If you were around in the ’90s, you might be familiar with Tetris mania. The original game hit a myriad of systems, most notably the Game Boy, and became a massive worldwide success. Naturally when something like Tetris is popular, people try to reinvent the wheel and make variants of Tetris, with varying levels of success.
Some of these, like Tetris 2 or Tetris Blast just added a more puzzle element to the base Tetris game. Others were games like Tetris Attack, which was merely a rebranding of what we now know as Puzzle League. Then there’s the game that we’re talking about today:
Proudly mentioned on the box as “Tetris made Letter Perfect!”, Wordtris is a Tetris-like game released for several different systems. Though today we’ll be specifically looking at the SNES version of the game. Spectrum Holobyte took the block-building concept of Tetris and put a unique spin on it, which is hardly unknown territory to them. Wordtris was one of several Tetris spinoffs Spectrum Holobyte released, including Welltris and Faces: …Tris III. I wasn’t kidding when I said there were many Tetris spinoffs in the ’90s.
While Spectrum Holobyte published and co-developed the SNES version, the original game was developed by Armenica. Sadly there’s not a lot of info of them on the English-speaking web, but this game was made by three people: Sergei Utkin, Vjacheslav Tsoy and Armen Sarkissian. Presumably their spin on the Russian block game was enough to get Spectrum Holobyte’s interest in trying to capture Tetris fever, so they licensed it from them and ported it to many systems.
(2021 update: Turns out one of these developers has bigger claims to fame nowadays. Armen Sarkissian would later become the President of Armenia in 2018, after a long string of being ambassador and prime minister for the same country. Honestly, that’s quite a career shift! Thanks to Anatoly Shashkin on Twitter for breaking this news to the English-speaking web, and Russian YouTuber Pixel Devil’s video on these Tetris spinoffs, which you can watch here. The video’s entirely in Russian, so I had to watch it in machine-translated English to confirm this, but it’s still a cool video regardless!)
You’re given a well much like a normal Tetris game, and letters start dropping into the well. Your goal is to place letters in the well to make 3-9 letter words. What makes Wordtris unique is that you can push letters down the well by stacking them on top of each other. Once you make a valid word, you’re scored for it and it’s cleared from the well. Scoring is very similar to Scrabble: Common letters such as vowels give you one point, while more complex letters like Q and Z give 10 points. Combined with the length of the word and what level you’re on means you can make big points if you can come up with fancy words.
After you make enough words, you move on to the next level and do it again, but now the letters drop down faster. While that sounds like a great idea on paper, it becomes fairly difficult quickly. Since the well in Wordtris is very short, it gives you very little time to think about making words, and most of the time I ended up shoving letters in random places and hoped for the best. Sometimes I got lucky and formed a bunch of 3-5 letter words, scoring lots of points.
In addition, there’s a bonus word that’s 5-7 letters called the “Magic Word.” Spell it, and the entire well is cleared and you receive bonus points. However, due to the way the game works, this can be difficult to achieve, since you need specific letters to drop, have to spell that word exactly (plural versions don’t count), and you have to make sure that the letters you place can’t form other words on the board. So the Magic Word is quite a dumb gimmick that doesn’t work.
Occasionally powerups will appear, such as a wild card tile that gives either a random letter or one you can choose, but it gives no points, much like Scrabble‘s blank tile; a bomb that clears one tile, dynamite that clears a grid of three tiles, and a beaker that eliminates an entire row. Much like the letters, these come up randomly, and unlike Tetris you can’t hold any of these for later, so sometimes you’ll get these powerups when you really don’t need them.
There are a few multiplayer modes, two of which involve using the same well to form words, which sounds like chaos very quickly. The other multiplayer mode is a Tournament mode where up to four players play their own game of Wordtris, but there’s no dedicated head-to-head Wordtris, which is a damn shame.
There’s not a whole lot more to say about this. Puzzle games are fairly self-explanatory, especially Tetris variants. Though I do have to talk about the game’s… theme.
For some reason the developers of the SNES version decided to give the game a carnival motif. I guess they wanted to do something similar to the Russian motif the original Tetris had, but it doesn’t make any sense here. Because when I think of falling letter blocks, the last thing I’m gonna think about are clowns and bears riding unicycles.
As for the music, it’s competent but not memorable like “Korobeiniki” or Music 2 from NES Tetris. Outside of the carnival-sounding music that plays at the title screen, the rest of the music hits various genres, but sounds mostly eastern-European. It fits in with the rest of the game’s strange carnival atmosphere, but I’m not gonna be humming any of these tunes after playing this game.
Wordtris is kind of a mediocre Tetris variant. They wanted to mix Scrabble with Tetris, and they certainly succeeded. But there’s a reason why there hasn’t been a new Wordtris game in 20 years, while Tetris keeps being remade every few years: Tetris is easier to understand, and easier to pick up and play. Wordtris is a good concept, but falls flat because it’s difficult to pull off complex words in a Tetris setting. As much as I was harsh on this, I will give Spectrum Holobyte credit for putting a unique spin on Tetris that was fun for about a half hour and made for interesting article fodder.
I totally wouldn’t mind writing about some of the other Tetris-like puzzle games. There were a lot of them in the ’90s, some of them more unique than others. While the kids these days can have their Candy Crush Saga, I’ll stick to being a puzzle game hipster and play only the older stuff, like Columns, Tetris Blast and Tetrisphere. Yeah, that’s where it’s at.
(Updated December 4, 2021 with new information and minor paragraph changes.)