Super Tetris. (Evaluation)
by David Sears
Tetris has captivated audiences of all ages ever since its arrival in this country in 1988 (it was designed in Russia). How appropriate that Super Tetris incorporates the Russian Circus as a theme--like the circus, it's fun for children of all ages. Though Super Tetris differs in presentation from Tetris only in its backgrounds and bouncy music, these differences will stun first-time players. Lions, clowns, and elephants--mainstays of the circus--enliven the screen. For you Super VGA owners, the 256-color paintings alone justify purchasing the game.
Maybe you don't have Super VGA yet, and maybe you intend never to upgrade. Forget the sound card, too, while you're at it; Super Tetris doesn't need all the frills Spectrum HoloByte generously offers. It's the quality of the gameplay that makes a game great, not the graphics and soundtrack.
Like so many other incredulous Tetris veterans, you may wonder what could've changed. After all, haven't there been more than a few Tetris sequels already? Blocks fall, you rotate them, you build lines, the machine beeps, and eventually blocks fall too fast for you to drop them into just the right slots. Play begins again, right?
Besides the innumerable public domain clones, Tetris was officially reincarnated three times. First came Welltris, a truly perplexing twist on the fill-the-grid theme. Not only do players have to contend with the usual falling-block formations, but they have to look down a three-dimensional well--four walls and a bottom, too--while they do it. This version probably finds its most avid fans among the mathematically minded, though any Tetris pro can do well enough for a while.
Faces showed up next. Instead of fitting blocks, players mix and match strips containing the eyes, noses, mouths, and so on of various historical figures. Many players thought that this went too far from the original design and reverted to playing the earlier versions.
Then WordTris debuted, and wordmongers had a field day. Blocks were falling again, but this time they contained letters. Building words instead of horizontal lines proves not only educational but surprisingly addictive. With the game's built-in 60,000-word dictionary, players can score points with all sorts of accidental spellings.
The designers might have stopped there, and everyone could've been happy playing a favorite variation. After all, Tetris had expanded in three diverse areas: strategy, visual effects, and words. Like Tetris addicts, though, the designers couldn't stop. In an ingenious feat of redesigning, Spectrum HoloByte has delivered a sequel that does justice to its auspicious title.
What's different about Super Tetris? The playfield runs deeper, divided in half by a "water line." Each level begins with a pit of scattered blocks, none of which make complete lines. To clear this rubble away and move to the next level, you must find open spots for the descending blocks and neatly stack them above the water line. Piece by piece, you work your way through the debris; every time you complete a line, the rubble scrolls up to meet you. A small display window to the left of the actual Super Tetris action slowly reveals a pattern in the debris; when you complete this picture, you move on to the next challenge.
Granted, all the rubble might seem to pose a bit of trouble. In the original Tetris, a big pile of disconnected blocks means trouble and often a quick end to the game. Don't worry, though; Super Tetris is much more forgiving. For every line you complete, you're rewarded with a bomb cluster. The more lines you clear at a time, the more bombs you earn--and you'll certainly make use of them, blowing away obtrusive blocks or activating special squares.
The special squares can greatly affect play. One square fills all the empty spaces between itself and the water line with blocks; another removes all the blocks above itself. Yet another square annihilates all the blocks within a 3 x 3 area. Blowing up a square with a bomb icon in it turns the next falling piece into a cluster of bombs shaped like that piece. Detonating still other squares can add blocks to the total number allotted to you per game; Super Tetris imposes a preset block limit. In most games, you'll need to earn a few extra blocks to clear away all the rubble, so go for those special squares.
Bombs and treasures make a tremendous difference in the psychology of the game. Instead of being the hapless victim of poorly placed shapes, you can act on your frustration and remove those bothersome pieces. In the original Tetris, a mistake can remain a mistake for a long while; in Super Tetris, it's just part of the gameplay.
Ask Tetris players about strategy. You'll receive ready answers, perhaps something like "I try to fit pieces in the middle last" or "I tend to stack pieces on the left and right." They've rationalized long ago why the longest pieces should remain vertical and why the perfect squares belong on the left. In Super Tetris, however, anything goes. Special blocks seem randomly scattered throughout the rubble, and the bombs make powerful equalizers. The save-game feature works wonders for timid players, allowing room for some freewheeling gameplay. You can return to the same level again and again, to the same situation, just as you saved it.
As mentioned earlier, Super Tetris has a competitive mode--you use your bombs and falling pieces to prevent your opponent from completing lines. There's also a cooperative option, which allows players to work together. Each of these two-player modes expands the width of the pit to increase block maneuverability.
In the head-to-head competition, you race against one another to clear away rubble. This two-person mode requires two copies of Super Tetris and a null modem cable or Novell local area network to function. Simpler single-player game variants include 5-, 10-, and 15-minute timed games.
As super as Super Tetris is, however, you'll often wonder just when that vital long, skinny piece might turn up. Super Tetris can display an almost malicious streak in withholding necessary pieces, and you might see eight red squares before you encounter the long purple one you so desperately require.
Also, Windows users must consider whether they want the Windows or the DOS version. Super Tetris for Windows makes excellent use of a 640 x 480 256-color display; the DOS-based display, though still quite attractive, drops the resolution to 320 x 200. Moreover, because of the problematic nature of Windows' relationship to sound cards, the Windows version of Super Tetris supports only Sound Blaster. And while the Windows version does multitask properly, it doesn't offer a head-to-head play option. The differences between the two versions balance out; forcing you to choose between two equally superb variants. Some players will no doubt gladly purchase both versions and alternate play between them.
No computer gamer can live by Tetris alone, not even Super Tetris. But given Super Tetris's unadulterated appeal to all age groups, both sexes, and yes, even computer-phobes and computer haters, no one who sees it will want to live without it.