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Wetrix, or Vaporwave/r/Surreal Memes: The N64 Puzzle Game

Originally, I was aiming to write some kind of recollection about Wetrix, which was practically THE puzzle game of choice for little 90's bean Justin. Looking back with 27-year-old eyes, however, is serving as a reminder that gaming during the first generation of true 3D sometimes got really weird.

It is a hard game to describe purely with words. You need to see it in action first...and it will still make no sense, but at least then I can put forth the words to make it make a little more sense. So take a look!

The fundamental goal of Wetrix is of the same tack as other endless puzzle games: Prevent the spillage meter from completely filling up for as long as possible and rack up a good score while doing so, accomplished by not letting water spill off the patch of land. Water pieces (the bubbles) will inevitably be part of the lineup, so you need to use the other pieces to corral and regulate it.


The up-arrow red and down-arrow green pieces terraform the land; the former raises it, while the latter flattens the terrain to the lowest height of the affected area. The missile blasts a whole on the ground, and you best believe that water will drain into that sucker like nobody’s business if you aren’t careful. Thankfully, the red pieces patch up holes for those sweet repair bonuses.

Finally, the fireball, depending on whether it hits dry land or water, can either blow up the terrain or evaporate a lake. That makes it arguably the most important item you’ve got, because evaporating a bunch of water also happens to empty out some of the spillage meter, letting you survive for moments longer.

That’s the fundamental gist of it. Some more mechanics, however, are layered on top to make things more varied and complicated. Some of them are random events like water-freezing ice cubes that start as you level up. There is also the left-hand meter spelling out EARTHQUAKE, which fills up as more of the land gets raised. Fill it up entirely, and an earthquake will wreak havoc on your land, potentially with grave water-spilling consequences. It takes those green pieces, along with missiles and the occasional fireball to prevent that from happening.

Create a sufficiently wide lake, and you’ll get a rainbow which bestows a 10x score multiplier. Create one or more sufficiently deep lakes, and they’ll be filled with one or more ducks, which also bestow score multipliers of their own. Hence the thumbnail, describing something that would be totally non-sequitur in 99.999 percent of all contexts, but is legitimately a concern in Wetrix.


That’s the thing that sticks out most when looking back at it right now. This game is hopped up on some real dream-logic shit. Look at that menu screen! What the hell even is all of this?? What’s a duck, anthropomorphic ice cube, bomb with eyes, and red knockoff Kirby doing in an oval pool of water?! Why’s the pool then floating in a Baby’s First Gradient Tool in GIMP or Photoshop void?!!


The game in action is just as much a work of surreal abstract art. Your playing field is some flat equidistant rectangular plane—sometimes textured with garish patterns, sometimes overlaid with the symbols of various countries’ flags—aimlessly hovering in a horizon of clouds. The land rises and falls, and sometimes even blows apart, at the will of pieces that fall from above. Lakes form from water-filled bubbles, and disappear when touched by balls of fire. Ducks and rainbows appear sometimes.

Is this A E S T H E T I C ?

Yet as an eight year old first diving in, I didn’t even bat an eye at all of that madness. That’s just kind of how 3D gaming was back then, in its infancy, with all of the technical limitations it had starting out. I could go all the way to the edge of a level in Super Mario 64, look over the highest edges, see that all that lay ahead of me was endless skies, and thus realize that what I stood on, technically speaking, was a floating island. And it didn’t faze me. So why should Wetrix be much different?


It also bears mentioning, on a related note, that this game was powered by some rather innovative environmental and water physics technology. Wetrix was practically a tech demo fashioned into game, so it’s easy to imagine that such frivolous concepts as coherent world-building may not have been so high on the priority list.


Decades have passed since then, though. I’ve gotten older. Part of that means seeing how the entirety of games has metamorphosed over the years. It also means that I’ve had the time to pick up on more points of reference from which I can draw on when comprehending the likes of obscure 90's puzzle games. Given those factors, it’s striking how heavily Wetrix gives me vibes of vaporwave’s visual style—screw it, maybe even seapunk’s by extension—as well as the sheer comical weirdness of the r/surrealmemes subreddit. (though I don’t peruse Reddit, so I instead track parts of it from the associated Twitter bot)

Games have gotten older as well, however, particularly where it concerns the leaps and bounds that they have progressed in terms of the computational and graphical power that power them, as well as the ways in which we all—players, developers, publishers, etc.—approach them. Were Wetrix to be (re)made today, it is my belief that there would be little chance for it to look like the headtrip it was back then. Maybe it would attempt a more realistic look, as if we were terraforming a real patch of land like an island. Even if it went more abstract, its look would probably be more polished (even just in terms of a higher screen resolution), more considered, more coherent.


And I think that might be a shame. It absurdity is part of its character.

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