That Was a Game 009 – Fortress (GBA)

On this episode of THAT WAS A GAME, we look at Fortress, a Tetris/Tower Defense mashup with space aliens, pterodactyls, and pirates!

Tetris is one of the biggest selling games of all time. And with good reason. It’s simple and it’s exceedingly complex. It’s addictive and it’s pure and it’s great.

But the question that videogame makers ask next is, How do you sell more Tetris when literally everyone and their mother already owns it?

Tetris sequels and Tetris spinoffs and Tetris variants, of course!

In my childhood, there was Tetris 2, which instead of focusing on removing lines, focused on matching colors between tetrominoes – sort of like Dr. Mario or Puyo Puyo. I also had Wordtris, where you spell words out of falling blocks.

But today we’re going to look at Fortress, one of my favorite Tetris concepts. Fortress takes the standard Tetris game of falling blocks and asks players to build a super strong tower out of those blocks to ward off space aliens and dragons. The longer the tower survives, the better.

That’s really it. It’s Tetris crossed with a tower defense game. And there are dragons. Or UFOs.

There are four time periods in all – Prehistoric, Medieval, Pirate, and Space.

Periodically, weapons will fall from the sky instead of blocks. These are things like projectiles (cannons, catapults, laser guns) or one-time weapons like bombs.

Configuring the falling blocks into certain formations transforms the fortress into stronger defenses. A 2×3 solid set of blocks transforms into a wall. An 8×3 solid set of blocks transforms into a wizard’s tower, which summons a giant monster to your side. The monster differs based on the time period chosen. Prehistoric has pterodactyls, Medieval has dragons, Space has UFOs.

From what I can tell though, the changes are mostly cosmetic. The weapons and monsters look different graphically, but they’re doing the exact same thing. The game is no different if you’re playing Pirates or Space.

I think this is a situation where I got too excited for the concept. It’s a strategy game like Starcraft or Command & Conquer where I play Tetris and it creates a little army with spells and cool monsters that can wreck my opponent’s tower.

I will also make the caveat that my brain really doesn’t understand games where I don’t have direct control and the computer seemingly autonomously generates troops and shoots weapons and does other actions. For my part, I’m playing Tetris, and this somehow indirectly affects how many soldiers and weapons I have and how strong my base is. Or how that would somehow affect my opponent, who I can kinda see, not that I’m smart enough to do anything about it. I’m sure there’s something I could be doing to influence the game’s action better, but there’s just a mental block where I can’t strategize.

Tetris is a game that’s very easy to understand immediately. Pieces fall from the sky and you to stack them. If the pieces stack up to the top, the game is over. Pieces can be removed by making perfect lines with no holes in them. If you can knock out multiple lines at the same time, it’s worth more points. Every 10 lines, the game speeds up, requiring you to think and act more quickly. Eventually, you lose. But the goal is to do better the next time. And by better, I mean, play longer or get to the higher speeds or get a higher score.

Fortress isn’t that. You cannot make lines. You just build and get points. When part of your base is destroyed, you lose points. When you or your opponent get to a certain score, the game is over.

Its only real similarity to Tetris is that it has falling blocks that stack.

The playfield is much wider and much taller than a standard game of Tetris. The standard Tetris “well” is 10 squares wide by 22 squares tall, and all of it is visible on the screen.

This has the benefit of allowing the player to create a bigger, more imposing castles. One of the key strategies at the beginning of the game is to spread out as wide as possible to prevent your opponent from having as much area to develop.

But it also means I can’t see my whole castle. So I can’t see where I’m dropping my pieces. I have to nudge them down into position before I do a quick drop.

The blocks fall at the same speed throughout the whole session, so I always can put the blocks wherever I want, whenever I want. So the Tetris part feels really bland. Tetris works best when it’s at the frontier your ability – where it’s not too easy and not too hard.

As a Tetris game, it’s too easy, which makes it boring. As a tower defense/real-time strategy game, it’s a little too impenetrable (disclaimer: I may be too dumb for this game).

The IGN review suggested it needed a tutorial mode to make it easier to understand. That’s probably accurate. There’s a lot going on and I don’t know how all the variables work together. Usually strategy games hide their tutorial in small levels, each level adding a new gameplay element so that the player learns each thing separately. That might have been nice. Right now, Fortress feels like “Here, play this game and it’ll be over in 5 minutes when someone hits the big score.” There’s 3 different modes to the game – Battle, Blitz, and Tournament – but they don’t vary from that core concept.

Over the last 15 years, I’ve thought a lot about what could be done to make Fortress work. On paper, I like the concept. I like Tetris and I like building things. But every element that’s not Tetris hurts the Tetris experience. And the Tower Defense aspect of the game isn’t strong enough to make up for the mediocre/suboptimal Tetris experience.

Thank you for checking out THAT WAS A GAME, and we’ll be back next time with another Tetris spinoff.


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