Do you remember the first time you heard those down-home old-timey Russian folk songs while dropping blocks into stacks, trying to clear the screen line-by-line? Yeah, me neither. But I remember how simple Tetris was – back in my day – and how much fun it was with such a simple formula. Somewhere between the game’s first playable version in 1984 and now, Tetris got more and more complicated when variations of the game landed on different systems. Somewhere around the original Xbox generation, I got sick of wondering what changes I’d have to endure with the series. I just wanted old Tetris back.

Well, my hiatus has been broken by Tetris Axis for the 3DS (by Hudson Soft, published by Nintendo) – and while it’s not a perfect game, it’s a great experience that can be amped-up or dumbed-down to your liking. And this isn’t just a game for you to play alone – there’s plenty of party modes that you can play with your kids that’ll keep you guys busy for a long while.

Your core game modes are Marathon, Computer Battle, Fever, and Survival. Marathon is the game you’re used to – blocks drop, things get faster as time goes on. Computer Battle is a head-to-head game where as you clear lines, they appear on the computer’s screen and vice versa. Fever mode, which is a new addition to the franchise, has you on a thinner playing field with a 60-second timer. As you play, powerup items will activate, adding to the craziness. I thought I’d hate the mode, but it’s surprisingly fun, and once you get the hang of thinking quickly, you’ll be trying to pare-down the time it takes for you to get tetriminos into place. Finally, Survival mode, a less-interesting mode, also plays on a thinner field, as lines rise up from the bottom. I feel like this would be more interesting if there wasn’t so much pressure – I don’t see why it needs the thinner playing field. As nice as it is to be in and out of a mode in a couple of minutes, it’s also fun to fend-off impending doom for longer.

Also, before we get too far, I just want to show you this. Please keep it running on loop while you read this review:

In addition to the core modes, Tetris Axis also contains a handful of party modes, which I won’t torture you with in paragraph form:

  • Stage Racer Plus: Flip a block back and forth as it falls down a narrow “street.” I seem to remember there being an old TI-82 game like this. Amirite?
  • Shadow Wide: Fill in a puzzle space with tetriminos.
  • Jigsaw: Another puzzle-based fill-in mode.
  • Tower Climber: Lay blocks around a circular tower so that a little man can “climb” the steps and collect health.
  • Capture: Attempt to cover a star…or…something? After playing the mode and watching others, I still don’t really “get” it.
  • Fit: Top-down view where you clear lines in a 3D space. If you remember Blockout from old-school computer gaming, this mode is like it.
  • Bombliss Plus: Align bombs on the playing field to blow up tetriminos.
  • Sprint: Race to clear 40 lines. More fun than you think.
  • Master Mode: This is the ROFL-hard mode where blocks drop at maximum speed. Also, your kid will have one friend that swears he “finished” this mode more than once, but can’t reproduce his success whenever there’s witnesses.

Whew. As you can imagine, some of these modes are pretty fun. Some of them are only mildly interesting. There are also MOAR modes – two Augmented Reality modes: AR Marathon and AR Climber, which are the same as the “regular” ones but you play them with the 3DS’ “?” card on a flat surface. It’s kind of smoke-and-mirrors stuff that is fun and wow-ing a couple times but not the kind of go-to entertainment you want when you hunker-down to play Tetris. I could not have used any more hyphens in that sentence, so you know I’m spittin’ truth.

And just in case you thought we were done with modes – we’re not – there are a bunch of modes you’re able to play in local, download-play and wi-fi multiplayer. I won’t list them all, but some of the “cool” ones to play with your kids are definitely VS Battle, VS Stage Racer and Co-op Tower Climber. You know, you might be a serious and nationally-ranked Tetris competitor but your kid wants to have fun and not have his face melted, so a little Stage Racer won’t hurt you.

Tetris Axis is on the 3DS, so it’s only natural that Hudson and Nintendo tried to give players the best 3D experience they could. And if you’re familiar with 3DS games – you know that the best 3D experience you can have with the system is the one you can turn off. Not that there’s anything wrong with the 3D, but sometimes, you’re just not feelin’ it. So I’m happy to report that 3D can be scaled up and down, or turned off altogether. Some of the modes look better with 3D on, but it’s good to know that you’re not completely forced into it. WWAPD? The answer is get hopped-up on Pepsi Max and Pixy Stix, do the Cossak dance, then play it in full 3D until he blacked out.

What Would Alexey Pajitnov Do?

Otherwise, the graphics are simple enough – and that’s a good thing. You can choose a couple of design styles for your tetriminos and stage backgrounds – who cares? You can dress up your Mii character in some pre-made outfits so they’ll look stylish while you play – who cares? And while we’re on the topic of Mii-integration, I would have preferred less of it. While you play rounds, your Mii dances around the screen, but with the choice of only a handful of dance moves, your character doesn’t really react to your playing so much as dances rain-or-shine. I’d actually prefer if developer Hudson Soft would have only featured your character’s head/face – and showed real-time emotion that pertained to your gameplay. Instead, you get your Mii dressed in one of 6 outfits and doing crotch-thrusts over and over and over. And when you play versus the CPU, it’d be nice if it pulled in another one of your Miis out of your Plaza – but that’s just me thinkin’ outside the box.

Moving along – the real meat of the graphics is in what Hudson Soft didn’t try to do – they didn’t try to force 3D, and they made the game look tight without overburdening you with off-putting graphical quirks and textures.

The sound is so-so at its best and worst. There’s not much you can do with Tetris sounds in the first place – and if “not much” is what you can do, Hudson Soft did it. There are some remixed tracks from the days of Tetris past, as well as some classical songs thrown into the mix. And the sound effects are…present. I couldn’t ask for more, but I sure couldn’t ask for less.

I’d love to dock Tetris Axis points for lackluster graphics and sound, but as I mentioned – I don’t know what more can be done with falling blocks without them getting too crazy – and I commend Hudson and Nintendo’s self-control. What I was hoping to avoid was running into another Tetris Worlds, and I think we were all lucky to have dodged that one.

All-in-all, Tetris Axis is a more-than-solid addition to your 3DS library, and despite missteps, you’ll have a lot of fun with this game alone and playing with your kid. Tetris is a classic franchise, and it’s good to see so much content included in the game. For us old fogies, a classic Marathon might be our speed – but playing VS Stage Racer or Co-op Tower Climber might appeal to your little one a little more…and open them up to the world of Tetris. And yes, I did just say “open them up to a world of Tetris.” So…that just happened.

For all the smack-talk I had about this game, I’m giving it solid 4s. You’ll love it, your kids will love it. You’ll love it together. That’s just the Tetris way. And if Alexey Pajitnov was still making any kind of money off of it, he’d love to know that you love it.

Check out some screenshots below:

Nintendo didn’t have screenshots of every mode, but if you’ve seen a block fall once, you’ve seen it a hundred times.