A puzzle game by any other name would play as sweet

tetris attack

Tetris Attack (1996)

I’m all about nominative determinism lately, the idea that people subconsciously choose their path in life based on their own last name. So if your surname is Wainwright, you might find yourself gravitating towards owning a brothel as you’ll be well used to dealing with wagons. I once met someone with the last name Victory, and I’ll tell you this, he was no loser. If your last name is Cooper, then hard luck, barrel making probably isn’t much of a viable trade anymore. But you could always marry someone of last name Ramsbottom and eke out a living there.

There’s famous examples too – There was an F1 driver called Scott Speed, although he sort of eschewed that name in the end. Scott Attitude might have been closer to the mark. Staying with the speed theme we’ve got Usain Bolt, whose calling in life made him a lot different to a waitress I was once served by, who was called Slowey.

We mustn’t forget Thomas Crapper, who made all kinds of innovations to plumbing and modern toiletfare but still ended up letting himself down badly by not having the word crap named after him – he was hundreds of years too late for that. Then there’s the man at Nintendo who killed Reggie, Doug Bowser, who loved the big green lizard so much he decided to turn into him.

But then it goes even further than that, because now your first name also has a lot of power in determining your personality and who you are. To wit: Lorcan – you are a guaranteed merchant banker. Cayden – you will be a little tearaway running around pubs and restaurants and supermarkets, undeterred by your fat, chain-smoking single mother barely looking up from her phone and shouting “CAYDEN” down the Ready Meals aisle.

Tabitha – you will have a horse and play the violin, or even better, the dulcimer; Naomi – you are a 9 out of 10 at the very least; Brendan – you will either be born a farmer or one day become one; Eugene – you will retire as the undefeated king of the swots. Klamborghini – yes, a girl in Ireland has that name with a silent ‘K’ and no, you don’t need me to help you with this one.

However, here’s one I simply can’t fathom – a late Super Nintendo game called Tetris Attack, which has absolutely nothing to do with Tetris, and so far as I can tell, there’s not an awful lot of Attacks going on either. In fact, even the version we received, with Yoshi and pals in all of the art, is a misnomer.

Play this game in Japan and suddenly it’s called Panel de Pon and features a legion of tiny schoolgirls who, without wishing to consult Rule 34, probably don’t have as much popularity among soon-to-be-jailed weebs as the girls in Puyo Puyo do, for example.

I suppose Tetris did come from the land of communism, after all – perhaps North America’s reappropriation of their brand as “our” brand was revenge for Apollo Creed. Or possibly something less consequential like the Cuban Missile Crisis.

It’s all about marketing innit; when they wanted to release a game like this for the Japanese Market, they decided to use anime girls, some of questionable virtue, some even of questionable age.

When they wanted to market it for us Occidental folks, they used… the Tetris name, and Yoshi’s Island characters?! Hey, I adore Yoshi’s Island, and it’s a great aesthetic to use. But still, pretty bizarre choice right?

But that’s how it was – puzzle games brought to the West rarely had enough of their own steam behind them if they weren’t called Tetris, so they usually had to bolt some periphery character on there to get even a tiny bit of brand recognition.

Hence you get the incredibly titled Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine, which becomes the far less pulse-quickening Kirby’s Avalanche or Kirby’s Ghost Trap on the SNES. It’s why you have those odd games like Yoshi’s Cookie, or even just Yoshi, for SNES, NES and Game Boy – Yoshi seemed to get whored out for these quite a bit. And ten points for you if you remember Wario’s Woods.

Well, whether you’re more into Yoshi or little girls, and the police shall be called on you in both instances, what we have here is an inventive puzzle game. The excellent thing about puzzle games is that they’re usually available to pick up for half-nothing, and you can potentially get a lifetime’s play out of them.

Tetris Attack is definitely the type of game that’s very easy to learn but frightfully hard to master. You’ve got a well of different blocks, and the goal is to prevent them from reaching the top, but that’s really where the Tetris similarities end.

You exercise control over this towering inferno of colourful blocks by flipping them horizontally – you control a cursor that snaps onto two blocks, and pressing the button flips the two around, or shifts a block into an empty space if it exists.

Line up three, four or five in a row and you’ll send garbage your opponent’s way, or even stop time altogether. While all this is happening, the stack is rising to the top like multi-coloured yeast, and… look, there’s really not much point in me giving you a lecture about the game. Go and give it a look, and play it for yourself, because I haven’t put in the twenty years one would need to become an expert at this.

And if you don’t like Yoshi, try Pokémon Puzzle League instead. And if you don’t like Pokémon… well, I’m sorry to tell you that Dr. Robotnik never released a version of this game. He was busy changing his name by deed-poll to Eggman at the time. Didn’t anyone tell him that nominative determinism doesn’t work when you force it? There’s a reason I haven’t changed my last name to Shagger, even if it’s a perfect fit.

It’s bloody stressful, as all top puzzle games tend to be. You take a game like Columns on the Sega, for example. That one was never stressful, because it just decided to speed up like crazy and kill you at some stage and that was that, and you were almost relieved because the music was seriously starting to bring you down.

But whether you’re alone, or playing against some player who hopefully hasn’t got a clue, Tetris Attack gets pretty intense when you’re moments away from death, and your side of the board is shaking like it owes you money and your last name is Slaughter.

With a two player mode, an endless mode, and even a little story mode where you unlock other Yoshi’s Island characters (or little girls and dragons, naturally) you’ve got quite a lot in a cheap package here, whether you’re alone or with a pal. You’ll be alone of course, if you play the schoolgirl variant, so that’s always comforting to have.

And I know it barely matters, but some of the background graphics are very nice and colourful, and the game’s got some of the nicest, most relaxing music on the SNES – at least until your stack gets too high, and then suddenly it’s panic stations and your heartbeat provides some of the percussion.

There’s plenty of juice to keep you going here. My favourite is the Puzzle Mode, where you’ve got dozens of scenarios in front of you and you have only one, two or three moves to get rid of every block, or face the embarrassment of hearing the lose music and having all your pieces explode in your face.

Yes, this is a hell of an underrated game, probably the best puzzler on the SNES unless we can count the Tetris & Dr. Mario cart. Incredibly, a lot of people out there haven’t played this. So give it a go – you’ll find Tetris Attack to be a puzzle game so addictive, it’s almost worthy of its name.

20 November 2020

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