, it’s a surprise that a visually flashy Tetris with new rules is one of our favorite games of 2018.
GOTY #4: TETRIS EFFECT
For our 2018 guide to the best games of the year, Polygon has been counting down our top 10 each weekday, ending with our top choice — hello! — as well as the full list of our top 50 favorites from 2018. And throughout the month, we’ll be looking back on the year with special videos, essays and surprises!
The visual overhaul and new game modes in Tetris Effect aren’t as surface-level as in their predecessors; rather, they reimagine what Tetris could be. In the film world, it’d be called a reboot.
The original Tetris had little flair beyond a simple set of blocks waiting to be organized. While the game eventually got some upgraded branding in those early days, it wasn’t until 1987’s IBM PC version where Tetris developed a visual motif that would characterize it for decades.
To help the game stand apart from gaudy arcade fare, publisher Spectrum Holobyte decided to lean into its Russian roots in a crass play to exoticize the game. Russian architecture and text adorned the game’s box art, while 8-bit melodies reminiscent of the country’s traditional music chirped along with the gameplay.
No other game looked like it at the time. The deliberate choice of a deeply ethnic aesthetic and music stood in stark contrast to the medieval fantasy and retro-futuristic style of so many games of the decade.
These design choices, despite everything that followed in the decades after, left an indelible mark on Tetris. So much of the game’s identity would, for years, be linked to the Russian concept. As much as each iteration tried to add its own twist to the game, the familiar look and sound of the Russian-themed Tetris persisted.
Until Tetris Effect.
Born from the pedigree of designer Tetsuya Mizuguchi, Tetris Effect is the culmination of years of innovative and evocative design. Mizuguchi’s catalog is the embodiment of a creative philosophy that aims to merge gameplay, music and emotion. When working in full harmony, those elements can create transcendent experiences.
He’s uniquely talented at imbuing blunt, mechanical genres like the on-rails shooter (Rez) and the color matching puzzle game (Lumines) with emotional weight. More than any other game maker, Mizuguchi seems locked into creating works of intense synesthesia.
While Mizuguchi is best known for his original concepts, he had long wanted to take a crack at Tetris, even as far back as the early 2000s. That plan never came to fruition; at that time, Electronic Arts held the license. Instead, Lumines, a rhythm-based music game, was born.
In hindsight, Lumines feels like a rough draft for the Tetris Effect project. Everything about Lumines revolves around its club-centric soundtrack and how the music merges with the gameplay. The PlayStation Portable pulses along to the pace of each song, lines clear in time with the music, and new tracks crossfade in as the player progresses. The artful curation of licensed songs like Mondo Grosso’s “Shinin’” plus original music made the soundtrack just as unforgettable as the gameplay. Playing for extended periods, players like me would begin to see solutions to the puzzle within the real world, our brains trying to organize the abstract shapes around us.
The impression Lumines left on players mirrored the actual Tetris effect, a scientifically researched phenomenon.
In 2000, a Harvard Medical School study showed that some participants could not get the imagery of Tetris out of their head after playing. They saw the game’s blocks in their dreams or whenever they closed their eyes. The repetitive nature of the game left an impression on their subconscious. That effect is something Mizuguchi wanted to take one step further with his new version of Tetris, which shares the phenomenon’s name.
Tetris Effect is an attempt to fully take advantage of this mind-and-body experience. Each of the game’s 30 stages amplify the Tetris effect. Every movement, sound effect and puzzle piece harmonizes with that core Tetris gameplay. When you’re playing Tetris Effect, you’re not only playing a puzzle game; you’re the maestro for an entire audiovisual experience.
When players really get into the zone, Mizuguchi’s hope is that they feel deep feelings of love, calmness or intensity. That is so uncommon for a puzzle game, of all things, as game makers have largely pushed these emotions toward other genres focused on story.
Yet Tetris Effect underscores the magic of video games. They don’t need a plot or cinematics, fancy visuals or new modes. A great game can simply create a feeling; Tetris Effect excels because, for perhaps the first time, it takes the internal feeling of the original Tetris and makes it external.
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