Tetris: looking at the past, and the Ultimate future

Ever since the game's initial inception in 1984 at the hands of programmer Alexei Pajitnov, Tetris has become a name in gaming folklore. It started on PC and Mac, and has since arrived on a number of consoles in various forms including the NES, Game Boy, SNES, and various others. Even today, it remains a highly popular name on current consoles, as well as mobile devices, thanks to EA's recent releases, including the timing-based Tetris Blitz.

Now Tetris Ultimate is coming from Ubisoft. Rather than try to divert the formula into something new again, Ubisoft is instead working alongside The Tetris Company to recapture the classic gameplay that made it work so well in the first place, while coupling it alongside new modes and online multiplayer--similar to what EA did with its Tetris release on PlayStation Network a few years ago – to draw in a new audience on Xbox One and PlayStation 4.

It's been a bumpy road for Tetris. While it's managed to maintain the course fairly well, there are some mistakes that Ubisoft should be cautious of when it comes to working with The Tetris Company on this new property. Here are a few things we've learned from previous games in the series, and how these lessons can apply into making Ultimate more, well, ultimate.

Don't mess too much with the formula

If we've learned anything, it's that deviating from what makes Tetris work so well to begin with can sometimes lead to disaster. Take Tetris 2 on the NES, for example. The original worked very well for that system, but for the sequel, pieces can actually be broken apart and in different colors. While that may sound like a saving grace for some looking to eliminate unnecessary lines, it instead bogged the game down, thus resulting in a title that didn't sell nearly as well as the original. (Thankfully, Nintendo more than made up for it years later with the stellar Tetris DS, which included some new ideas that actually worked.)

Another title that comes to mind is Tetrisphere. While bringing the series into the third dimension was a novel concept, it also added a new control scheme that didn't quite work as well as the original game. It had some neat appeal on its own terms, but most people seem to prefer plain old Tetris

Multiplayer makes a difference

Some people think that Tetris is better off without having a competitive edge, as the game is challenging enough as it is when the pieces start flying down at a rapid pace. However, looking back at past releases, we'd argue that multiplayer actually plays a tremendous part.

Remember the Atari Tetris arcade game, which later found a release on the NES under the Tengen label? That game was actually preferred over Nintendo's "official" version, mainly because it came with a two-player mode those fans couldn't get enough of. Instead of trying to embrace it, however, Nintendo buried it, alongside Tengen, and it's become a collector's item ever since.

Over the years, we haven't seen too many Tetris games that take advantage of the multiplayer factor, although EA's version for PSN was quite good when it came to four player action, and THQ's Tetris Evolution and Hudson's 3DS release Tetris Axis have introduced some form of social interactivity. In short, with this formula, the more the merrier--provided that there's a "twist" in terms of keeping players from getting lazy with putting lines together.

Ultimate, thankfully, looks to be grasping this concept very well, and that should be one of the bigger draws for it when it finally arrives. If only it had cross-console support…

Don't get too fancy with the graphics

With Tetris, sometimes it's best to keep a simple graphic design. Try to go overboard with background design, and you could distract players from what's happening on the playfield. Case in point, let's look at Tetris Evolution. That game was fun for what it was, but the backgrounds occasionally caused you to lose concentration on what was happening. As a result, that one wrong piece can easily drop, and next thing you know, you're fighting to stay alive.

With Ultimate, Ubisoft needs to worry more about game performance than schmoozing it up for a next-generation of players. After all, we've seen 8-bit style games like Towerfall: Ascension and 1001 Spikes flourish on these platforms, so there's no reason for the developers to go bonkers. Keep it simple, don't distract, but at least make the pieces big enough to view and place.

Keep it simple

Finally, let's remember the component that makes all of the good Tetris games so worthwhile: fun. It should be all about dropping the pieces, keeping up with the pace, and goofing off with your friends, and not so much new, twisted ideas that make the game go off the deep end. We mentioned keeping the mechanics simple and not going crazy with the graphical flourishes, but that all centers around the fact that Tetris is a simple concept that works well on its own. The pure fun of the game should be about the classic puzzling action through-and-through.

Give everyone a chance to play

Tetris Ultimate seems like an ideal title for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, but we're a little startled that the Wii U and 3DS aren't getting Tetris love. Sure, Ubisoft is a little wary on Wii U right now, but they still have a justified audience that would happily embrace another version of the beloved classic. Besides, if we're not wrong, didn't Tetris get some major exposure on Nintendo platforms years ago with its release alongside the Game Boy, as well as the NES?

Releasing Tetris Ultimate on the Wii U and 3DS (with cross platform play, natch) just makes sense. It wouldn't take long to port the game over and it would be a welcome little title in the summer season, when barely anything else is being released for either platform.

If Ubisoft really wants to hold out an olive branch on the Nintendo platforms to see what grabs on, it has to be Tetris Ultimate. It won't cost millions of dollars to port, and, hey, it'll certainly get a few more downloads sold on the Nintendo Network. Everybody wins.