Tetris Attack, despite the name, has very little to do with Tetris. The game does involve clearing blocks, but the method involved in doing so and how the blocks are delivered is entirely different. It’s pretty obvious that the name Tetris was in the title simply to capitalize on the popularity of Tetris, bringing people into this new puzzle game by riding the coattails of the definitive puzzler. Tetris Attack wasn’t only using a name to grab attention though. Originally created as Panel de Pon in Japan, it was a game about fairies competing in block matching puzzles, but the developers doubted a game about cute fairies would have widespread appeal in the United States. Changing the name was one part of the plan to make it more marketable, but the game was also given an entirely new visual design, removing the fairies and swapping them in with Nintendo’s Yoshi character and his related cast. The game still has a cute and friendly design overall, but this game was released shortly after Yoshi had wowed gamers with his own starring role in Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island. Not only was Nintendo hoping the Tetris name would make this game popular, but it hoped it’s new hit star would help it sell as well.
All these changes made to drive sales certainly seem like a perfect way to sell a subpar title, but Tetris Attack is thankfully a well-designed puzzle game even if you strip away any influencing factors. Later titles in this series would forget the Tetris deception and settle into the name Puzzle League for their unique type of block puzzle. In Tetris Attack and later Puzzle League, blocks move in from the bottom of the screen at an ever-increasing pace and your goal is to swap two adjacent blocks to try and match up three or more of the same colored block. Matches will clear the blocks away, causing any above them to fall down and potentially make more matches, and the game heavily encourages you to try and make large matches with more than 3 blocks and then chain multiple matches in a row when the blocks fall down. If you can’t clear blocks quickly enough, they’ll hit the top of the screen and you’ll lose. There is a very friendly tutorial that shows off and explains these simple mechanics, and Tetris Attack has multiple modes where the goal of the puzzle matching changes but the core mechanics never really shift around much.
Tetris Attack has quite a hearty selection of gameplay types as well as a single player and two player version of a few of them. For people interested in a simple puzzle game experience, Endless and Time Attack modes focus solely on making as many matches as you can as you are either racing against the ever increasing speed or the ever dwindling timer. While the presence of modes like these are appreciated and I feel essentially required for most any puzzle game, Tetris Attack’s more interesting modes come in the form of the Stage Clear, Puzzle, and Vs. modes. Puzzle is the simplest of the three, laying out a screen that has a single predetermined arrangement of blocks that must be cleared. You are given only a few moves to clear the puzzle presented to you, beginning with common sense puzzles that aren’t even a challenge to solve and evolving into complex arrangements that can stump you for hours or even days. The Puzzle mode is such a different style of challenge from the rest of the game that it adds a new element without changing any of the rules, and while it can be frustrating not knowing the answer, that’s an issue endemic to the idea of any type of puzzle and can’t be faulted too much.
Stage Clear and Vs. are what I feel are the big draws of the game. Both are still about matching 3 or more blocks of the same color and design either horizontally or vertically. However, a bit of a story is attached to both modes and stages are added so that you’re constantly advancing towards a goal instead of just playing harder and harder Puzzle League. Stage Clear is the simpler mode, where the goal of the block matching is to clear enough that you make a Clear line appear on the screen. Once there are no blocks left above the Clear line, the stage is complete and you can move onto the next one. At first, progress is steady and calm, characters appearing between Rounds with tips to make sure you’re learning how to play right. Suddenly though, your calm play will be interrupted by Bowser, the evil turtle king challenging you to take him down but the game making it near impossible at that point on purpose. To hurt Bowser, you have to get big matches and combo chains going, and the levels are too easy at the start that you won’t be prepared for the major difficulty shift. Losing here won’t hurt you, and losing in general in any mode isn’t really punished. You can retry pretty quickly and stages are usually short whether you beat them or not. From the loss against Bowser, the levels grow harder, requiring better play to ensure you’re ready for that big rematch at the end. Stage Clear really is good at teaching the player and training them up to a higher skill level, something they will certainly need in the last game mode the game offers.
Vs. Mode, not the one where you play against a human player, is the game’s main story. Bowser has cast a spell across Yoshi’s Island, turning all of Yoshi’s friends evil and causing an endless rain that threatens to flood the entire world. Yoshi’s the only one able to resist that spell, so he heads off on a quest to free his friends from the mind control spell and take on Bowser and his cronies at Mt. Wickedness. Vs. mode is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Puzzle League style of puzzle game, even if it is pretty similar to games like Puyo Puyo in design. In Tetris Attack’s Vs. mode, you and a computer controlled opponent are given the same board of blocks and set out to match them at the same time. If a player clears four or more blocks, gets a chain going, or matches a special kind of block, they’ll send a large garbage block over to their opponent’s screen that can’t be matched with anything and must be turned into normal blocks by clearing blocks that are touching it. The goal is to make your opponent unable to clear their screen of blocks before they reach the top of the screen, with garbage blocks basically being the only way you can expect to defeat an opponent. Stage Clear’s spike in difficulty and its fight with Bowser will make you more than ready to take this challenge on, and even if you aren’t too confident in your skills yet, the continue system is generous and there are difficulty levels that make it more accessible than the single difficulty levels found in the Stage Clear and Puzzle modes.
The only big gripe with difficulty to be found here is the story ends sooner if you play on easier difficulties, and the game requires the absolutely monumental task of clearing the Vs. mode without failing once to earn the “Good” ending, which is only a small change in dialog during the final scene of the story. This wouldn’t hurt the game too much if it wasn’t for how the game sort of stomps down your success in any ending that is less than that. You’ll get mostly the same scene of victory, but Yoshi will opine that they could have done more to beat Bowser and that they should try again, effectively quashing your moment of triumph in taking down the hardest battle you’ve faced yet.
This difficulty shaming is a bit of a contrast between the game’s adorable and friendly tone. Tetris Attack is a perfect example of how a puzzle game’s visual and audio design can make it so much more enjoyable. Even the original Tetris showed that having the right song playing during your game can make it a lot more fun, and while some puzzle games have a sterile design to focus more on the puzzle solving, Tetris Attack populates it screen with cute characters and pretty backgrounds. The music is relaxing as well, carrying over a few Yoshi’s Island tracks as well as mixing in new compositions from the Japanese Panel de Pon game. All in all, it makes for a tone that helps alleviate some of the potential frustration of the speedier and harder challenges in the game. Being able to get back on the horse so easily after a loss and having a generally friendly atmosphere made it possible for me to even take on the secret hardest difficulty for Vs. mode without ever growing too exasperated. There are a few strange moments where happy characters suddenly get uncharacteristically serious. Your friends can help you take on Bowser and his bosses in Vs. Mode, but if your bespectacled friend Lakitu loses his round, he says to his opponent “I hate you! Openly, and without regret!” One of Yoshi’s post-game difficulty shaming lines is also “We can’t just beat Bowser. We must crush him!” These intense lines from otherwise cutesy characters are a bit jarring, but they’re more funny than tone destroyers.
However, like many puzzle games, your enjoyment of Tetris Attack will be tied pretty closely to how good you will be at it. Tetris Attack tries to help the player become better with helpful hints and demonstrations, but the block switching requires a level of swiftness at higher difficulties that some people just won’t be able to reach. The ability to continue so easily will mean that players may bash themselves against any challenge enough times that they’ll eventually squeak through, but there are many roadblocks to getting through the harder puzzles if you can’t get up to speed and at least somewhat master the chaining and multi-block matches. Admittedly, even after clearing the hardest difficulties, I still don’t feel like I’m as good as I should be at the game. Chains still elude me somewhat even if I did manage to get better at them, but I was able to ride the larger block matches pretty far as well. If you want to put the time into learning Tetris Attack, the gameplay can be incredibly rewarding, but even for someone who is just letting the game gradually teach you how to play, beating it is achievable so long as you can keep up. Even if you never get too good at it, Easy Vs. Mode, Time Attack, and Endless serve as enjoyable yet challenging modes for even a casual puzzle game fan. Another really nice accommodation for skill level difference appears in the multiplayer mode, where players can adjust the difficulty level for each individual player. Thanks to this, a skilled player and a novice can be on an almost even playing field and thus can enjoy playing against each other.
THE VERDICT: The Tetris name and Yoshi theming certainly drew a lot more attention to Tetris Attack than releasing as Panel de Pon or stripping it down to its bare elements would have, but ultimately, your enjoyment of the game is going to come down to your relationship with the design of the puzzle game put before you. It is possible that you might like the elements of the game but just can’t match up to the speed requirements of the game, or you may just not have a good eye for matching up same-colored blocks. However, the block matching is fair and the game appropriately weighted in your favor depending on the difficulty of the mode you’ve picked and the stage you are on in it. Casual puzzlers will have a few things they can do and enjoy and hardcore puzzle game fans will find some simple yet deep mechanics to explore. Tetris Attack’s eases the challenge of it’s gameplay with a wonderful visual and musical style to avoid frustrating the player, and the variety on offer means you will have a lot to do if you’re willing to put some time in the game and develop your skill at it.
And so, I give Tetris Attack for the Super Nintendo…
A GREAT rating. With a puzzle game, it’s important to consider the strength of the mechanics in rating it, and Tetris Attack’s are laid out beautifully. While they do increase to extreme levels of difficulty, that’s only present if you choose to search it out. Tetris Attack’s multiple modes are all fun in different ways and the game does its best to train you up in them. Some modes can be fun even if you don’t want to learn how to do the bigger matches or chains. The presence of a story also makes it more interesting for the goal-oriented gamer, and while it is a simple tale being told, taking on interesting opponents in your puzzle solving match-ups makes it all the more enjoyable. The friendly art direction really does a lot in helping the game seem more than just another block matching game, and I still can’t help but love the expressions on the baby Yoshis’ faces or the way they sing along with the theme on the title screen.
If you are looking for a puzzle game with depth and charm, Tetris Attack is a wonderful choice, even if it’s not about Tetris and “Attack” is hardly a good word for even the Vs. mode gameplay.