The "Tetris Effect" that the psychedelic 2018 release from Enhance, Resonair, Monstars, and Stage Games gets its name from is not tied exclusively to playing Tetris. It's possible to become entranced while watching Tetris too, because when I fell down the Classic Tetris World Championship (CTWC) rabbit hole on YouTube a few years ago, I fell hard. Take one look at the view counts on videos from the CTWC and you'll see that I'm not alone. While titles like Puyo Puyo Tetris and Tetris 99 have attracted players of all skill levels with their spins on modern versus mode Tetris, thousands of people have lost countless hours watching top Tetris competitors challenge each other in 1989's unforgiving NES version.
Tetris Effect: Connected, the new multiplayer expansion launching first with the new releases on Xbox One, Xbox Series S/X, and the Windows 10 store on Nov. 10, is not solely focused on competitive puzzling. Its titular mode is actually a casual-friendly co-op experience. Folks who don't know how to set up a T-spin Triple or what "7-Bag randomization" means will still find plenty to love in Connected's multiplayer offerings, but for those who do, the inclusion of a tribute to Classic Tetris may end up being the star of the show.
Mark MacDonald of Enhance is excited for people to get their hands on all of the new modes in Connected, after many months of comments from fans of the original release. "We had all these people reach out who were playing the game in single-player and really loving it, but at the same time they wanted to share it with somebody," he says. "We had people who would pass the controller with their partner and take turns on levels, things like that, but we could tell that people were struggling to articulate their thoughts on the game. They wanted to experience it with other people. That part really seemed to fit the vibe of the game."
MacDonald knows that the idea of adding multiplayer to Tetris Effect two years after its initial launch is sure to raise some eyebrows though. "One of the things that we talked about was that the game had no multiplayer at all, which is kind of a rarity for a Tetris game," MacDonald says. "We talked about the reasons why that was, and it was mostly [that] we didn't have a great idea. We weren't inspired for multiplayer."
With Puyo Puyo Tetris and other solid competitive Tetris experiences already on the market, MacDonald says that Enhance and Resonair decided to double-down on making Tetris Effect as a more substantial single-player title. Then, towards the end of development, the introduction of Tetris Effect's key new mechanic lit a spark—the time-stopping Zone ability, which lets players clear more than four lines at a time, had obvious potential beyond the single-player Journey mode.
"When we saw that, we were like 'Oh man, what would this mean for multiplayer?'" MacDonald says. Without enough time left to do a Zone-based multiplayer mode justice before release in 2018, MacDonald says the idea sort of became "the one that got away." Now, the Zone mechanic features in three of the five new multiplayer modes.
Togetherness Through Tetris
Connected mode sees a team of three players working against shared A.I. bosses. The three co-op players are each working to clear lines on their own separate boards while dealing with various "blitz" attacks the boss sends over. These can be anything from your standard Tetris garbage lines to tricks cribbed from Tetris Effect's single-player variants and even the notoriously difficult Tetris: The Grand Master series. Lines cleared by the co-op players contribute to a single, shared Zone meter, and once that's filled up, the players can finally go on the offensive.
As teased in the Connected reveal trailer, once that Zone meter is full the three players see their boards temporarily merge, forming a 30 block-wide Tetris matrix that each player then takes turns dropping tetrominoes into. By clearing these triple-wide lines while the meter ticks down, the co-op players can dish out damage to the boss in the form of unclearable garbage lines. Once the meter runs out, it's time to start building it back up again.
The vibe of Tetris Effect hits just as well (if not better) in co-op. Even going as far as featuring a reprisal/remix of Tetris Effect's opening track, Connected mode absolutely feels like it fits in complement to the original package. The boards on-screen move in time to the music, sweeping particle effects regularly accentuate the action, and the overall feel of the gameplay (right down to the vibrations in the controller) is as lively as ever.
Enhance wants to keep Connected as a pure co-op experience most of the time, especially for regular matchmaking, but once a week there will be a way for folks to dabble with a ranked competitive off-shoot. During a 24-hour "Full Moon" period each weekend, players will be able to matchmake in Connected Vs., where a fourth player takes over the role of the A.I. boss.
"We wanted to have something where a really skilled player would have a reason to get on [Connected] over the weekend," MacDonald explains. "Maybe the peons don't challenge them, but if it's three against one and they can set the handicap on themselves, they can make it interesting." Having played a fair amount of intense Tetris 99, I shudder to think about what it might take for an average team of three to overcome the best battle royale Tetris players armed with a variety of tricky boss abilities.
A Versus Mode for Whatever Vibe You're After
With the standard Connected co-op mode serving as its main attraction, I found what I expected out of Tetris Effect's bread-and-butter competitive mode in Zone Battle. It's a one-on-one offering that plays a lot like any official versus Tetris from the past decade or so, save for the addition of the Zone mechanic: get hit with a stack of garbage lines from your opponent's Dodecatris and you'll be very lucky to have survived. Likewise, entering the Zone can be very useful in defensive situations where you need to clear a bunch of messy lines.
What I wasn't expecting from Tetris Effect: Connected are its competitive Score Attack modes. The standard Score Attack embraces modern, Zone-free Tetris rules (holds, T-spin bonuses, etc.) and gets rid of sending garbage to the other player. Whichever player has the highest score at the end of the game is the winner.
Classic Score Attack, though, is a real delight for anyone who has watched those CTWC videos. On top of being styled after NES Tetris (complete with a pseudo-chiptune music track), Classic Score Attack tries to replicate the rules and feel of the 1989 release at a granular level and incorporates metrics popularized by the CTWC. The pieces move and rotate differently; pieces lock into place quicker; it even counts the maximum drought between I-bar pieces. It's the closest an official Tetris release has ever gotten to replicating the NES Tetris experience, and it's all because of the CTWC's boom in popularity.
"We went in 2018, and we were blown away," MacDonald says of Enhance's trip to Portland, Oregon to see the annual CTWC tournament in-person. "It's such a cool and exciting esport, but it's so hard to get into because you need an NES and a CRT TV."
In spite of the hardware requirements, the CTWC's growth has seen younger players entering the scene. 2018 was the year that saw Joseph Saelee—then just 16 years old—beat seven-time world champion Jonas Neubauer for the championship title. Saelee won again in 2019, this time in a field including even more players close to his age.
Another young player, Tomohiro "greentea" Tatejima, is also largely responsible for why Tetris Effect's Classic Score Attack is as faithful as it is. "Tatijima-san, when we met him, was in college," says MacDonald. "We met him at a Classic Tetris World Championship tournament. He's one of the world's top players, top five definitely in that mode." After linking up in Portland, Tatejima and Enhance both returned to Japan. Tatejima then contacted Enhance about the possibility of working there, got an internship, and is now a lead designer for Connected's multiplayer. "You can really see it, especially when you get into the options," MacDonald says.
Sure enough, Tatejima's influence is all over the options, which range from tweaking the nature of the tetromino randomization to a movement setting that emulates hyper-tapping (a technique that NES players basically need in order to play past a certain speed). "He kinda got his dream job, not to put words in his mouth," says MacDonald. "We have to balance the A.I., and it's hard for [Tatejima] to actually bring it down to our mortal level."
Classic Score Attack won't usurp NES Tetris—MacDonald acknowledges that there's simply no way to perfectly match the latency of a wired NES controller and a CRT. If nothing else, it certainly illustrates just how unforgiving the 1989 rules really are. "This would be a good entry point for people who are interested in the scene—if you want to get pro-level and you're actually going to go to the tournament, you're going to want to get a real full set-up."
A Wait for Some, and Hopefully an Oasis for Many
When Tetris Effect: Connected launches, it'll also be joining the Xbox Game Pass catalog. That means it'll instantly have a huge player base, and while that might make it a bit hard for players on the PS4, Oculus, and Epic Games Store releases to hold tight until next summer for their free Connected update, it sounds like Enhance won't be leaving Tetris Effect behind any time soon.
"15 million people are going to get access to this game on day one, which is like 14,999,000 more people than will have ever played it before," MacDonald says. "We have to be ready to get player feedback, watch how people are playing the game in the wild, and then—as much as we can, as often as we can, as fast as we can—let's adjust the game and pivot and rebalance based on what happens in the world."
That doesn't mean there'll be more major add-on content on the way for Tetris Effect or anything that's paid DLC. Even all the unlockable player avatars for multiplayer can be earned with consistent, determined play regardless of skill level; a player's on-screen rank might then be top-tier, but in ranked modes they'll still get matched against players with similar skill.
At launch, Connected will have cross-play between Xbox systems and PC, and full cross-play is a possibility for when the multiplayer reaches other platforms as well. "There's no reason, legally or contractually, that we can't do it," MacDonald says, but technical hurdles could still present themselves.
As for any exclusive features, there is one special post-launch addition on the way that's only planned for the new Xboxes and compatible PCs: ray tracing in the new Score Attack stages. Since no PS5 version is planned (just the PS4 Tetris Effect running in back compat), you'll need a ray tracing-ready PC or a new Xbox to see it, and again, it'll be exclusive to the Score Attack modes, since those backdrops were specifically designed to take advantage of ray tracing's potential for dramatic lighting.
MacDonald stresses that the studio isn't promising the world here, just a neat graphical bonus feature for systems that support it. "It's pretty cool when the light sourcing in that level is actually real," he says, "because all the tetrominoes are lit and they're casting shadows, moving around to the beat."
Another point Enhance wants to stay humble about is Connected's status as a launch title for the Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S. "We're a launch title, and I'm really happy to be a launch title, but we're not going to take Halo's spot," MacDonald says. "This is not your 'this is the game I'm going to buy to show off to my friends.' It literally exists, besides the multiplayer stuff, on other systems."
Instead (and MacDonald ends up making the comparison before I have the chance to), Enhance hopes that Tetris Effect: Connected can fill the kind of role Geometry Wars did on Xbox 360 or that Resogun did for the PS4—that "second or third game that you buy that's the game you keep coming back to."
"Two years ago we thought the world was in a bad place. Now it's like, oh my god, people need an escape, and we wanted to give it to them," MacDonald says. Now, even if it's only something you play a few times with friends or a title you keep booting up on your shiny new console, Enhance hopes it'll be "a welcome oasis." Given that the Connected update is simply adding to an already-great version of Tetris, I think that status is already just about locked-in.