Editorial: Tetris Revisited

Tetris is as classic as a video game can be, and after three decades it is just as addictive and challenging as it ever was. No longer as relevant in a mobile-first market laden with casual “games” such as Candy Crush Saga, the original Tetris is nonetheless as accessible as any game out there, and versions of it are available on just about anything (though playing it with touch controls is a miserable experience that will age you prematurely, cause you intense physical pain, and kill your closest loved ones). I doubt anyone reading this has not played the game, but it is always worth revisiting.

Who needs color when you have this sweet green cast?
Tetris for the original Game Boy.

My own experience with Tetris began, as it did for so many others, with the original Game Boy, which included Tetris as a pack-in game way back in 1989. I did not own the game back then (or even a Game Boy), but I played it when I could on a store display. I remember being completely hooked. A decade later, when I finally purchased my own copy, it was Tetris DX for Game Boy Color. (Our esteemed EiC Lusipurr says this version is terrible. I did not know Lusipurr when I purchased it, but if I had, he would have slapped the offending cartridge out of my hand and then boxed me about the ears.) The origin of Tetris actually dates back to 1984, when it was a computer software title out of the U.S.S.R., but it was the Game Boy version which made Tetris a household name.

Other outstanding versions of Tetris exist, and remaining on Nintendo hardware still affords the brilliant NES version, and the later SNES version which combined Tetris with Dr. Mario (I am told this version is magnificent, but I have no first-hand experience). Perusing the vast Lusipurr.com Internet Database reveals that Atari’s version of the game pre-dates Nintendo by one year, with a 1988 release for arcades. (There is a mildly interesting story behind the licensing rights for the console version of the game, as well as the rare – and expensive – unlicensed version of the game on the NES, but I will not delve into the sordid history of the legal issues related to this title.) Sadly, as with anything that possesses mainstream appeal, Tetris has spread to many non-console devices over the years, including regrettable versions on phones and portable music players. Once again, I urge everyone reading this to avoid touch-controlled versions of this game. (My purchase on a Motorola v180 flip-phone will not be discussed in this editorial, though it did at least offer physical controls.)

I'm not sure how 'ultimate' this version actually is.
A view of Tetris Ultimate from 2014.

It may not be possible to own a console which is unable to play an official version of Tetris. Versions are certainly available for all Nintendo handhelds, with Tetris Worlds for Game Boy Advance, Tetris DS for (you guessed it) the Nintendo DS, Tetris: Axis for Nintendo 3DS – and some other variants for these systems. Console versions were made for nearly all systems from the 1990’s to present, and 2014’s Tetris Ultimate is available on most current systems. And while the graphics and additional modes of play might differ from version to version, but once you have found a copy that works on your console (and I do mean console, and not smartphone, iPod, or web browser) the gameplay provides the sort of fast, addictive gameplay that has allowed a piece of shit like the above-mentioned Candy Crush to ensnare so many. The rules could not be more simple, with falling shapes that can moved about, and can be linked horizontally to eliminate row. It takes just a couple of minutes to become comfortable with the controls, and only minutes more to become addicted. The classic NES/Game Boy control layout is perfect for this game, with the d-pad providing precise movement of the shapes as they fall, and the A and B buttons providing rotation.

There are many different strategies for playing Tetris, and while the approach might differ there is just one ultimate goal: to score as may points as possible before the game is over. How long this takes depends on skill, and mode of play. The mode I am most familiar with is known as “marathon”, which begins with a level of one’s choice and then proceeds (endlessly, I would assume) through the levels. As the player progresses through the levels, colors, music, and most of all speed increase. It can become blindingly fast. Mind-numbingly fast. And in the blink of an eye the only thing left is a screen filled with shapes, and the score. And even with this defeat, I always felt the urge to start it all over again. Yes, the person who never finishes a game still plays a game with no real “ending”. I still revisit the NES and Game Boy cartridges I own, and it is always a satisfying gaming experience. Not only is the game brilliantly designed, but it has great music and sound effects, and surely has as high a replay value as any game in history.

The only game you will ever need.
The outstanding SNES version included Dr. Mario.

If there is a “zone” in which a gamer can enter, I have done so playing only when playing Tetris. Sitting for so long that I lost track of time, staring at my Game Boy Color’s screen until my eyes blurred, moving my thumbs across the controls with no conscious thought, and possibly drooling on myself in this semi-comatose state. I remember posting scores of over 400,000 points during some long sessions, but this score is doubtless trivial to serious long-term players. Nevertheless, I always felt satisfaction with a tidy screen of well-organized blocks, and my strategy of holding off until four rows can be cleared at once (resulting in a bright flash, a cool sound effect, and extra points) was rewarding – when it worked. The game is simple, but there is no need for anything else. Just as Chess requires no special edition or re-working (Chess 2, anyone?), the core gameplay of the classic version of Tetris is perfect as it is. It is simultaneously accessible and challenging, and the difficulty increases as higher levels are reached, and skills improve. It might be the perfect game, and no game library is complete without a copy.

9 comments

  1. I don’t read crap articles like this. I read @Bup’s weekly posts, because they are awesome.

    @Adeki: Your stuff is cool, too. We fam.

  2. Tetris is still one of the the most classic forms of video games that can be enjoyed by the most novice to the most advanced. Young and old, especially older women. When they talk about not making them like they used to this may be what they were referring to, a game so simple in design but so elegant… I gotta stop listening to C theme.

  3. @Seb/Adeki: Stop that.

    Tetris may be simple, but it is easy to ruin. Nintendo has been the only company really to make the Tetris formula ‘work’ and feel ‘good’, whereas EA and Activision have managed somehow to suck everything out of it and make it feel like iterative, robotic, joyless, electronic crap. I’m not sure why this is, but it assuredly is so.

  4. Yes well… Nintendo knew a good thing when they bought the rights from the Russian Government. I mean how do you improve on a classic anyway? Tetris Plus did pretty good with their puzzle mode but I think even that held so closely to the original formula that you can’t even say they did very much.

    Meanwhile for your listening Pleasure I found this little gem:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OvuWK_JQCV8

  5. Have they ever tried a Tetris with RPG eleements? Open world Tetris? Tetrisvania where you find new blocks and have to go back and fit them in where you couldn’t before? Or is there just no exploration in Tetris?

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