Although video games aren't exactly accepted as part of mainstream culture, some gaming icons are instantly recognisable to gamers and non-gamers alike. Venerable falling-block game Tetris is one of these icons, and rightfully so. It's been around since 1985, ported to more platform than I can count, cloned, adapted and parodied; yet new versions are still showing up today. Even my text editor sports a Tetris clone. So, what does newcomer Tetris Splash bring to the table?
The answer is twofold: it brings Tetris, and fish. As the first Tetris game available for Xbox Live Arcade, Tetris Splash fills an obvious void in Microsoft's line of downloadable games. As for the fish... well, I'll come back to that.
For the benefit of anyone who's been living under a rock for the past two decades, the basic gameplay of Tetris is simple. Groups of four blocks arranged in various patterns - tetrominoes -- fall from the top of the board. Your task is to rotate and horizontally position the tetrominoes as they fall, fitting them together into complete horizontal lines. When a tetromino lands, it is locked into place and the next begins its descent. Completing a line removes it from play; as lines are cleared, the pieces descend more quickly. Allowing the stack of blocks to reach the top of the board signals the end of the game. Easy. Until it speeds up...
This concept has seen some refinement in recent releases, with two major new features: infinite spin, and the hold buffer. Infinite spin allows a player to continue rotating and sliding a tetromino that has landed, allowing the player to indefinitely postpone its locking into position. The hold buffer provides an area of off-board storage which can hold a single tetromino, to be swapped with the current tetromino at the player's discretion. There's also a marker - a 'ghost piece' - showing where the current piece will land, if it were to be dropped immediately.
The original game had an effective upper bound on how long a game could last - eventually, tetrominoes would fall too quickly for the player to rotate and position them before landing and locking into place. These new features - infinite spin in particular - allow a moderately-skilled player to play indefinitely: eventually, the tetrominoes will appear to land immediately without falling, but they can be positioned at leisure by simply tapping the rotate buttons continuously. The only real way to lose is to make a mistake.
Spin isn't useful in multi-player mode because speed in making lines is of the essence. But in single player, it makes a difference in play because it allows time to make a decision where one didn't exist. Some Tetris variants include an option to disable these new features; as far as I can tell, Tetris Splash is not among them. (There is an achievement - 'Old School' - for completing a game without using the hold buffer, though.)
Two single player modes are offered; Marathon and 40 Lines. Marathon mode is the closest to traditional Tetris - blocks fall, you clear lines and clearing lines raises your level and speeds the game up. Rinse, repeat. Until you reach the last level, at which point the game ends. 40 Lines is essentially a time attack mode: your goal is to clear the titular 40 lines as quickly as possible. Either way, your game does eventually finish - there's no provision for endless play, nor are there any additional single-player variants of the game.
The multiplayer mode is similarly spartan: only one game type is offered. This is the same standard multiplayer variant of Tetris I've seen elsewhere. Each player plays Tetris on their own boards, which are made visible to all players. Matching multiple lines at once sends the lines to an opponent, where they stack up from the bottom of the screen upwards. You're given a warning before sent lines appear on your own board, allowing you to defend by matching lines immediately. Hitting the top of the board puts you out of the game; the winner is the last man standing. Simple, effective, rather addictive... but at the end of the day, limited. As with the single player game, I'd have liked to have seen more gameplay modes implemented - either ported from other Tetris variants, or brand-new variants designed for this incarnations.
I don't really think the Xbox 360 controller is well-suited to Tetris. This isn't the fault of the game - Tetris of any stripe relies on reflexive left-right control inputs, and the 360 controller just doesn't handle them well. The game allows control via the analog stick or via the D-pad, and they both have too much travel in them for comfortable Tetris play. I found myself having to deflect the stick too far to the sides for comfort to get the controller to respond, and the D-pad just felt mushy. I tried both a wireless and a wired controller; the wired controller felt a little more responsive on the analog stick to me stick, but I'm not sure if that's due to the lack of a radio or differences in manufacturing tolerances between the two controllers.
There's not much to say about the graphics: it looks like Tetris. I did find that the ghost images for dark blue pieces were very hard to see against the black background of the game board, but I'm willing to lay the blame for this with my television. Still, a few choices for colours to increase contrast wouldn't go amiss, though...
Now. Onto the fish. The background, upon which the menus and game board are drawn, is a virtual fish tank. It contains either virtual fresh- or salt-water, and virtual fish. The fish swim back and forth. Additional spaces for fish in the tank can be added to the tank by earning Achievements; additional species of fish and tank decorations can be bought (for Microsoft Points) from the Xbox Live Marketplace. Finally, a screensaver mode can be activated from the menu, to remove the user interface and to display the fish in all their pixelated glory. Neither the fish nor the aquarium is visually stunning, and the range of species is pretty limited - although I presume more will become available as downloadable content over time.
That's pretty much all there is to the 'Splash' part of Tetris Splash. Now, I can accept the apparent fact that modern incarnations of Tetris require a gimmick of some sort to set themselves apart from the horde of prior art... I'll even consider a virtual aquarium with unlockable fish an acceptable gimmick, especially for a casual gamer audience... but I really can't see the appeal in paying real money for additional virtual fish to place in the background of an otherwise completely unrelated game. At all.
So, to sum up: the Tetris part of Tetris Splash is basic, but essentially decent; the Splash part is rather underwhelming; the currently-available downloadable content would be anaemic even were it free; and the Xbox 360 controller isn't quite ideal for the genre. Despite all that, I am glad this title exists -- after all, Tetris is a timeless classic, and it's nice to play it on the big screen for a sane price -- but I really can't help thinking that there have been far too many opportunities missed here.
As I'm currently living off a student budget, my recent purchases tend to be from the various budget ranges of older titles: I'm more likely to be found playing Quake II or the original Unreal Tournament than Thief III or FarCry. I'll probably make an exception for Doom 3, though. (For the record, I did try Doom 3, and wasn't very impressed. Thief III has made it to the budget range here in the UK, and one day I'll play it. Perhaps after I've updated this profile properly...)
I enjoy online games, but I prefer the persistent world offered by the MMORPGs to the competitive environment of the CounterStrike servers. I've a feeling too many years of leisurely RPG playing have ruined my shooter reflexes; needless to say, I tend to end up on the tail end of the scoreboards in online FPS games. That said, I enjoy the competitiveness of multiplayer gaming, but prefer the face-to-face encounters of LAN gaming to the anonymity of the public servers.