Developer: Alexey Pazhitnov et al.
U.S. Publisher: Various
U.S. Release: 1989
Platform: Eldritch Soviet mainframe; arcade; NES; Game Boy; PC; etc.

Games | NES | Tetris

Article by Jeremy Parish | August 26, 2009

I thought Nintendo Power was off its nut when it began hyping the living hell out of Tetris.

The NES was right at the peak of its popularity in 1989, with incredible new games appearing on what seemed to be a weekly basis: a Mega Man here, a Castlevania there, a shiny new Ninja Gaiden over yonder. And then there was this whole "Game Boy" business that was in the works. With such a bounty of gaming greatness on hand, why on earth would the single most important publication for children of the '80s drool over a game about colored squares? Honestly, that was some pre-Pac-Man-looking nonsense right there.

Needless to say, I was taken rather aback when my partner in gaming crime -- my friend Jeremy -- started piling his own praise for the game onto Nintendo Power's gushing. Turns out a mom-n-pop video shop near him (this was back in the days when mom-n-pop shops of all stripes hadn't yet been annihilated by corporate chains) had secured a copy of Tengen's Tetris before Nintendo's acquisition of the property, and Jeremy had given it a try. He couldn't really express what made the game so good, though; the best he could offer was a sort of vague enthusiasm.

I trusted Jeremy's judgment in gaming matters implicitly: he was an NES devotee, and his parents gave him more of a gaming allowance than mine could afford, which meant he was able to buy the games that I had to settle for gazing at with longing in Nintendo's bimonthly hype rag. He didn't subscribe, which meant he was above the hype; instead, he experienced. Handily, he was also a walking lending library who shared most of my classes throughout middle and high school, and his generosity gave me access to (and made me a fan of) tons of games I might otherwise have never played. That wasn't the case with Tetris, though. Despite his enthusiasm, I remained skeptical.

That lasted until I actually experienced the game for myself. Fittingly, it was neither Tengen's now-apocryphal version of the game nor Nintendo's canonical home port that introduced me to Russia's finest export since someone learned to turn potatoes into booze. Rather, I stumbled upon a Game Boy kiosk that happened to be running a Tetris demo at the nearby Wal-Mart shortly after the system's launch. Though initially disappointed by the lack of Super Mario Land or Castlevania on the demo unit, my curiosity for the portable console overcame my irritation, and I gave Tetris a go.

Thirty seconds later, my parents had to drag me forcibly away from the demo unit. That half-minute did the trick: I was hooked. I also felt suddenly more sympathetic to my friend's efforts to convey the ineffable. I wasn't really sure what it was about Tetris that had pulled me in so quickly, but I couldn't deny that I wanted another taste of the game. The sheer simplicity of everything had been such a turnoff when I looked at articles about Tetris, yet that same no-nonsense design was precisely what made it so immediately engaging. Before long, I was borrowing and renting the game whenever possible. I would sneak in play sessions on my brother's Game Boy while he wasn't around. I hummed Russian folk tunes. I drew candy-hued Tetrominoes for an assignment in my geometry class. It got pretty bad, there for a while.

The damnable thing was that the game's premise really was stupidly simple. Certainly it was rudimentary enough to make perfect sense at a glance. blocks rained from the heavens and needed to be arranged into unbroken lines that would then vanish and clear the play area for additional blocks to drop in. The fundamentals of the game were rigid and mathematical -- perfect squares falling by groups of four into a grid -- yet the only way to succeed was to employ decidedly un-mathematical intuition and skill. Though the action consisted entirely of moving and rotating seven different four-block shapes within a well, the random influences of block order, player choices, and human error meant no two games played exactly the same way, and the minor slip-ups and mistakes that led to each round's inevitable end spurred players to try again, convinced they could do better this time.

All this depth lurking beneath a simple façade describes more than just Tetris's gameplay, though; it's also emblematic of the game's story and history as well. One would hardly expect that this seeming exercise in interactive minimalism would inspire some of the most complex and ruthless legal maneuvering ever seen in history of the games industry, yet Tetris did precisely that. Born in a Soviet computer lab in the mid-'80s, the vagaries of ownership under a socialist state caused the game's creators to go unrewarded for their efforts while leaving matters of licensing open to misinterpretation and confusion. Nintendo's massive legal team won a major coup by securing the console and portable rights to the game, much to Tengen's consternation; the rogue Atari publishing division had developed and manufactured an NES adaptation secure in the belief that it had a perfectly legitimate claim to the Tetris name. That its version was in many ways superior to Nintendo's subsequent effort made Tengen's defeat all the more galling. A powerful legal and licensing structure has steadily grown around the game since then, imposing increasingly baroque rules for how the Tetris concept may or may not be expressed (all watched hawkishly by scores of avid Tetris devotees eager to praise or protest each new interpretation).

Yet beneath it all, Tetris is ultimately just... Tetris. However the rule set is modified, whatever license sits on top of it all—though for most gamers, Tetris and Nintendo are the only true match, as the enormous popularity of Tetris DS demonstrated—it's ultimately a game so simple in concept that it can be played on literally anything. Some games, such as the aformentioned Pac-Man, are ported to every imaginable computing device; Tetris has been ported to high-rise buildings. All you really need in order to play Tetris is a 10x18 grid, 1-bit color, and the ability to input the commands "left," "right," and "spin." Whether it's played on a Game Boy or a computer or some sort of physical structure never intended to host videogames, Tetris is universally addictive.

In fact, although it's 25 years old at this point, Tetris remains as playable today as it ever was. In some ways, it's a more crucial game now than it was when it helped elevate Game Boy from cute novelty to must-have gadget. In an era where gamers fret and scowl about the need to delineate "casual" and "core" games, Tetris demonstrates the needless artifice of such divisions. It's the purest distilled essence of gaming, and it commands the power to entrance anyone, regardless of how obsessively they regard the medium (or not). Best of all, its universal popularity means it's far more accessible today than it was back in 1989. These days, we can simply show newcomers its brilliance on the nearest available gaming device, mobile phone, or skyscraper rather than try in vain to explain its appeal. Roll on progress.

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