A Puzzle Game of Champions
Let’s rewind to the summer of 1998. I am ten years old and I have recently moved from Colorado to upstate New York. My family has decided to head back to our old home state to see some old friends and see some old sights. As a ten year old, I have one thing on my mind: I am bored and I want something to do. My family is staying with some friends of ours, the Shades, who happen to have a fairly decent SNES collection. Some of the titles I was introduced to during these few days included such gems as World Heroes 2, Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, Kinghts of the Round and Kirby’s Dream Land 3. I was loving it when I had the chance to play what I could, but it wasn’t until the second to last day that we were there that the host family pulled out the big guns: Tetris Attack. I come from a family of puzzle gamers. We had the classics like Dr. Mario and basic Tetris, but there were also other weirder pieces in our repertoire like Pac-Attack and Zoop. My family loved a good competitive puzzler. So, when these fine people introduced us to something new and fun we were more than up for the challenge.
What happened next was a four hour long session of each member of each family dueling each other in some of the most intense puzzle competition I had ever experienced in the few years I had been alive. There was stuff flying all over the place. People were screaming and laughing and always getting more excited for another round. This was intoxicating! Playing Tetris Attack was something that I would remember for years to come, but it was something extremely special to somebody else: my mother.
Not too long after we got back home from Colorado, my mom went to some local store and grabbed herself a copy of this pinnacle of perfection. When she unveiled it to the four kids at home we celebrated with another, smaller, session of playtime. This game united us in a way that few others had, and we gladly included it in our modest collection. So… why should you care? Let me explain.
Simple Design, Bottomless Complexity
I might just be a TOUCH biased on this game, but it’s for a good reason. Let’s start with what the game is.
Tetris Attack is a matching puzzle game where you have a column of blocks with different colors and shapes on them (Circles are green, Stars are yellow, etc). Your job is to match three or more of them in either rows or columns, at which point the matched blocks will flash and then disappear one by one. You can set up combos by making matches with blocks that fall after a match has been made, or by creating new matches with precision timing (It makes a lot more sense in motion). In versus modes, these combos send “garbage blocks” at your opponents. The more consecutive matches in your combo, the bigger and badder the garbage. We’ll talk more about that later.
A few months back, you might have noticed that a game was added to the Switch Online library called “Panel De Pon”. It’s in Japanese, but it’s almost the exact same game as Tetris Attack with a few big changes – almost all of which cosmetic. See, Panel De Pon tells the story of Lip (whose flower rod you can use in Smash Bros ever since Melee) freeing her fairy friends from the grasp of Thanatos, a big bad dude, and bringing back light and joy to the world they live in. Now, Nintendo saw this idea and realized that not a ton of folks outside of Japan would be super keen on a new IP that focused around fairies and puzzle mechanics, so they decided the best idea imaginable to make this game marketable to the rest of the world: Yoshi’s mother-friggin’ ISLAND characters, baby! So, instead of Lip and all her fairy friends we got Yoshi as the main protagonist and a slew of great Yoshi’s Island characters to back him up. We got Poochy, Gargantua Blargg, Raphael the Raven, Lakitu and Wiggler! Add Bowser to the mix and you have a cast of memorable friends you love to see.
A Duel for the Ages
There are a few standard modes for the game including a basic stage clear mode that has you clear blocks until you reach a certain point further down your stack of blocks (the blocks slowly rise with time, or you can press the L or R buttons to manually raise the stack). There’s a puzzle mode that has you clear a set number of blocks with a limited amount of moves. The games’s one player VS mode has you fight all of the games characters in succession until you eventually fight the big bad at the end (Bowser in Tetris Attack) and then there’s your standard endless mode and a time trial where you go for a high score or fastest speed. But let’s be clear here: You didn’t come here for the single player.
The 2-player VS mode of Tetris Attack is nothing short of a masterclass in how you make a great competitive puzzle game. Sure, there are other good 2-player puzzle games that are a blast to play (I’m looking at you Puyo Puyo x Tetris) but nothing compares to the celestial-level of joy that comes with matching with a high level player of Tetris Attack. Let me tell you the story of a kid named Rhys Benson.
As you can already tell, I love this game with all of my heart, but not a lot of people got the chance to play this nearly perfect gem. So back in 2017, I had started working at a local McDonalds to get myself through school. I felt super old compared to the high schoolers who were working there with me (I was 28 at the time), but most of the kids there were pretty great. So while I’m grilling what can only questionably be regarded to as meat I get to talking with him and the subject comes around to the Super Nintendo, which this 17-year-old kid has. We’re chatting up some of the good gems on there like Donkey Kong Country 2 and Starfox when Rhys starts talking about one of his favorite games that has become a family favorite: Tetris Attack. I audibly gasp. We start getting excited about one day playing with each other, but we can’t quite figure out how to make it happen. He’s still in high school. I am almost double his age. So what do we do? We hook up a Raspberry Pi chocked to the brim with emulators and games into our breakroom TV and decide that this will be the place where we go to battle. And you know what? It was incredible.
Every day we would work with each other we would sync up our breaks so that we could duel and some of our fights gathered small crowds in an already small room. This was magic. This was everything I had ever dreamed. Rhys excelled at sending enormous combos at me that would fill nearly all of my screen while I excelled at breaking those garbage blocks down with reactionary combos that would send massive piles of trash back at him. The average round would take anywhere from 8 to 10 minutes (in a game where matches usually last anywhere from 1 to 3) and we would usually be too mentally exhausted to play the second round needed to achieve victory. There is a level of artistry and power that comes with being great at Tetris Attack, friends. I can only tell you that it is something worth striving for.
Reign of the Champions
Man… I just REALLY love this game. It’s incredible to play with friends and it’s pretty solid to play by yourself to pass some time. Except puzzle mode. To heck with puzzle mode. The base modes of this game are fabulous, but there will never be anything as good as playing this game against a friend. It’s a shame that we only got Panel De Pon in the original Japanese for the SNES online as compared to the greatness that was the localized Yoshi-themed Tetris Attack, but maybe one day Nintendo will see the error of their ways and let me play as Blargg, the only character who matters (next to Kamek) Until then, I guess I can always play the original.
Reasons Why Tetris Attack Is Still The Greatest Competitive Puzzle Game 24 Years After Its Release And Why You Should Go Play It Immediately
- Addictive and captivating multiplayer
- Fabulous single player modes and challenging optional difficulties
- An absolute BANGER of a soundtrack.
- Dropping massive garbage blocks on your foes is ALWAYS satisfying.
- Endlessly replayable and always a delight.
After nearly a quarter century, I don’t think there has come a puzzle game that has quite topped Tetris Attack. Though there have been reiterations of this game, none quite hold the greatness that classic Tetris Attack still holds to this day.