Growing up, I played a lot of puzzle games, but I didn’t have much love for them. This is because my mother loves puzzle games, and I probably didn’t like them much because it was one of the genres she could beat me at.
However, the experiences I had playing Yoshi’s Cookie and Kirby’s Avalanche with her have left me with some nostalgia for the titles. I don’t actually play them much, but they feel good to my soul, at least.
One game I used to play with her is different, however. It’s a puzzle game that I’m actually enthusiastic about and dust off every so often. It’s one that I can enjoy without the sentimental attachment, even if some sentiment is still there. That is 1997’s Tetrisphere for the N64.
Despite the name, Tetrisphere has very little to do with Tetris outside of falling blocks that remove other blocks. The blocks themselves aren’t even necessarily tetrominoes, though a few are.
It actually began development for the Atari Jaguar as Phear, which is a better name despite its lack of marketable brand recognition. According to the ancient tomb, Electronic Gaming Monthly, at the time, Nintendo was on the hunt for developers willing to stuff their games into a cartridge, so they scooped it up for their own.
It was created by H2O Entertainment, who would later create The New Tetris and Aidyn Chronicles (which I can’t believe I haven’t played) for the N64.
The concept is that you have a sphere that is covered in various shapes of blocks, and with the power of block fission, you need to burrow to its core, at least in most of the modes. Beyond just throwing blocks at the orb, you can also grab hold of them to shift them next to other blocks. While some of the block shapes just have to be touching, others, like the line block and square, have to be directly aligned, so you need to be careful and set up the best combos you can.
Enraged strip mining
It works so damned well. 3D block-breaker puzzle games rarely figure out how to put the added dimension to good use, but Tetrisphere nails it. The persistent cursor that you control over the surface of the orb is communicative and useful, even with the You can grab blocks from beneath others and slide them up to the other layers if you’ve got the right setup. It feels good, which is extremely commendable.
Beyond that, it also has an amazing aesthetic. While the cartoon spheroid robots that act as the cast are a bit weird, you don’t see them much. Normally, you’re just looking at a colorful sphere floating in ethereal space. The soundtrack is this amazingly atmospheric techno, and all the sound effects have this reverb to them that makes them all impactful.
All block-breakers are about destruction, but Tetrisphere feels closest to actually destroying something. On levels with the more easy-going shapes, you’ll often trigger huge combos that stretch across the surface of the sphere, popping like atomic bubble wrap. While you can peel the sphere like a clove of garlic, the best strategy is to focus on a single area and burrow into it like an enraged strip mining operation.
And then there are the bombs (called magic for some reason) that you can pick up. While these change depending on what mode you play, in the “Rescue” mode, you can upgrade them. It starts as fireworks that blast a massive crater into the sphere, but you can upgrade it to an Atom that completely peels the top layer away with a blastwave. Even in the versus mode, the standardized bombs are fun to use with their big echo-y booms.
Lonely Rolling Star
Singleplayer consists of rescue, hide & seek, puzzle, time trial, and vs. CPU. Rescue requires you to clear off enough tiles in an area on the core of the cube to release a little guy trapped inside. Hide & Seek, is similar, but you’re looking for a picture plastered on the core. Each level gives a bit of a variation. Puzzle gives you a certain number of moves and drops to clear the board of preconfigured structures. Time trial is lame. Vs. CPU is essentially multiplayer for lonely people like me.
They’re all decent variations of block destruction, but I feel like the versus mode makes the best use of it. Any of the one-player modes tend to be laid back, but it’s versus where you really need to strategize. As is typical, big combos result in garbage blocks being dumped on your opponent, and they’re not easy to get rid of. This can lead to panicked moments where you have to open a new hole to expose the last few core tiles to win the game.
In contrast, modes like rescue and hide & seek seem a little vanilla. However, there’s enough in Tetrisphere to suck up an impressive amount of your time. It does, however, lack the endlessness of something like Tetris. Unless you’ve got a rival to compete against, it’s likely that you’ll clear the single-player modes and move on.
It surprises me that Tetrisphere has been left on the N64. As far as I have been able to find, there has never been a sequel, Nintendo has never ported it, and I can’t even find any indie games that cop the gameplay. It’s not that I think Tetrisphere was wildly impactful, but it’s weird to see any game be so forgotten about, even one with the arcane knowledge of how to make a block-buster puzzle game work in 3D.
And really, I’d love a sequel. Tetrisphere already has a masterful aesthetic that would be difficult to top, but it still has potential with shinier graphics. At the very least, I would like to see it on the Nintendo Switch Online N64 service. Does Nintendo not still own the publishing rights to it?
I suppose, on the bright side, it’s pretty cheap and easy to find on the N64.