There was a time when a video game could not be considered an addiction - but then came Tetris. And there was a time when a video game could not be considered a religion - but then came Tetris Attack.

A shrine
After playing enough Tetris Attack, this screen will seem cool.

   Often abbreviated to "T.A." by initiated cultists, this game harnessed every ounce of potential that lay sleeping in the original Tetris, and then doubled it with a ferocious two-player mode. The elegant simplicity, mind-bending puzzle-nature, and depth of gameplay all remained - but now there was a real person next to you to humiliate and trash-talk. It was truly the dawn of a golden age.

   Surprisingly enough, Tetris Attack has little in common with its predecessor besides a stack of square blocks and a marketable name. Instead of organizing falling pieces into compact rows, the player reorganizes a pre-made stack of differently colored tiles. The goal is nearly as simple as the original's: arrange three or more tiles of the same color in a row or column and they disappear. The stack rises steadily from the bottom of the screen. It reaches the top, kaboom. Nothing to it …that is, until you actually try to accomplish this seemingly simple task. Suddenly, finding three blocks to line up gets a lot harder, and now the veteran players start talking about combos and chains. Eh?

  Break it down.
A four star break.

   Connecting four or more blocks of the same color forms a combo. These are useful, but to rake in the really gargantuan points, you need to learn to pull off chains. Basically, these are sequences of connections and combos that set up to occur one right after the other, domino-style. After the last link of a chain, the game celebrates with a pompous trumpet fanfare - the more "links" in the chain, the more grandiose the fanfare (and insulting to your opponent). It's here that you begin to see the mind-blowing depth of the game: after struggling for ten minutes to finally set up a chain of two links, you hear a more experienced player mention that he once pulled off a thirty-eight linker in the midst of competition. Only then do you realize: there's a long way to go.

   As you find out, there are more ways of making chains than you'll ever be able to pull off in a real game - some that require lightning fingers, some that demand incredible eye speed, and some that aren't even possible unless you change how you hold the controller. Ordinary puzzle games are about as interactive as dominos - you set off the first link, and watch the rest unfurl. Tetris Attack, however, introduces "skill chains" into the mix. With split second timing and a mastery of the game's internal rules, the player can pull off mid-air snags of falling pieces, anti-gravity chains involving unsupported blocks, simultaneous drop-support swaps, and more.

Wiggler Power!
The weak Poochy falls to the superior Flying Wiggler.

   Each link in a chain usually employs a different technique, and successfully implementing each technique requires the ability to make instant decisions based only on a glance at the entire screen. Becoming a true T.A. sage (roughly the equal of a Jedi Master in terms of skill acquired and time invested) requires seeing the entire stack as one object, all at a glance. Achieving this Zen-like oneness with the tiles usually involves over 1000 hours of studying, button-mashing, and philosophizing on the meaning of existence.

   This depth of gameplay is what makes Tetris Attack a true masterpiece. However, the heart-pounding two-player mode is what turns players into true junkies. Instead of the mind-expanding serenity and solitude of setting up chains and combos in one-player mode, your Zen-like oneness is pitted against an opponent in an epic, adrenaline-pumping battle to the death. Now there are two stacks of blocks on the screen, and each time you make a combo or chain, a solid, unusable block of garbage thwomps down on your opponent. More impressive maneuvers, of course, yield grander garbage blocks. A link formed adjacent to a garbage block causes part or all of the block to transform into useable tiles. Savvy players soon realize they can set up chains and combos to "catch" the falling garbage blocks, and a vicious cycle of garbage, set-up, connect, is begun.

  Tetris Attack
Swap, chain, combo.

   The lightning pace of the two-player mode is, at first, daunting. The first-timer can almost feel his brain starting to overload and melt - it's like trying to run Windows 98 on an abacus. Fortunately, the designers realized the huge disparity between neophyte and sage, so two-player mode allows for 100 different handicap settings. As a player slowly works his way up the ranks, each phase is a major personal triumph - from the first four-block combo to the 40-link chain that branches three ways and causes two screens' worth of blocks to disappear. Little by little, you rewire the very fibers of your brain to keep up with the CPU, and eventually the Super Nintendo is the one that isn't quite fast enough. But it's not until a player reaches true enlightenment that the unshakable, panicked feeling of "must…move…blocks…faster!" begins to subside.

   One thing is for sure - the obsession of Tetris Attack's followers is not to be underestimated. From the game's first, almost overlooked release, to the title's current cult status and underground Internet presence, acolytes have proclaimed Tetris Attack not only a better puzzle title than the original Tetris, but the defining game in the puzzle genre, period.

Retrospective by David Weaver, GIA.
Tetris Attack
Developer Intelligent Systems / Nintendo
Publisher Nintendo
Genre Puzzle
Medium Cartridge
Platform SNES
Released 1996
FAQ and term dictionary
18 screen shots and 4 movies