Pack ’em tight and clear ’em out in the most famous puzzle game of all time.
To Beat: Set the high score in A-Type and finish Level 9 Height 5 in B-Type
To Complete: Score at least 120,000 in A-Type for the best ending and finish all combinations in B-Type
My Goal: Complete the game while scoring at least 250,000 in A-Type
What I Did: Completed the game and scored 288,320 in A-Type
Played: 12/9/15 – 12/14/15
My Difficulty: 2/10
I am reasonably confident in saying that most people that have ever played at least one video game have played Tetris. When people think of a puzzle video game Tetris is nearly always the first one that comes to mind. It’s the perfect example of a game that is simple to pick up and understand but that is tough to truly master, and it’s that accessibility that makes Tetris one of the best games ever conceived.
Tetris has a very long and complicated history and I can’t properly do it justice, so I’ll view it here from a very high level. Tetris was created by Alexey Pajitnov while he was working at the Soviet Academy of Sciences. He made it just as a fun little game to test out the capabilities of new computer hardware and it became popular with his colleagues at work. A couple of co-workers ported the game to PC and it exploded in popularity almost from the start. The game was picked up and ported all over the place unoffically. The rights to the game were eventually given to the Soviet government for 10 years and during this time Nintendo was able to license Tetris and make versions for both the Game Boy and NES.
The other interesting bit of history of Tetris on NES is the legal dispute between Nintendo and Tengen. Atari Games had the license to make the arcade game while Nintendo held the licenses for their home consoles and handhelds. Tengen comes into play because they are the division of Atari Games responsible for home console games. Already holding the arcade license, they also decided to apply for a console license and went ahead and developed and released their version of Tetris on NES. Nintendo caught wind of this and argued that they held the rights instead. Atari Games sued, they went to court, and Nintendo was awarded rights by the courts. This forced Tengen Tetris off of store shelves after only four weeks. As I have read, in the early days of NES collecting Tengen Tetris was considered to be one of the rarest if not the rarest NES release. This has proven false as there are quite a number of copies out there for sale even though Tengen Tetris is uncommon and a bit on the pricey side these days.
So for those of you living under a rock, I will explain how Tetris is played. Tetris is a puzzle game where blocks made up of four tiles each fall from the top of the playfield. The player has control of the falling block and can rotate and shift the block and set it into place at the bottom of the playfield where it is locked down permanently. Whenever complete rows are put together on the board they are removed and the rest of hte stack is shifted down to make room for more blocks. The blocks are called tetrominoes because they consist of four small tiles, and there are seven types of blocks tetrominoes that cover all possible arrangements of those four individual tiles. The game ends when the playfield fills up and the new block is obstructed from entering play. The speed of the falling blocks increase as more lines are cleared and eventually the speed becomes too much to handle for all but the most advanced players. The falling speed is also tied to how many points are awarded from clearing lines and also you get more points for clearing multiple lines at once, so Tetris is just as much a scoring challenge as it is a survival challenge.
This version of the game contains two different modes called A-Type and B-Type. A-Type is exactly as described above. You choose a starting speed and plays until the stack fills up. There are a number of fun ending sequences with a rocket liftoff that play out depending on the final score. B-Type is a race to complete 25 lines. You not only set the starting speed but you can set the height of a set of junk blocks that are initialized on the board. The height can be set to 0 however removing all the junk blocks from the start. Removing 25 lines results in another set of fun ending sequence where different things fly or run across the screen depending on the speed level, and the higher the starting height the more of them show up. They don’t really add much to the game but they are neat to look at.
I’m pretty sure I still have the copy of Tetris that my parents bought for their NES. We had maybe a dozen games by that point but of course Tetris fever hit and it got a lot of play in our house. I remember having a high score sheet taped up somewhere in the house tracking our personal high scores and seeing who had the best score in the family. I seem to remember having the highest score but both my Mom and Dad got pretty good at it too.
For my run, I first played all of B-Type and decided to win all 60 combinations of speed level and height in order. With 25 lines each that’s 1500 lines so that took me awhile. I chipped away at it over the course of several days. I didn’t really have any trouble. Some of the levels at the end took a couple of tries each before I had a good enough layout to win and I even beat Level 9 Height 5 on my first try. After that I was ready to take on A-Type with a pretty lofty goal of scoring 250,000 points while starting from Level 0. This is over twice the number of points required to get the best ending sequence, and I would have been okay if after a few tries I made it reasonably close to my goal. As it turns out, I beat my goal score on my very first try. I got all the way to Level 19 where I think the game drops pieces one space every two frames or something crazy quick like that. At that speed I can’t recover from any mistakes and that’s where it all ended. I am really happy with how things unfolded and I’m satisfied to put Tetris to rest for awhile.
Last year I read an article called Applying Artificial Intelligence to Nintendo Tetris which is a highly technical but fascinating look at not only the design of an AI bot that plays perfect Tetris but also the inner workings of how the NES version of the game operates. One very interesting tidbit I gleaned from this article is that this version of the game contains a hidden, working 2-player mode that was left in the game code but is incomplete. Multiplayer is the one significant feature missing in Nintendo’s version of Tetris compared to Tengen’s game, so it is both neat to see that Nintendo was working on 2-player and also disappointing that it wasn’t finished.
This is not related to the NES version, but high level Tetris play is mind-boggling to watch. There are a series of arcade games released in Japan called Tetris: The Grand Master that feature rating systems and a complex set of requirements to reach the highest rank of Grand Master. There are three installments with a fourth on the way, and each successive game has stricter requirements to reach Grand Master rank. To get an idea of how ridiculous this is, the 3rd game was released in 2005 and as of this writing in 2015 there are only 6 people in the world to achieve Grand Master status in that game. One of the craziest gimmicks in this series is during the credits roll where the player must survive a new game while the playfield is invisible while visible blocks continue to fall at high speed. I saw a successful demonstration during Awesome Games Done Quick and there are hardly any words to describe how insane it is to see it done. Here is an article on the latest player to achieve Grand Master rating in Tetris: The Grand Master 3.
Update 5/27/16: It was brought to my attention that I completely omitted any reference to the documentary Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters. Released in 2011, it covers the search for the world’s greatest Tetris players to compete against each other in the 2010 Tetris World Championship. Now, I can’t do the film any justice since I haven’t seen it for myself, but I know I definitely need to make the time to watch players that are way better than I will ever be.
Update 5/27/16: I wanted to draw attention to my relatively low difficulty ranking I gave to Tetris. That score is based solely on the parameters I chose for beating the game, which is relatively simple to do. It requires some practice on B-Type 9-5 but there is the opportunity to play so many games in a row since each run can be very short. Some people have argued for much more strict parameters to consider the game beaten, such as maxing out the score or reaching Level 29 where the speed can’t go any higher. If that’s the condition for beating Tetris, then that is an easy choice for 10/10 difficulty as there are only a small handful of people in the world that have dedicated themselves to accomplishing that feat. Another thing I overlooked is that the Tetris manual outlines the method for choosing Levels 10-19 from the menu, and it’s not much of a stretch from there to suggest that it is necessary to beat B-Type 19-5 as well. I am perfectly fine with taking the easy way out in this case!
Tetris is probably most well known as the game to launch as a pack-in with the Game Boy, and the two paired together so perfectly. The NES version of the game is still a great game on the NES and a solid port of the ubiquitous classic puzzler.