“Games aren’t as they used to be” is a phrase often heard around the release of multiple movie-licensed titles, or a ridiculously lacking cash-in gaining relatively high scores. The consensus of games back in “the day” is that videogames were much more of a mind-**** and a lot harder than the powder-puff releases of today. This was usually down to two things; the inability to save frequently – even at all – and increasingly hard enemy AI – or both. The first games I encountered were the sequels to Streets of Rage and Sonic the Hedgehog, both of which could only be completed in a single play-through, so you were hard done by should the power cut out, your sister turn off the wrong plug when drying her hair or the console simply leaving to meet its maker.
However I think those who have a soft spot for the retro titles have missed a very important point. Back then, you couldn’t just turn to the internet to find out how to beat a boss. You had to hope a friend or distant relative also had the game and could show you a few moves, or even wait until the monthly issue of your favourite gaming magazine got round to posting a guide or some tips and tricks. Yes, believe it or not, gamers back in “the day” had to think for themselves, or just give up completely and be the ridicule of the school playground for eternity. Or until the summer holidays when you could lock yourself away and have a marathon session.
The reason for this hark back to the time of when Mario was just a trainee plumbing assistant and Sonic a bun in the oven is because Tetris Party has absolutely knocked me off my feet in astonishment. I’ve always shunned this long – perhaps longest – running gaming series as mere fodder for when travelling with a GameBoy on a long train journey. I even thought you had to build rows of the same colour and not just fill the screen horizontally to clear the deck, such was my ignorance.
Tetris Party is the perfect example of retro goodness in that it’s extremely easy to pickup and damn hard to master. Single player modes are a doddle as there’s never really an incentive to race through it quickly. Even the computer on the hardest difficulty, whilst challenging, can be beaten and eventually bettered. There are different variations that stay within the borders of block stacking, such as guiding a small fellow from the bottom of the screen to the top, stopping to grab flags on the way, through careful block placement and being sure not to splatter him. There’s an enjoyable mode inspired by Picross to place blocks in the design of objects, like apples, with a time limit, that offers a welcome break to merely clearing lines.
These shenanigans are rather easy and lenient, but their purpose is to train players on how to deal with different situations and how to get out of a seemingly impossible sticky end. I’ve never played Tetris with or against anyone before, let alone discussed it, because I’ve always considered it to be a cash-in on something that didn’t have a place in the videogames of today. This may explain why I lasted a mere 1 minute 20 seconds on my first foray into the online mode. It’s when playing against seasoned gamers that the appeal of Tetris explodes right in front of your face and reveals all; the small window at the top of the screen showing what shapes are coming next isn’t there to make something of the background, it’s for planning. The hard drop button isn’t to save waiting for blocks to float down, it’s to advance onto the next block quickly. These guys are mentally planning their assault three blocks ahead of you; by the time my first shape had floated to the bottom of the pile my opponent had already cleared three lines and was well on the way to clearing another four.
Tetris isn’t a game; it’s mental arithmetic. The presence of the Brain Training titles is immediately justified. I’m left feeling like I was taking the piss out of a disabled kid because he couldn’t kick a football and yet just handed me my own arse at chess. You can feel your brain waking itself up, saying “Wait, what? Where’s the reticule? The Nazis? The zombies? You mean I have to work this **** out?”. It’s also rekindled my interest in the Guitar Hero and now Rock Band series, whose premise on sheer concentration and hand-eye co-ordination is old-school at heart.
Is Tetris Party fun, though? Well, it depends how much you like a challenge. For people like myself whose most notable mental strain is dealing with the general public, it’s a welcome break to be thoroughly tested. The problem is picking it up first, because it does sound like, and is, hard work playing against human opponents. Many won’t like having to put the hours in to nail down a good strategy and have a chance of putting themselves on the leader-board and as such Tetris Party is only likely to be played by those who know what’s involved. Or, such as myself, who like taking small steps back to when gaming was a test of skill and patience for the gamer and not a trial for programmers to see who can get the best graphics out of the hardware.