Friday, April 3, 2015

Tetris (1989)

Image shamelessly linked from GameFAQs.
This was a game even your grandmother could love.

Every video game console has at least one game that defines it.  One title that, above any other, people associate with it.  For modern consoles, it's often a launch title that soars above the rest in quality, or a later game that is exclusive to that system.  Usually, it's a great game that is universally hailed as something special.  For early consoles, that game often happened to be the pack-in title, i.e. the game that came with the system when you bought it.  In the case of the Game Boy, that game was Tetris.

The thing about Tetris, however, is that it's not just a quality pack-in title.  It was a mission statement.  It was the perfect representation of the hardware's untapped potential, and the kind of game that could sell a Game Boy to even the most ardent anti-video game folks out there.  Why, you ask?  The answer is quite simple; Tetris is fun for all ages.  Read that statement again, because I don't say it lightly.  Your parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles may have no interest in blowing up aliens, stomping on walking mushrooms, or other such things, but a game with jigsaw-like puzzle pieces that move, and you have to put them in order to eliminate them from the screen?  Most anyone can get on board with that.  Large numbers of people did.

It's not a stretch to say tens of millions of people
worldwide have seen this title screen many times.

Unless you were alive and invested in video games in the mid-late 1980's, it's hard to truly explain the "mania" surrounding Tetris.  It was a craze, and nearly everyone was affected by it.  The storied battle between Tengen (Atari) and Nintendo over the rights to Tetris on the Nintendo Entertainment System is better documented elsewhere, but suffice to say, history proves that Nintendo won the battle, at least from a legal standpoint.  The game, upon a release on the NES and in the arcades, became a huge hit, and Nintendo, having scored the rights to the game on the NES, scored a major coup on the home console front.  That coup was further cemented by the inclusion of Tetris as the pack-in game for the original Game Boy.  Unfortunately, I haven't been able to get good figures for the sales of the Game Boy with the included Tetris pack-in, because sales of the Game Boy Pocket and Color models are lumped in with the original "white brick" version in all official sales statements, but sales of Tetris itself were upwards of 35 million units.  So of the 118.69 million "Game Boy family" systems sold worldwide from 1989 to 2003, we can link over 1/4 of those sales, in some measure, to the popularity of Tetris.

Playing this game again the last few days in preparation for this write-up, it struck me just how much I enjoyed it.  I recalled dedicating hours mastering the 4-line technique, and feeling a huge sense of victory any time I topped 100,000 points.  As a youth, I worked my way up to being able to start on level 7 or 8, and maximizing my scoring potential.  Having not played Tetris seriously in years, I'm not at that level any longer, but I was surprised that, after a couple practice runs, I was starting at level 5 or 6 and having some success in getting scores upwards of 60,000 or 80,000 points, and toppling the 100,000 mark a few times.  As they say, it's just like riding a bicycle; you never forget how, so just get on and ride.

Like many good arcade or early console games, this screenshot,
taken from the game's "attract mode", demonstrates subtly
how to play the game. A brilliant way to introduce the game
mechanics, and something that is lost in today's world of
overly complex games and 30-minute introductory tutorials.

I'll attempt to succinctly describe the game play.  You control a single, slowly falling geometric shape called a "Tetronimo", and can move it left or right, rotate it to the right or left, and press down on the d-pad to drop the piece to the bottom of the playing field, or atop another piece.  Each of these Tetronimo pieces is made up of 4 smaller squares, and pieces range from a large square to a long/tall line, to pieces where the squares are more "bent" in shape.  The grid you play in is 10 squares wide, and nearly 20 squares high.  As Tetronimo pieces fall, you place them on the play field in any order you wish, with the goal being to create a single, contiguous horizon line made of of Tetronimo pieces.  If you can manage to create a 4-line sequence at one time, using the 4-square tall "line" block, you score a big point bonus.  This 4-line clear, called a "Tetris", is the key to getting a high score in the game, and is also the linchpin to the game's deceptive simplicity.  Each time you complete 10 lines, the game's level increases, and the pieces fall faster.  Each time the level increases, the score multiplier for clearing single lines and "Tetris" clears goes up.  Thus, if you start the game at a higher level to begin with, you start with that level's speed, but also its score multiplier until clearing enough lines to go to the next level up from where you started.

"Rocket man, burning out his fuse up here alone."

Graphically, the game is not, by itself, impressive.  Compare it to the graphics on the NES, and the Game Boy's "4 shades of green" palette didn't impress much, and the sprites themselves were comparable, though obviously scaled back.  Context is important, however, and compare the graphics to what we had become used to in "portable gaming" with Nintendo Game & Watch devices, or the Tiger series of dedicated LCD handhelds, and it was a technical wonder.  Pieces fell and actually animated if you rotated them or fell smoothly when used the d-pad to drop them down to the bottom of the play field.  In addition, the minor animations of Mario and Luigi in 2-player mode, or the taking off of the rocket (if you scored 100,000 points or more in a single play), were something that, up to that point, hadn't been possible in a hand-held gaming device.  The graphics are largely utilitarian, but looking back, they're perfect for what the game is.

The game's sound and music is iconic, so it's hard to talk about it without talking about the game's music tracks.  We all know that "Type-A" sounds like a Russian melody, and that's because it was apparently based upon a Russian folk song.  "Type-C" is based on a piece by Johann Sebastian Bach, which gives it that classical sound.  "Type-B", however, is a wholly original tune, and composer Hirokazu Tanaka managed to also channel that Russian folk vibe to great effect.  Add the bouncy title screen theme, the high score music, and the triumphant music that plays as the rocket launches, and despite its diminutive size, the score is as well composed as one could hope for.  Sounds are also iconic, with the funny block rotation sound, the nice "slap" sound when you drop a piece to the bottom, the subtle single-line clear noise, and the not-so-subtle "Tetris" clear noise, as well as the "I'm dead!" sound that plays when you get a Game Over by filling up the play field.  They're not the best sounds you can produce on the hardware, but for an early title, they're still impressive.

If you're a Tetris perfectionist like me, you'll see this screen
a lot as you throw game after game, searching for that
perfect play through where you can execute Tetris after Tetris.

As I mentioned earlier, the ability to manage your pieces on the play field and line them up to achieve a "Tetris" is truly the technique that needs to be mastered to get the most out of the game.  Based on the pieces that fall, I generally try and choose either the right or left side of the board to leave open, stack up pieces to make a complete, 4-line (or higher) group, and leave the space for the 4-square "line" piece to complete that "Tetris" and score big points.  As pieces fall, and you place them, you have to be cognizant of all 7 pieces available, because you might get 3 big squares in a row, or the "L" and "J" pieces, and have nowhere to put them.  This puzzle piece management is of the utmost importance; otherwise, you'll find yourself expending available lines to clear away ill-placed pieces, rather than making "Tetris" blocks.  To increase the challenge, you can press the Select button during play to turn off the preview of what the next piece will be, which removes your ability to plan ahead by a move.

Starting at a higher level means you can rack up points
faster, and begin to achieve scores upwards of 100,000.

It seems surreal to talk about Tetris on the Game Boy, more than 25 years after its release.  It's difficult to pinpoint what it is about the game that makes it so addictive.  I picked it up a couple days ago, intending to play a round or two, and before I knew it, I had burned over 2 hours playing, without even realizing it.  That's much of what the game has going for it - that deceptive simplicity and addictive game play.  That addictive quality is only part of the game's appeal, and hopefully I've illustrated that above.  Make no mistake - if you own an original Game Boy, Game Boy Pocket, or even a newer Game Boy Color or Advance, you owe it to yourself to play the original Tetris release, because it's just one of those games every gamer should experience.  Essential.


  1. I love this game!
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