Tetris is synonymous with video games. Forget about shoving it into a genre box by labeling it a “puzzle” game because Tetris literally changed the face the culture. When it launched alongside the Game Boy in 1989, everybody on the planet became a gamer. In modern terms, it was the first “casual game” that was able to get its hooks into not only the kids that dominated the market, but every type of adult as well. The tetromino blocks have become a staple of the gaming world and are easily one of the most recognizable figures in the medium. It’s no surprise there are a cacophony of Tetris games that have been made in the last 30 years.
Today I want to talk about one particular game that I think is slowly being forgotten, Tetrisphere. While nearly every other Tetris game sticks to the core formula of dropping bricks and erasing lines on a flat plane, Tetrisphere completely breaks away from the 2D plane, creating one of the most bizarre, challenging, and exciting spin-offs the series has ever made. This is Tetris like you’ve never seen it before. I know I sure haven’t until this past week.
Like the name suggests, Tetrisphere takes place on a sphere and yes, your goal is to line up correct blocks that will erase and chip away from the sphere until you get to the core. There are some other modes but the majority of them revolve around this idea. On paper, it sounds similar to the same game I’ve played since 1989 (when I was a baby playing Game Boy) but that thought goes out the window when you start playing. For one, the entire sphere is already packed with bricks that need to be erased. In fact, if you fail to erase anything and add to the sphere, you’re going to be penalized. This game is all about removal which makes the setup for combos that much more difficult.
When I first played the game by myself I had no idea what was happening. I tried lining up things I thought would erase but nothing, other times the area where I was ready to drop would light up, I’d drop a brick there and I’d chip away at some blocks. Eventually, I’d find the core and a little robot guy would be free, hooray! “Okay” I thought, “This game’s alright.” Then I brought it over to my buddies house for some 2-player Versus. And everything changed.
We began the game the same way I did the day before: we jumped in head first without any type of guidance. Learn by doing! And we ended up playing Tetrisphere the same way I did, except in a versus mode where each player had 3 lives. If you added a piece without removing anything, you lost a life. If you pulled off a combo, you’d add dummy blocks to your opponents sphere, and if you went too long without making a move, the camera would zoom in until your time ran out and you’d lose another life. So we found areas that lit up (unlike Tetris where you erase lines, Tetrisphere wants you to erase same-shaped objects together), dropped pieces, and hoped for the best. We had a good time for a few rounds but we both came to the same conclusion pretty quickly, “Let’s check out the training mode, it feels like we’re missing something.” Oh boy, were we missing something.
As it turns out, we were playing Tetrisphere completely wrong. At least it felt like that after watching the very first training video. You see, my friend and I were playing Tetrisphere like any other Tetris game, looking at the block we had to drop, finding the right spot to drop, and doing so to clear as much of the sphere as possible. But playing that way felt really confined. How were you supposed to set up combos when the layout is predetermined and you can only break the same type of block you’re dropping? Well, Tetrisphere isn’t your normal Tetris game. You can’t play it like a normal Tetris game, and that’s because you need to learn be electric and slide those tetronimo pieces to the left, right, and all around to your brick-breaking benefit. That’s right, you can actually pick up pieces that have already been placed and move them to try and line up multiples of the same type of block. This revelation blew our collective minds and suddenly we realized just how fascinating Tetrisphere is.
Sliding bricks around gives Tetrisphere a whole new dimension of gameplay unlike other Tetris games. Now when you see a collection of similar shapes being blocked by one different shape, you can either slide that piece around or erase it with another brick in order to set up a combo and get rid of a whole mass of similar shapes. Not only do you use sliding to erase bricks on the same plane, but each sphere has multiple layers to break through, meaning you can’t only focus on the surface, but you also have to try and set up combos with the bricks on the next layer down. Combine this new way of playing a Tetris-like game with the competitive excitement you get playing with your friend while slamming back a couple beers and you have one experience you don’t want to miss.
Usually Retro Weekend involves me playing a classic game everyone knows about, or sharing a hidden gem you never knew existed. Tetrisphere lies somewhere in the middle and honestly I’m kind of sad nobody talks about it anymore. It’s a spin-off that never seemed to get its spin. I’ve talked to a few people who played Tetrisphere when they were young and wrote It off quickly because of how different it is from Tetris and as each year goes by it gets further and further from gaming’s consciousness. It shouldn’t! We need more risks and deviations from the tried and true formulas that have are repeatedly shoved down our throats. Tetrisphere was a breath of fresh air for my friend and I that came out in 1997. Do yourself a favor and give it a try!