Tetris has been around since 1984, where it was developed in Russia for the DVK, a Soviet computer, but most people remember either the Game Boy or the NES version as being the breakthrough for the title. To say that Tetris is successful is an understatement; the gameplay is just as enjoyable as it was thirty years ago and almost nothing has been changed from the original formula. This is the key point of Tetris Ultimate, and arguably either its best or worst asset.
The basic mode of Tetris is Marathon, the one everyone knows, and you have to clear 15 levels as quickly as possible in order to achieve a higher score. Also included are numerous other single player modes, such as Endless, where you play for as long as possible and beyond the traditional 15 levels from Marathon — it’s essentially a survival and endurance test to see how long you can keep those tetrominoes in order. Sprint tasks you with clearing 40 lines as quickly as you can, while Ultra is similar in motive but requires you to get as many points as possible within just three minutes. There is also the option to play Battle and Battle Ultimate against a CPU opponent (these modes will be explained further in the multiplayer discussion of this review).
The main factor to note about these modes is that they have all appeared in one form to another in previous Tetris games, so at first glance there really isn’t very much to entice anyone who already own a version of Tetris with these features, which is many of them. Luckily there’s unique fun to be had on the 3DS in the form of four Challenge Modes; these mix up the gameplay in a manner that’s a little bit gimmicky, but still a great distraction from the main game.
In Rotation Lock you play as normal except you cannot rotate the tetrominoes at all. As the name suggests you’re stuck with the rotation that the game gifts you, so you really have to keep an eye on the piece queue on the right hand side of the screen and plan accordingly in order to make sure the screen doesn’t fill up. It’s amazing how the removal of just one aspect can ramp up the difficulty as much as it does.
Invisible causes all your tetrominoes to become invisible once they are placed. This of course means that you have to remember what your screen looks like after every piece falls. This mode is not so much difficult as it is frustrating and implausible. The strain it places on your memory is too much to handle, and you’ll be lucky if you even clear a few lines in this mode. Generally not very enjoyable, but more skilled players may be able to have more fun with it.
Escalation functions very similarly to Marathon and Endless, except that every successive level requires more lines to complete than the last, meaning you’ll have to clear hundreds of lines before even thinking about reaching level 15. This mode is ideal for Tetris junkies who just love to play the game and get as many lines as possible without the rapid increase in speed that comes with Endless.
Master is essentially playing Tetris on the hardest difficulty you can imagine. Tetrominoes don’t fall from the top so much as instantly appear at the bottom with no animation whatsoever. This is easily the hardest mode in the game, and requires a level of skill only the very best Tetris fanatics will possess; if you’re not hellishly experienced with the game, this mode is not for you.
The game also features all of the single player modes for more than one player. The modes that really stand out as multiplayer experiences are the Battle and Battle Ultimate modes — in these modes you’re pitted against your opponents and tasked to play Tetris as you would normally, except that any lines you clear will be deposited onto one of your opponent’s screens from the bottom. This of course pushes their pieces up as many lines as you cleared, making their task a lot more difficult. Tactics and naturally competitive natures run rife when playing these modes, but Battle Ultimate has another card to play. Whenever you clear a line that includes a flashing tetromino – that can take any piece’s form – an item wheel will begin to spin Mario Kart style next to your queue. These items can then be used to make your opponent’s game incredibly tough by raining lines down on top of their pieces or help you prevent similar ill effects from happening to you.
All modes bar the Challenge modes can be played locally or online, and there’s even an option to forgo your friends all buying the game thanks to the woefully underused Download Play function. This form of multiplayer was a staple for the GBA and DS, so it’s good to see it getting some love in this title.
Presentation in this game isn’t really all that important. You can easily distinguish all of the tetrominoes from one another and all of the different elements are displayed clearly and concisely. The action all takes place on the top screen – or the bottom if you’ve chosen that option in the options menu – so you won’t have to shift your eyes between screens to keep track of everything that’s happening, which is paramount in such a game. The options available are very extensive, allowing you to customise your experience to match almost any subtle variation of Tetris gameplay from the past.
Tetris Ultimate largely lives up to its name; it’s a comprehensive collection of Tetris gameplay modes with various optional tweaks and tremendous online and local multiplayer. It must be said though that except the new Challenge modes, there’s nothing new here that any Tetris veteran hasn’t already played. The Challenge modes are clearly targeted towards such experienced Tetris-heads, but the longevity isn’t as extensive as the original Marathon mode, which is still probably the most fun you can have with Tetris by yourself. Putting it simply, at the end of the day it’s Tetris — but that's just fine.