Developer: Zed Two
U.S. Publisher: Ocean
U.S. Release: 1998
Genre: Abstract Waste of Time
Based on: Fever dreams of Tetris by a handful of Brits who built a water-physics game engine and needed something to pass the wet London summers.

Games | Nintendo 64 | Wetrix

Article by wumpwoast | May 19, 2008

Wetrix makes me cry.

Not the "sentimental, deeply touched by your kindness"-type romantic crying. Nor the "whoa, there's all this water and lakes and rain and I shall now shed tears of association" type crying. One might need to pee afterwards, but not because buckets of water have been flying about the screen for the last hour, accompanied by reverberated sloshy splooshing sounds.

A happy world of ducks and rainbows, frozen to death by the next level's Ice Layer

No, these tears are intense, manly tears. Tears because I was afraid to consciously blink or look away from the screen for 30 minutes at a time. Because I was waiting for the one fireball that would send my score above 10 million points, and simultaneously keep the drain from overflowing and bringing the game to an end.

Wetrix is, conceptually, Tetris in 3D. Provided that Tetris now includes flowing water, cheap-sounding techno music (cheap even for 1998), and a robotic announcer that murmurs your current lake count as a slurred mantra every 20 seconds: one laake ... tuuooo laakes ... elevn laakes. The aesthetic is like the trippy falling-puzzle equivalent of chugging bongwater; nevertheless, it's remained an intermittent obsession of mine for more than a decade, a kind of electronic comfort food for when life gets messy.

Right around New Year's I caught a nasty flu, which was followed shortly after by a fresh, unexpected week-long illness. Sitting at home with a pot of chicken soup and no energy to do anything productive, I turned on Wetrix for the first time in four years. Although my original memory card was lost, I soon made it my goal to unlock the second set of hidden game pieces -- a seven-hour time investment, and that's if I rank high enough on every challenge and handicap mode the first try each time!

Each of these holes can drain water. Or it can leak off the edges. So many ways to lose!

But the payoff for all that effort is tremendous. First of all, a constant regimen of hard exercise and marathon Wetrix sessions is the secret to coping with being dumped from your first serious relationship. 1 Personal experience has shown that all feelings of pain, weakness, and self-doubt will magically vanish once you hit Expert rank. Secondly, these new pieces resemble the regular ones, miniaturized. This means where previously a skilled player could manage six bonus-multiplying rubber-duckie lakes, the new miniature scale allows for building 12 or 13 of them without breaking a sweat. Suddenly scores 80 or even 100 million points become possible, and the maximum score of 1 billion points becomes somehow remotely, theoretically reachable. 2

But just as a drug abuser cannot expect a person who's never shot up to grasp the joys of heroin, I can't expect folks to understand what exactly makes Wetrix rankings and high scores so compelling. Perhaps the easiest way is to gaze into the raw emotions and strategy involved in a playthrough that earns Super ranking -- the highest possible rank short of scoring 1 billion points.

Typically in order to earn a Super rank players are required to play Wetrix for one hour without dying. The Wetrix Classic mode makes this feat unbearably miserable by playing a uniquely dirge-like techno background piece that's better suited to a self-loathing-induced death by drowning. The Ice Layer mode is more tolerable -- all water onscreen freezes after every level-up, and I don't know anyone skilled enough to drown in a pool of solid ice. Besides, it offers a different two-minute loop to hate once it beats your ears into submission.

Count yourself extremely lucky if you survive one of these.

To survive this long, first we must get our ducks in a row. Wetrix pre-game planning involves lucid dreams of a rubber-duck choir quacking in staggered unison, where whole corners of your playing field are dedicated to the tall, thin lakes that hold these magical bonus multipliers. It's way more fun than dreaming about long thin Tetris pieces, but also far trickier to pull together during a real game. Setting up your lakes in Wetrix takes skill and finesse, even if you've got a blueprint for your lakes already in mind -- screw-ups are inevitable, and you can't always get the things you want. 3 And what's more, you must discover the little tricks in "lake craftsmanship" such as quickly building your perimeter and then narrowing it to one square wide and three squares high -- we want no part of this rainfall leaking over the edge and ending our campaign prematurely. Nor do we want the land to stack so high as to cause a game-shattering earthquake.

After every level in Ice Layer, we get a small reprieve -- we lose all our water, replaced with the mode's namesake ring of ice. The goal becomes to evaporate the ice with a fireball piece, and then evaporate the newly-thawed lake with a second fireball as quickly as possible. If the rubber duckies are out, and a rainbow shines overhead, these evaporations will boost your score from the tens of thousands into the tens of millions. Mastering Wetrix for high scores is like being a one-man industry: As you architect your perimeter wall and lake dividers, you must place water to grow new lakes (preferably with those all-important rubber duckies), cash in on larger lakes by vaporizing them, and trim your walls to a hair's width.

What better way to avoid reality than to lose yourself in arbitrary multitasking?

And you have to haul ass -- the second level introduces randomly-falling ice cubes that impede your ability to evaporate lakes for points. And then Level 4 makes even thawed lakes deadly by periodically sprinkling mines which explode if they touch lake-bottom. Evaporate a mine-infested lake and the water drains through the floor -- meaning curtains for you.

Grasping the serene balance and frantic rhythm of Wetrix for 15-20 minutes will eventually get you to Expert rank and the never-ending Level 10. From this point, surviving for an hour is the difference between feeling the rhythm and knowing the rhythm. Level 10 goes at such a fast clip that suddenly it's possible to notice that falling pieces which once appeared to be randomly-chosen are actually served in a repeating list. The take-away message: You can predict when fireballs will arrive, and pace your drops so that no ice or mines will prevent evaporation and scoring. Of course, the pieces will fall faster than you can accurately place them -- the key difference between an Expert run and a Super run is accepting that screw-ups will happen, and learning to consistently fix mistakes with rapid, effortless grace.

Earning top ranks and astronomical scores in Wetrix is a mark of pride, but happiness is definitely the journey. Persevering through the maniacal rush of Level 10, making split-second decisions, and uncovering ever-deeper tactics and strategies all contribute to making Wetrix a lasting, addictive drug-of-a-game.

Anything that fails to make you miserable is worth points.

One final zen buddha note for Super runs is to set a watch timer, since Wetrix doesn't display how long you've been playing in-game. Just imagine: if you peter out at 56 minutes, the acute chagrin you'll feel is bound to linger for hours or even days afterwards. And it wouldn't do for an aspiring zen master to get angry and break stuff. Besides, even if you don't make it to Super in the first hundred tries, don't get frustrated -- that girl wasn't worth it, and neither is a videogame. There's always next time.

1 In fact, strength training and aerobics will noticeably improve your twitch response and clarity of thinking in Wetrix. Not to mention making your body healthy, aside from your mind's sick dependency on Wetrix high-scores for positive reinforcement.

2 Only three or four people in the world have ever scored 1 billion points and earned Master rank, and only one person has performed this feat with the regular pieces. Which turns a mere 15-hour push into a 30-or-40 hour commitment. If only the Start button paused real life...

3 But sometimes you might just find you get what you need.