The Original Blockbuster: Tetris On Dreamcast

Tetris. Even just typing that word brings the classic Tetris music pouring into my brain, accompanied by images of falling Tetriminos and the monochrome hue of a classic Gameboy screen. Alexey Pajitnov's groundbreaking puzzle game will forever be linked to Nintendo's classic handheld system simply because for many gamers, it was the first time they experienced the infuriatingly addictive gameplay of Tetris. Many an hour was spent by this gamer hunched over that lurid green and black screen, desperately trying to angle the console in the fading light of the evening to get the best view of those infernal, infuriating, infinitely falling blocks. If ever there was a gaming equivalent of an ear worm, Tetris is most certainly it.
Tetris has a long and storied history that begins in the early 1980s, but once Pajitnov's program found its way out of the labs of Moscow's Academy of Science, it landed and multiplied its way across pretty much every platform on Earth. Naturally, the first users to experience the game were computer users, followed by Commodore 64, Atari ST and Amiga gamers. But once Tetris was captured and re-purposed for pure entertainment machines, the blueprints for complete global domination were signed and sealed, and the Gameboy represented a delivery method with maximum yield.
Since those early days, Tetris has found its way onto countless platforms - and not just ones designed for gaming. Calculators, iPods, phones and even oscilloscopes have played host to variants of Tetris as the relatively simple nature of the game requires very little in the way of computational horsepower. If it's got a screen, an input device and a circuit board inside, the chances are it can play a version of Tetris. Naturally, computers and consoles have evolved over time, but the key components of Tetris have not. With flagrant disregard for anything as po-faced as Moore's Law, Tetris has remained almost unchanged in it's simplicity ever since that day in 1984 when it left Moscow and entranced the world, simultaneously rewriting the book on puzzle games as it went. If ever there was a perfect example of the old adage 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it,' then Tetris is surely it.

The key to Tetris's popularity lies in it's simplicity. The premise is so easy to pick up yet so difficult to put down, and has remained largely unchanged since inception. There have been a couple of attempts to mix things up over the years; with a third dimension being added for the Virtual Boy outing 3D Tetris, and a spherical 'board' being utilised in the Nintendo 64 game Tetrisphere (a game that was originally planned as an Atari Jaguar title called Phear, fact fans). Sticking with Nintendo, there was also the bizarre Tetris 64 that came packaged with a 'bio sensor' that clipped to the player's ear and measured heart rate; the idea being that as the heart rate increased, so did the speed of the game.
There are plenty of other weird and wonderful stories and variations when it comes to Tetris; from the ultra rare Sega Megadrive version (of which there are apparently less than 10 copies known to exist), to the brilliantly crazy Giant Tetris arcade cabinet. For the most part though, the key mechanics of Tetris have remained constant: there are seven different shapes of Tetrimino, and they fall from the top of the screen. Arrange these falling blocks in a line between the edges of the play area and they vanish, allowing you to take advantage of the spaces between the already fallen blocks and make more lines. Rinse and repeat. With time and progression, Tetriminos fall faster and the time you have to decide where each shape should fit decreases to the point that it becomes more a game of reaction and skill than careful pre-planning.
Today, Tetris is held aloft as the perfect puzzle game. It has endured the technological revolution and is every bit as appealing now in the age of HD gaming, teraflops and 4K televisions as it was back in the days of flickering CRTs and screeching tape decks. It has been lauded on numerous occasions as the best game ever written, winning countless awards and been pored over by critics and academics alike. Studies into Tetris's effects on the brain and how it can improve analytical thinking have been carried out, and millions of words explaining why it is such an important piece of software have been written and read and forgotten. Quite simply, Tetris is the perfect game. Now though, let us turn our attention to the Dreamcast.
The Dreamcast played host to three official games in the Tetris franchise and they were all developed and published by different companies. The results are varying in quality but the core Tetris gameplay is present and correct, with only the superfluous minutiae and aesthetics differentiating them. Without further ado, let's take a look at the three Tetris games on the Dreamcast.
Tetris 4D
The first Tetris game to make an appearance on the Dreamcast, Tetris 4D is a Japanese exclusive that hit the shelves in 1998. The game received fairly poor review scores upon release due to its bare bones nature and strangely 'un-Tetris' design choices. Developed and published by Bullet Proof Software, Tetris 4D shuns the traditional Russian themes seen in earlier titles in the franchise and instead opts for a sort of futuristic industrial setting. On top of this, there are a few odd gameplay mechanics which I'll come to in a second. The gameplay modes are - as earlier mentioned - a little on the thin side, meaning you really only get one mode of play as a single player: basic Tetris. Obviously, there's nothing wrong with this in itself - Tetris is Tetris.
However, one thing that may put some players off is the odd rotational behaviour of the Tetriminos: if a piece is flush against the side of the play feild, it cannot be rotated. This may not sound like much, but in practice it almost completely ruins the game. You have to move your Tetrimino away from the wall to rotate it and this can be infuriating if the play field is filling up and you need to slide a block into a gap down the side of the screen. This odd choice aside, Tetris 4D is still quite palatable. The music is a nice selection of new and old tunes remixed, and the options menus are presented in a graphically pleasing way, with rows of Tetriminos making up the background. The main draw of Tetris 4D though, is its 4 player mode.
With four controllers attached, the screen in split into quarters and you can battle with friends to clear as many lines as possible. Once a player's screen fills up, they're out and the last man (or woman) standing is the winner. This is a nice addition to the package, but some odd design choices and a complete lack of VMU support (so no high score saving) make Tetris 4D a bit of a mixed bag. As a very early Dreamcast game it was probably pushed out to make a quick buck and it's noticeable now, but Tetris 4D is still a decent representation of Pajitnov's original vision.

The Next Tetris
The Next Tetris is the only Dreamcast Tetris game that was released in western markets, hitting the US and Europe in 2000 and 2001 respectively. Developed by Blue Planet Software and published by Crave, The Next Tetris introduced a new gameplay mechanic to the series, but also included the original version too. An interesting fact about The Next Tetris is that it was released in the US with online play modes, meaning gamers could battle each other over the internet.
Like a lot of other online enabled titles for the Dreamcast, gamers in PAL territories didn't get this option but The Next Tetris was recently brought back online and can be played once again through the Dreamcast Live and DreamPi method. The Next Tetris begins by offering players the choice of classic mode and the newer 'Next' mode. As the name suggests, classic Tetris is just that and you'll be happy to read that the odd 'Tetriminos can't rotate if they're at the edge of the screen' thing from Tetris 4D has been ditched. The Next Tetris mode offers a new mechanic in that the Tetriminos come in the familiar seven shapes, but are made up of differently coloured blocks. Once they settle and 'lock,' any parts that are not the same colour as the rest of the Tetrimino will fall away. This opens up a whole new style of play, meaning you can fill holes by dropping sections of Tetriminos off edges and once you get a 'Tetris' (that's four lines at once), massive combos can be achieved as more and more separated blocks fall free. It sounds complicated, but it really isn't - you can see a better explanation of this in the video below.
The visuals in The Next Tetris are rather nice, with lots of Tetris branding and some cool remixes of the original theme tune. There are lots of options to play around with and a load of different gameplay modes that put Tetris 4D's paltry selection to shame. As far as Tetris games go, The Next Tetris is a pretty solid package as the original version is as good as ever, and the 'next' version mixes things up just enough without totally destroying the core gameplay of Tetris.

Sega Tetris
Ready to take a step into the surreal? Then welcome to Sega Tetris. Originally created by Sega AM1 as a NAOMI arcade game, the subsequently created Wow Entertainment ported Sega Tetris to the Dreamcast in 2000. A Japanese exclusive, Sega Tetris is a pretty interesting and original take on the original game, not least because of the bizarre imagery and settings it uses. The game naturally playes in a familiar manner with the usual gameplay mechanics in place, but it's the extra details that make Sega Tetris such a fun title. The addiction of bizarre cartoon characters that dance and gyrate by the play board as you move the Tetriminos around is interesting, and the way they hit the blocks to destroy any lines you make can be amusing.
It's not as bat shit crazy as something like Baku Baku Animal on the Sega Saturn, but it definitely has that vibe going on. The characters are all anthropomorphic animals of some kind and the default character is a sort of monkey with a piercing stare and a giant blue hammer. As you play, and the more points you accrue, the setting of the background will alter meaning you travel from tranquil tropical island paradise, to an Egyptian desert setting, to the streets of some unnamed metropolis complete with gigantic cars whizzing past. On top of this, the 'attract mode' screens are equally as strange, as the one where a massive iguana ambles around in the background will attest. Why is all this happening? Who knows...but it's awesome. The game itself is classic Tetris and there's nothing new here. Sega Tetris doesn't try to do anything new like The Next Tetris did, but that's fine because the ridiculous settings and characters are worth the entry price alone.
On the subject of play modes, Sega Tetris does make use of the system link cable for vs battles and also has some online play modes as well as various mini games. However, due to my limited knowledge (that is, nonexistent) of the Japanese language I'm not really able to get much more info from the manual or the menus in the game. Out of the three Tetris games on the Dreamcast, Sega Tetris is easily the best looking and enjoyable, but is it the best? Hmmm.

Now we've looked at the three variants of Alexey Pajitnov's classic puzzler on the Dreamcast, I suppose it's only right that I share my opinion on which is the best. None of these games are what you would describe as shit as at heart they're all just Tetris. However, the one with the least amount of appeal for me would have to be Tetris 4D. Even with it's amazing 4 player mode, the lack of VMU support is just lazy and the single gameplay mode only amplifies this. As for the best of the bunch? I'd have to say that both The Next Tetris and Sega Tetris are equally good games. Neither does anything particularly abhorrent and both have their own bonuses: Next has it's own unique gameplay mode, and Sega Tetris has the surreal characters and setting.

Ultimately, all three of these games play a mean game of Tetris so they're all worth investigating. Below you'll find a little video of the three games in action. Enjoy.

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pcwzrd13 said...

Great article Tom! The only one I've played so far is Next Tetris but it could easily be my favorite version of Tetris on any system. Multiplayer specifically is fantastic. The way the board rotates like crazy when the other player clears multiple columns in a row is awesome. It can get really intense. There are also a few small gameplay additions that I really like.

I'm definitely going to keep an eye out for Sega Tetris though. It's, unfortunately, quite hard to find.

Tom Charnock said...

Thanks pcwzrd. Yeah it's well worth seeking out. There's a lot to love about Sega Tetris. I think out of the three my favourite is The Next Tetris though.

DCGX said...

The only DC Tetris game I've played (and currently own) is Sega Tetris. It is a lot of fun, especially in two-player, but keep a translation of the menus handy.

doceggfan said...

While not an official release, I'm disappointed you didn't include tiny tetris for the vmu.