Tetris is a game that has followed me for my entire life. It’s the first video game I ever played on the NES, while the Game Boy iteration was the first portable experience I couldn’t put down. Since then, I’ve played it on nearly every device I’ve owned — from terrible mobile adaptations to freeware PC takes on the game. But despite being one of the most beloved and popular video games of all time, the current state of Tetris is rather dire. There are a handful of neat spinoffs, like Puyo Puyo Tetris, but most modern iterations are either gimmicky or just plain bad. It’s hard to find something that’s as good as the pure experience of the original.
That’s what makes Tetris Effect so special: it’s a spectacular, strange ode to everything that’s so great about the block-falling puzzle game. It made me fall in love all over again.
When you first boot up the game and play its “journey” mode, you’re immediately presented with a description that sounds absurd. The mode is billed as “a voyage of emotion and discovery.” Is this really Tetris we’re talking about here? But it actually starts to make sense when you play the game. This is all the more remarkable because, at its core, Tetris Effect is pretty pure Tetris. In the main mode, you’re doing the same things you’ve always done: matching up tetrominoes to clear away lines while more and more rain down. It’s a game about planning and reflexes, and it’s as good as it’s ever been. The rush of topping your high score never gets old.
The difference here is the audiovisual experience. The first thing you’ll probably notice is that the actual playfield is incredibly tiny, a small rectangle in the center of your television. It feels strange at first, all that wasted space. But it’s not wasted for long. Each stage in Tetris Effect has a particular theme. There are some that send you to outer space, others where kaleidoscopic dolphins or turtles swim around. There’s even a stage devoted to Leonardo da Vinci and one where it’s like you’re playing piano at a jazz club.
When you start, things are fairly bare-bones. There might be a wireframe animal lurking around, and a slow, steady bass line humming along quietly. But as you clear lines and increase your score, the level evolves. The visuals flesh themselves out. They’ll move or pulsate each time you get a tetris. The music will become louder or more intense. Each level has a slightly different vibe: some are calm and relaxing, others have a heart-pounding intensity. At times, the falling blocks will speed up to go along with the vibe of the rest of the level. It is, as advertised, “a voyage of emotion and discovery.”
It sounds distracting, but these things happen on the periphery. You’ll see the jumping dolphins or pulsating jellyfish out of the corner of your eye. Instead of being the focus of the game, the spectacular visuals and soundtrack are meant to increase your focus on actually playing Tetris. It’s hard to put into words, but if you’ve played any of Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s previous games, like Rez or Lumines, you’ll understand. The sights and sounds put you in that very particular zone needed for a game like Tetris. The effect is even more pronounced in VR when all of your senses are focused entirely on this experience. (The tiny playfield also feels much larger with a headset strapped to your face.)
The journey mode lasts a few quick hours, though you can play through on different difficulty levels, and there’s always the appeal of chasing your high scores. Outside of that, though, Tetris Effect also has a number of really great modes to play through. Fittingly, they’re organized by mood. In addition to “classic” modes like marathon, they’re bundled under groups called “relax,” “focus,” and “adventurous.”
The focus modes, for instance, distill the game into intense bouts that last just a few minutes, while the relaxing modes don’t punish you for failure, letting you soak in the atmosphere. My favorite mode is called mystery — it’s an “adventurous” one — and it throws a range of weird, random status effects at you. One minute, the entire game is upside down, and the next, you’re dealing with giant blocks or tetrominoes made up of just three pieces.
It’s a robust package that does Tetris justice. Unlike many modern interpretations, Tetris Effect doesn’t mess with what made the original game so loved. Instead, it augments it, making it feel modern, beautiful, and surprisingly emotional. After nearly three decades, I’ve finally found a replacement for my favorite NES game.
Tetris Effect is available today on the PS4, with support for PSVR.