The idea of Tetris Axis feels like home. There is something utterly natural about playing a Tetris game on a portable machine, which almost certainly has everything to do with its status as a pack-in for Nintendo’s original Game Boy. For about the first year of the Game Boy’s release, Tetris was the one game that everyone had in common. It was the perfect portable pack-in for a system as limited in its visuals as the Game Boy; it was perhaps the only portable take on a known (and wildly popular) property that would lose nothing in the translation.
Since then, it has felt like every portable machine should have a Tetris game associated with it, and every portable Nintendo machine has. Tetris Axis is simply the next entry in a long tradition of portable Tetris; there’s no way it could fail.
To be sure, the actual Tetris of Tetris Axis is done right. Playing the game feels as natural as it ever did, and if all you want is to jump in to a classic game, you can certainly do that. If you want to play almost any one of the specialized Tetris variants that have shown up in the last decade or so, most of them are here, too. If you want to play “first person”, top-down Tetris in 3D—because this is the 3DS after all—you can do that. If you want to find a friend or a random person to show off your mad Tetris skills against, you can even do that.
But it all feels hollow.
This is difficult to explain. The challenge is certainly here, there are achievements and badges to motivate the player to keep getting better, and the game hasn’t changed in any fundamental way. But still it doesn’t feel the same way it used to. There’s no need for reminiscing; there’s no nostalgia to be found.
What happened? Tetris did not somehow become a worse game in the last 15 years. The balance of falling tetrominoes is as perfect as you could possibly expect; rarely do you feel as though the game somehow cheated you out of your high score. Tetris Axis is skill through and through, and the largely extraneous extra modes do—to their credit—offer more replay value to a game that honestly didn’t need it.
Here’s the problem: it is not a social experience.
The original Tetris was so celebrated and is so well-remembered largely because everyone had it. It was the one game that you knew you could talk to your friends about because you knew they had played it. People practiced not just to beat their own scores but to beat their friends’ and family’s scores. If one kid in the cafeteria had a Game Boy, it got passed around from person to person for the sake of each trying to exert a transient sort of superiority over the rest of the kids. It didn’t matter that the game was in black and white or that the only people in it were implied by the fireworks over the city after a great score or that listening to music on a gameboy wasn’t all that different from listening to music made by dental drills. Making games portable made them more easily social experiences, and making an arcade game based on score as its showpiece encouraged that social interaction. This is why we remember the Game Boy version even more fondly than the two versions that showed up on the NES before it or even the arcade version that started the phenomenon.
Compared to the original Tetris, it could actually be argued that this version is actually more social. You can hook up to the internet and play against other people any time you like; leaderboards put you in a state of perpetual competition with friends and the general population.
The problem, of course, is that we expect a lot more from a social experience in 2011 than we did 22 years ago. A social experience in 2011 needs to offer online play as a selling point, rather than as an afterthought. A social experience now should give people something to talk about other than the score that they got last time they played. There could be stats, an online web experience, whatever. The focus of Tetris Axis is on the 3D and the augmented reality and the many, many gameplay modes, whereas what makes Tetris interesting—what always made it interesting—was the ability to share. While nobody can say that that’s been taken away, really, it hasn’t been expanded upon, either.
It’s neat to play top-down Tetris. It’s fun to play Tetris on a board that’s only six blocks wide, and it’s nifty to make pictures out of tetrominoes. It’s satisfying to take out a random challenger (or even a whole pile of random challengers) in a high-speed game of traditional multiplayer Tetris. But these feelings are fleeting, and for a game with such a legacy, its latest iteration’s standing as a pleasant curiosity is ultimately disappointing.