Tetris is one of the most long-running, recognizable brands in video games. It is also a formula which has been experimented with more than almost any other classic franchise over the years, and new Facebook title Tetris Stars is the latest in this long line of variants. While still in beta and carrying a prominent “Facebook Sneak Peek” banner at the top of its game canvas, the game has been gaining considerable traction recently, showing up atop last week’s emerging Facebook games list.
Tetris Stars is based around the same principles as the “Galaxy” mode in EA’s recent new iOS version of the game. Players must “dig” through an arrangement of scattered rocks by completing lines using the seven iconic “Tetrimino” pieces, each made up of four square blocks. The game begins with 60 seconds on the clock, the time limit extends every time the player reaches a buried “star” in the bedrock. As the game progresses through the collection of these stars, various powerups become available, making it easier to clear large groups of lines and dig ever deeper. Players may also earn bonus stars and soft currency with which to activate powerups by completing simple objectives during play.
The game’s default “beginner” configuration uses a “one-click” control scheme, again last seen in the iOS version. Three possible places to drop the current shape are shown to the player; clicking on one immediately drops the piece into place. If none of the three presented positions are suitable, the player may click a “cycle” button to select three more or put the current piece into a holding area to use later. This control scheme requires very little dexterity on the part of the player — rather, it simply requires an eye for good places to drop pieces.
The player also has the option of using the traditional Tetris controls, where the current piece may be freely moved and rotated. This provides players with a lot more control over where their piece goes, but also runs the risk of making mistakes. This control option is not made very obvious to players — it may be selected by clicking a tiny on-screen icon with a picture of a mouse on it. The inclusion of this feature is not explicitly pointed out to players at any point, which may lead Tetris “traditionalists” to dismiss Stars as not being a “proper” Tetris game if they don’t come across it. In a further move that may dismay these traditionalists, Stars dispenses with Tetris’ main “fail state” mechanic whereby the game ends if the piled up blocks reach the top of the screen — instead, if this happens, the top few rows simply disappear and play continues, with the game only ending when the time limit runs out.
The two control schemes raise a significant balancing issue. Tetris Stars rewards players for inserting pieces into difficult arrangements, with tricky moves such as the notorious “T-Spin” maneuver providing a score bonus. In the default “beginner” control scheme, performing a T-Spin is a simple matter of clicking in the appropriate location, while using the traditional controls requires a degree of skill and careful timing. This puts those using the “beginner” controls at a significant advantage, as they can pull off these “skill shots” without requiring any actual skill. In turn, this unbalances the game’s prominent leaderboards in favor of those using these simplified controls. This problem could perhaps be resolved with separate leaderboards for those using the two different control schemes, or perhaps by removing the skill shot bonuses from those using the simplified system.
Balancing issues aside, Tetris Stars is a well-produced game with crisp visuals, good pacing and unobtrusive but effective sound and music. Its monetization and social features also don’t feel like they’re thrust into the player’s face at every opportunity, allowing those who simply want to play for fun rather than competition to have an enjoyable experience while at the same time allowing for plenty of rivalry between friends in weekly tournaments.
Tetris Stars is off to a good start but whether or not it continues to see long-term success on Facebook will depend entirely on whether or not it can convert “Tetris purists” to its new take on the formula. As such, it’s one to watch carefully for the moment.
A decent Tetris-themed puzzle game, but it may take time to bring the purists around to its new ways of doing things.