Perhaps one of the strangest things about the Virtual Boy is that it had two Tetris games. OK there are many systems with multiple versions of Tetris but they were around a lot longer than Virtual Boy was. Interestingly--though this would have changed had the system been around longer--each region only got one of the games. Japan received the traditional playing V-Tetris, whilst North America got something a little different.
In 3D Tetris you look down at the playing area as blocks fall and you carefully move and rotate them to get them where you want. However whereas in normal (2D) Tetris you get lines to make blocks disappear, here you must fill a complete 5x5 layer. This might seem like it gives you a vastly greater area to play with but it’s only 5 layers high. As you would expect getting multiple layers at once gives you more points but piling your blocks past the 5 layer limit does not mean game over. Instead a layer is removed, giving you less room to work with but allowing your game to continue. Go past the limit again and you lose another layer and this continues until you lose the final layer. If whilst playing with this reduced height playing area you clear a layer, you gain a layer back – though you can never have more than 5.
The playing area is transparent and the blocks themselves are wire frame – until they are in place at which point they appear filled in. The 3D works well with you clearly able to see how high your blocks are stacked up and where there are gaps to potentially place that next piece. Just to make sure you place your blocks where you intend to, a shadow can be seen below and to make extra certain there is your radar.
Located on the right of your screen the radar provides a 2D view of each layer, showing blocks currently there as well as where to current piece will fall. It’s very useful and as you progress you will find yourself looking at it more and more to make sure you don’t block off a gap that will allow you to clear a layer.
The left side of the screen shows the current level number: it moves up one after clearing two layers, with each level being slightly faster than the previous. It also shows your score and the current hi-score though strangely the number of layers you’ve completed isn’t shown. The final thing shown is a preview window showing the next block. However rather than just a standard picture of the blocks, they are represented by a cartoony character. There are some excellent character designs and whilst you can see the block in their design, some blocks are quite similar and so it isn’t always obvious what the next one will be. This wouldn’t really be a problem with a small amount of pieces but the game features 30 different block types.
Aside from your standard straight pieces, T-shapes and L pieces, there are also crosses (some with a hole in the middle, some without), step-like shapes and corner pieces. The most troublesome ones however are where you have two or more separate blocks which you either have to position to plug multiple gaps or perhaps rotate so once placed they collapse on top of each other to add to two layers. Alternatively you could lay them flat and then use other blocks to construct the layer around them. Having so many blocks available adds a lot to the game, giving you a lot of options and making the game challenging whilst still fun: even if it does lack the simplistic charm of regular Tetris.
The camera is continually moving to give you the best look at the playing area. It doesn’t always work perfectly though, so if you find yourself with a less than ideal view you can adjust it by holding down L and using the left d-pad. Doing this freezes your falling block ensuring that you don’t make a mistake due to adjusting your view, but it does interrupt the flow of gameplay. Luckily there is an alternative as you can just give the L button a quick tap to reposition the camera –usually somewhere better.
A lot of the buttons on the control pad are used in positioning your blocks, making controlling the game initially seem quite complicated. The left d-pad moves the piece in four directions horizontally, A and B turn clockwise and anti-clockwise, the right d-pad is used to rotate the block in any of four directions and the R button is used to drop the piece faster. However you soon get the hang of it and it quickly feels very natural.
The blocks make suitable Tetris style noises as you rotate them, whistling as you drop them in to place and landing with a satisfying clunk. Each of the available modes has its own track that plays, all are quite similar (laid back and breezy) but luckily they don’t annoy. Due to the different way the game works the music doesn’t speed up (as in other Tetris games) when your pile of blocks is near the top of the playing area. However there is a very effective exploding sound effect when you lose a layer which helps to pile on the pressure.
Mode-wise you are presented with three options after the title screen. The one labelled simply ‘3-D Tetris’ features ‘Type A’ and ‘Clear It!’ The first option is the standard endless mode where you try to score as many points as possible. It starts of slowly, very slowly. It’s not just the speed that’s the issue, it’s the selection of blocks. Long after you’ve got used to the controls you will find yourself quite bored as you are presented with the same few basic shapes, where not clearing a layer would actually be a bigger achievement. Luckily the game lets you adjust your starting level (1-10) and there are three difficulty settings to choose from that affect the variety and types of blocks you get. Whatever you choose as your starting point, as you progress things get more difficult as the speed increases, the playing area fills with more blocks and the pieces you are given get harder to place.
The ‘Clear It!’ option presents you with a stage where there are already some blocks in the playing area and you have to clear 5 layers before progressing to the next stage. It’s not the best mode of play as typically, once you’ve cleared a couple of layers the remaining few are easy although again there are the level and difficulty options available.
In ‘Center-Fill’ mode you have to places your blocks around a center square, trying to make symmetrical shapes. When you do, you drop a block in to the center to clear the layer and receive points – the more complicated the shape, the more points you get. It’s a lot of fun to play, offering something different to just plugging in the gaps. There are ‘Type A’ and ‘Clear It!’ options available that work the similar to the regular game as well as a ‘Type B’. This is basically ‘Type A’ but with the lower layer already containing a few blocks for you to worry about, with new blocks generated each time you clear a layer.
The final mode is ‘Puzzle’ which works differently to the other modes. At the start of each stage you are shown a 3D object constructed from blocks and the blocks used are shown at the top of the screen. You then have to work out how to arrange those blocks to construct the model and begin. The radar flashes up the pattern as you play to prevent you from putting a block where there shouldn’t be one, but some blocks can go multiple places and you won’t always realise you’ve made a mistake until you find yourself with a later piece that doesn’t fit anywhere. There are 20 puzzles in all and it can be very tricky. You may have to spend quite some time thinking about them, but it’s a lot of fun and satisfying when you do figure them out.
With these three quite different modes of play you’ll be kept occupied for sometime The multiple difficulty settings allow you to adjust the game to your needs and the game saves the high scores so you have something to keep coming back to, to try and beat.
The “Next” piece preview may cause some confusion, the ‘Clear It!’ modes are the kind you will try once then forget about, and starting at easy level 1 can lead to boredom. However start at a later level and you will have a lot of fun with the game. The difficulty settings allow you to adjust the challenge and the three game types are all good, differing enough to make you want to give them each a thorough play through. It may be different to other Tetris games but it’s still an excellent game and highly recommended.