Tetris and handhelds go together like apples and cinnamon, and no more clear has this symbiotic relationship been than on Nintendo hardware, from the time Tetris first dropped like a well-placed I-block into Game Boys everywhere. Tetris DX followed with a splash of colour and tighter play on Game Boy Color, and the Nintendo-marinated Tetris DS is widely considered to be one of the, if not the best editions of the classic Russian puzzler. With such an illustrious legacy, can Tetris Axis on 3DS possibly hold up?
Tetris Axis bills itself as having over 20 modes split into Featured, Party, augmented reality and multiplayer, but after slicing out the more gimmicky ones and the ever-so-slightly modified double-ups you're left with a mere handful of options worth any significant time investment. Lesser modes such as Stage Race, where you navigate a tetronimo through an obstacle course, or Capture, where you attempt to line up specific blocks over glowing parts, are fun for the first round or two but rapidly fade in novelty. A few variations may hold your attention for a bit longer, like Bombliss in which lines only clear if they contain an explosive block, but save for one of these options nothing here holds much of a candle to the classic — or even the fewer but more inventive modes of Tetris DS.
Marathon is the bog-standard Tetris that the planet knows and loves, which is pretty difficult to screw up. Axis plays a mean game of the classic block dropper — it doesn't feel as if it has quite the same snap as Tetris DS but plays identical to every other Tetris game that came after. Now-standard mechanics like piece holding, ghost outlines and the laundry list of upcoming blocks are present as well as T-spins, which purists are just as easily able to ignore or turn off as novices are to use and benefit from.
Tapping into the wizardry of the 3DS, the two augmented reality modes work as advertised but feel somewhat inconsequential in the long run. AR Marathon is Tetris on your kitchen table up to 50 lines, which basically boils down to you awkwardly pointing the handheld at a table instead of playing the exact same mode comfortably. In AR Climber you stack Tetriminos on a cylindrical matrix in order to help a little dude climb to the top of line 50. This one does a better job of tapping in to what makes AR appealing by interacting with your surrounding: the cylinder is constantly sinking and you must physically circle it to line up steps. While it may impress on the first go, it's less complicated to just stick with the normal Climber for future play.
More substantial is Fever, a brand-new mode that is to Tetris what Blitz is to Bejeweled: a fast-paced score attack, great for when you don't have the time or desire to sink into a proper Marathon. In what is the most significant and fun new mode, the play field shrinks to six columns, there's one minute on the clock and a number of customizable power-ups litter the field. A mere pinch of power-ups are available from the start, and additional ones are unlocked by simply playing the mode or via SpotPass. Enabling a power-up costs in-game coins earned by playing or by uploading your score to the online leaderboards.
In fact, Axis is the most connected Tetris game to yet hit Nintendo consoles. The coin surge you get from uploading a Fever score is much more significant than just playing offline, and local, download and online battles against friends or ranked strangers across the globe provide potentially endless opposition. There's no voice chat support but a limited canned communication system allows you to at least ask the other person if they would like a rematch instead of dumping you back to the main menu. Computer battles will help you hone your skills before venturing online for a humbling, or if you're nowhere near wifi.
As this is Hudson's fifth edition of Tetris since Tetris Party hit WiiWare in 2008, the presentation feels very familiar and iterative — that is to say somewhat sterile, especially in comparison to Tetris DS's burst of 8-bit character. Cranking up the 3D slider doesn't affect gameplay much as the field is always front and centre, instead allowing unobtrusive background designs and small visual flourishes to take advantage of the added depth — only a handful of the more puzzle-y modes benefit from playing in 3D for enhanced perception.
Mii integration, meanwhile, plops you on the bottom screen, all decked out in stylish clothing and dancing like you've never danced before to a selection of classical Russian ditties like Swan Lake and Flight of the Bumblebee, as well as a version of the hallmark Tetris tune — it all sounds a little, well, cheesy and not very Tetris-like. And with all the options available to tinker with, there's no ability to play, or even navigate menus, with the Circle Pad — a few modes let you use it to swing the playing field around for alternative angles for the sole purpose of showing off 3D, but otherwise it is a strictly D-Pad affair.
Tetris Axis falls short of spectacular but still proves to be a worthwhile addition to the classic's illustrious handheld legacy with its expanded online component and oddly addictive Fever mode. Hudson wisely chooses to not reinvent the tetromino and instead provides a polished and accessible version of Russia's ultimate gaming export, even if the wrapper is a touch on the bland and disjointed side. Many of the modes may be flash and fluff, but the core game is as addictive and fun as ever and the overall package is compelling enough to consider over DSiWare's considerably cheaper Tetris Party Live.