"Tetris" is obviously a puzzle game. But the tile-matching anxiety attack has become so ubiquitous as to feel like a genre unto itself since being invented in 1984. (Yes, invented, not designed.)
That's what gives a game like "Tetris Effect" more weight than new versions of, say, "Bejeweled" or "Peggle." Sure, Enhance Inc.'s game is still "Tetris." But with a new zone mechanic that lets you stop time, vivid themes and background imagery that can sharpen your concentration or test it, and the ability to play in virtual reality, "Tetris Effect" takes a new shape altogether.
When you enter the zone after building its meter by clearing lines, blocks only fall at your command and any lines you complete remain on the screen. In other words, the game lets you clear more than the standard four blocks at once, or a Tetris. Crafty players could conceivably clear as many as 20, an Ultimatris. This is also possible because "Tetris Effect," like some newer versions of the game, allows you to store one of its Tetronimo blocks for use at your leisure — which, of course, will almost always be the straight polyomino, the one that makes Tetris clears possible.
Queuing blocks is one of a few twists on the classic game that might confound players familiar only with its older versions. Another is the appearance of a falling block's outline at the bottom of the screen, where it is on track to land. Seeing that outline, combined with the newer ability to instantly drop Tetronimos by pressing "up" on the D-pad, resulted in many a space left beneath blocks.
Those twists scrambled my Tetris circuits more than "Effect's" main selling point: Its trippy visuals. Conceived in part by Tetsuya Mizuguchi, designer of synesthetic games like "Rez" and "Child of Eden," they remix Tetris into new forms. Its blocks become green leaves falling in a forest, or the golden gears of Da Vinci's imagination. Its backgrounds enchant with abstract swirls of color and light, or distract with realist forms and details. Accordingly, you can zoom in or out of the field of blocks to decide how much of the backgrounds you want to see, framing your experience.
Likewise, you can mute the sunny pop music that scores the game and the sound effects, like xylophone notes, that signal the placement of blocks. But the sounds are just like the sights in their ability to focus or frazzle your attention. The combination makes "Tetris Effect" a metaphor for modern life, a struggle to maintain order as all manner of stimuli lure your eyes and ears away.
"Tetris Effect" showcases its range of audiovisual extravagance during the game's journey mode. Basically just a series of stages, the mode also varies the speed at which blocks fall. So instead of progressively falling faster as you clear more lines, they start slow, speed up, slow down and speed up again until you meet a number of clears. It's sort of like an interval workout on a treadmill.
Many more modes take "Tetris" in new directions. One intermittently turns the field of blocks inside out or reverses your inputs. Another asks you to score "all clears" — emptying the field by dropping specific blocks into specific arrangements — with bonuses for speed. And a grander leveling system scores your progress through all the modes and ranks your performance on online leaderboards.
"Tetris Effect" may just be Tetris at its core, but its vivid and inspired treatment of maybe the greatest game of all time makes it a wholly new and worthwhile experience.