Tetris is a foolhardy game to build on. It’s not like a Mario Kart or Castlevania clone where you’ve got large amounts of room to make changes and deviations. Tetris is a near-perfect game where very little of the core gameplay can be tweaked or improved; we’ve developed ingrained muscle memory from playing it, to the point where changing something just feels wrong.
It’s a mighty challenge for Tetraminos – Xbox Series X|S, a game that actively tries to update Tetris. You might even call it impossible. And for a game on as small a budget as this one clearly is, you’d expect the challenge to be insurmountable. But Tetraminos does a better job than you might think.
There are three single-player modes and one multiplayer mode in Tetraminos. The first is Endless, which is the Tetris that you’ve likely played the most. Blocks fall slowly, until enough lines are created to nudge the levels – and the speed – higher. Things escalate quickly, and it’s a fight to keep the blocks from reaching the top of the screen. It’s timeless and works well here.
Then there’s Challenge, which has also become a Tetris mainstay over the years. Instead of aiming for the greatest score, you’re trying to meet a threshold of lines. Each challenge requires increasing numbers of cleared lines – 1, 5, 10, 15 etc – which subtly changes how you play. Instead of waiting for the 1×4 block to pull off an almighty Tetris, you are snatching single lines where you can.
That leaves Puzzle, which attempts to make Tetris into a problem to be solved. You have a limited number of turns to remove all the blue blocks that have been fly-tipped in the game window. To make this a challenge, the blue blocks are arranged in a crude manner, with overhangs and underhangs, large gaps and small.
Puzzle is probably the most innovative of the three single-player modes, and unfortunately we weren’t altogether taken with it. Tetraminos only has a couple of tricks in its pocket (impossible-to-reach gaps and hard-to-reach gaps), which means that most puzzles play out in the same way. There’s admittedly some interest in trying to achieve the minimum number of turns/blocks, but we didn’t find it enough of a prospect to keep persisting.
Then there’s Multiplayer, which is both more and less than we expected. The ability to play four-player locally is pretty damn spangly. It’s not Tetris 99 on the Nintendo Switch, but four players simultaneously is unexpectedly generous, and it all works well. It’s a variant of Endless mode, except your completed lines send unwanted broken lines to another player’s screen. It’s been done before, but when Tetris Effect: Connected still won’t drop below £20 in the sales, it might not be a bad option.
But it’s simultaneously less than expected, simply because there’s only one mode. When single-player has three, it’s a shame to rock up to a co-op party and only have one game option available. Would it have taken much work to adapt Challenges for more than one player?
The presentation is bland and clinical, and when you stack it up next to Tetris Effect: Connected, it becomes a painful comparison – like comparing the Mona Lisa to a Tupperware lid. It’s really down to how much you care: Tetraminos – Xbox Series X|S isn’t cheap at £8.39, but it’s still significantly cheaper than some competition, so the visual flourishes might not matter if value is more important.
But what might matter are the changes to the basic formula. Much of Tetraminos – Xbox Series X|S remains the same, but there are some changes that stand out like a sore thumb. First of all, the title is a lie. A tetromino is a block with four squares, but there are many blocks here that are not. There’s a five-block in the shape of a cross. There are three-blocks in the form of a corner piece and three-line. And there is a two-block and a one-block.
That might seem like blasphemy. It took us a while to wrap our heads around it. Including them certainly does change the way you play: the one and two-blocks are always valuable, as they benefit any layout. In fact, you can pretty much drop them anywhere and be in a better place than before, so you tend to use them as a breather. You can relax and think about the next block, rather than panic about the one you’ve been lumbered with. On the flip-side of this, the five-block is a royal pain-in-the-arse, and we rarely – if ever – wanted to have it in our possession. Luckily, it’s somewhat rare.
At first, the new blocks threw us off our game. Old routines mean nothing when you suddenly have to deal with new shapes. As we got better at anticipating them, we enjoyed getting them, but a little voice in our head was telling us that Tetris was lessened by their inclusion. Tetris isn’t about blocks that give you a breather, or can be placed anywhere. It’s about constant, roiling panic, at least on the higher speeds. Moments of safety felt like cheating.
But what really confounded us was the rules around turning and dropping blocks. It seems minor even writing it now, but it’s fundamental.
Take Tetris. When you turn a block in a tight space, the block does everything it can to contort and fit its new home. The system is generous, in other words. In Tetraminos – Xbox Series X|S, the block will neglect to turn and probably get stuck in the most awkward of positions.
But the most heinous difference is at higher speeds, when you’re trying to ram a block into the rightmost and leftmost columns. First, the speed is such that it’s actually impossible to reach these columns. We tried it: you can actually reach a speed where areas are unreachable, even if you’re jamming left or right on the stick. Second, there is no grace period where you drop a block. Normally, you can keep turning it before it ‘locks’ into place. Here, when a block lands on another block, it’s in that configuration immediately. Tetris was always welcoming in this area, and it feels so different playing Tetraminos – Xbox Series X|S, where things are more punishing.
The result is that Tetraminos – Xbox Series X|S becomes exponentially harder the higher you go up the levels. In the moments when you want the most control, and the greatest leeway, it gives you the least. Mistakes compound, and suddenly you’re exiting the Endless or Challenge modes at the same points. Which is about as satisfying as getting an unwanted five-block.
When Tetraminos – Xbox Series X|S sticks to delivering Tetris on a budget, it’s an acceptable alternative. Four-player Tetris, alongside three single-player game modes, is a healthy bundle of stuff. Where it comes undone is when it remixes the formula. New blocks have unintended effects, and the changes around dropping and rotating feel like someone is insisting that left is right, and two-plus-two is five. It’s just not natural.
You can buy Tetraminos – Xbox Series X|S from the Xbox Store