It's not Tetris, but it plays well

September 18, 1997
Web posted at: 7:21 p.m. EDT (2321 GMT)

By Steven L. Kent

Tetris is the most popular video and computer game of all time. No other game even comes close.

"People sometimes ask me what I do," says Alexey Pajitnov, the Russian mathematician who created the game. "When I tell them I make computer games, they sometimes say, `I don't play those games. But just in case, what game did you make?' When I tell them Tetris, they say, `Oh, Tetris. I play Tetris.'"

Tetris, on the off-chance that anybody in the known universe doesn't know, is a computer puzzle game in which players guide falling two-dimensional blocks and fit them into horizontal rows at the bottom of the screen.

This article, however, is not about Tetris. In fact, this article is about a game that barely resembles Tetris. It's called Tetrisphere. And while it borrows heavily from the formula that made Tetris such a hit, Tetrisphere is definitely a game with a strong identity of its own.

You play Tetrisphere, a new game available only for the Nintendo 64 game console, by placing blocks on a spherical puzzle to peel away its layers. It feels a little like the original Tetris, but this time, you are working with a 3-D sphere that you spin in search of gaps in which to stick your blocks.

There are other differences, as well. In Tetris you had to deal with six kinds of blocks. Though there are several shapes in Tetrisphere, as well, you need only play with two kinds of blocks in any one puzzle.

Nintendo made a wise choice limiting the number of blocks; this game is stressful and confusing just as it is. To place a block, you must find a spot in which you can fit your block next to two other like blocks to set off a chain reaction in which an entire row of blocks flies off of the sphere.

Finding the right spot to place your blocks would be easy except for one problem: The game is timed. When you take too long to set your blocks, the sphere grows. You lose when it's too big, and it gets increasingly difficult to place your blocks each time the sphere gets larger. In short, you either hurry or lose.

As usual, Nintendo has found other ways to dress this game up and add value. There are several types of Tetrisphere on this N64 cartridge. In one version, you help a friendly robot escape from the sphere by peeling holes in it. In another, you solve puzzles by uncovering pictures. OK, these are mostly cosmetic differences, but you will notice a change in the game.

The best and most frustrating version of the game is the two-player mode. In this one you race against a human opponent. Opponents can punish each other by causing inactive blocks to drop on each other's spheres.

Tetrisphere is a good game and a solid piece of programming. It's the kind of lightweight game you can pick up any time and enjoy. Putting it down is another story.

Tetrisphere's clean, bright graphics may not be as bright and colorful as the original (due to the restricted number of blocks per sphere), but the spheres are large and clear.

Though largely unrelated to Tetris, Tetris players should enjoy Tetrisphere. With more than 200 levels, it has a lot to offer.

(c) 1997, Steven L. Kent Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate

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