During the summer of 1992, between my first and second years at university, I was working at a video game studio in Leamington Spa. We were supposed to be coding a game called Tank Commander for the PC, a long forgotten battle simulation – but one day someone brought in a Game Link cable, which allowed the connection of two Nintendo Game Boy consoles together. Of course, we immediately loaded up the Tetris competitive mode, in which any lines you cleared on your own screen would be cruelly transferred on to the bottom of your opponent’s stack. Work ground to a halt and didn’t really start up again for several days.
Most gamers have Tetris addiction stories. Since Russian programmer Alexey Pajitnov first developed the falling shape puzzler while working at the Moscow Academy of Sciences, it has sold hundreds of millions of copies on more than 50 different hardware platforms. Scientists and designers have pondered over its incredible appeal, the extraordinary compulsion people have to fit variously shaped tetriminos into a bucket. The beauty of Tetris is its simplicity – you need to understand no archaic conventions or rules of gaming. It is also essentially about something that we all find intrinsically satisfying: tidying up. Tetris is about imposing order, even if the task is Sisyphean, because the shapes don’t stop falling until your stack reaches the top of the screen. And then it’s all over.
Tetris in the brain
The purity and popularity of the game have made it one of the most researched and analysed on the planet. Countless papers have been written on its cognitive effects. In 2009 research published in BioMed Central suggested that playing Tetris could strengthen the neural networks in the brain, perhaps even improving memory. In the same year, researchers at Oxford University found that Tetris could help reduce flashbacks in sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder. Most of us just joked about the “Tetris effect”, the worrying after-image of falling blocks behind our eyes and even in our dreams.
Since the original prototype was developed by Pajitnov on an ancient Electronica 60 computer, the rights to the concept have been swapped, fought over, brought and more-or-less stolen dozens of times. The publishing history of the game is a complex puzzle in its own right (and to find out more you should immediately watch the documentary Tetris: From Russia With Love). There have been various attempts to update the recipe. 1989’s Super Tetris added a smart bomb, 2001 title Tetris Worlds brought in a story mode(!), and introduced “hold” and “easy spin” mechanics. Later, Electronic Arts toyed with the brand for a while, producing the decent Tetris Blitz (which bought in an against-the-clock dynamic) before blotting its copybook entirely by trying to add a subscription service to its iOS Tetris port.
These were sort of interesting, but most players saw them for what they were – rather desperate attempts to re-sell a concept that worked fine in its cheaply and readily available traditional incarnations. Although, if we’re going to to get really into this, the four-player mode in the Nintendo 64 title, Tetris 64, was pretty special, as was crossover classic Tetris With Card Captor Sakura, by longtime Street Fighter developer Arika. That company actually produced some of the finest Tetris spin-offs in the form of its Tetris: The Grand Master series. Here is expert player Jin8 besting Tetris Grand Master 3. It is pretty incredible:
There were also lots of very good rivals, including Jay Geertsen’s Columns, later licensed by Sega for various platforms including the Game Gear, the manufacturer’s rival to Game Boy. Better though was the gloriously kawaii Puyo Puyo series, originally from Japanese studio Compile. Even Mario got in on the scene with 1990 title Dr Mario, which replaced all the shapes with differently coloured pills in what was clearly a tribute to acid house culture. (I’m kidding.)
Now another giant publisher, Ubisoft, has announced that it is working with the Tetris Company – the organisation co-founded by Pajitnov that now owns the right to the brand – to produce new versions for the Xbox One and PlayStation 4. So far it has given nothing away about what these games will look like or what new features will be added to take advantage of these ultra powerful machines – but surely new modes and functions will appear. What will they look like? Will it make use of the console’s connectivity to offer vast global leaderboards like Tetris Zone? Will we see cloud support? A persistent massively multiplayer Tetris arena, thousands of blocks wide, which a global audience must keep from spilling over?
Perhaps there will be Tetris Kinect, where you shout, “turn it left, no LEFT, now drop it, no not there, THERE!” Maybe Ubisoft will bring in some of the epic narrative sweep of the Assassin’s Creed series. It turns out that this version of Tetris is being played in a vast national security mainframe, and players have to hack the code to escape the distopian nightmare. Are we going to get Tetris Rayman, the unlikely combination of block-falling puzzler and Ubisoft’s invisible-limbed platforming mascot? Is there something in the Geneva convention that could stop this from happening?
One thing is certain, while there are computers to play games on there will be Tetris. It defies barriers of language and culture, it is interactive entertainment in its purest form. Somehow, Pajitnov discovered a hotwire to the brain; an experience that talked to the central processing unit of human cognition in its own machine language. And like the rest of the industry, despite following up with several sequels, the puzzle-obsessed coder has not repeated the brilliance of Tetris. But of course we should be reminded of the apocryphal story about Joseph Heller. When told by an interviewer that, since Catch 22, he had never managed to write anything as good, he replied, “No, but then neither has anyone else”. Pajitnov can quite securely make the same claim.