Friday, November 7, 2014

Tetris - Line, Please
The enduring block-dropping puzzle game continues to drive me mad.

As the NES, bolstered by its succession of life-altering games, became more and more ingrained as my main platform for video games, I started to fall into a diseased way of thinking; my world having been so indelibly shaped by the likes of Contra, The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Mega Man 2 and Rygar, it became my belief that only large, established companies like Nintendo, Capcom and Konami were capable of making truly outstanding video games. 

I mean, I still loved my Atari 2600 and Commodore 64, but I'd decided that even their best games were second-tier, lacking the propensity to deliver the same level of emotional impact, and created by entities whose names carried little weight (similar to how today's "hardcore" players slot indie developers). 

It would take more than a decade for me to abandon this poisonous thought-process--instead adopting a mindset whereby I'd judge every game on its own merits--but the shift required a tremendous amount of self-inspection and an ongoing effort to undo my brainwashing. And I'd be remiss if I didn't cite events like the sudden proliferation of the delightfully simple Tetris as having planted the seeds for this eventual re-awakening.

Now, I'd been subjected to Nintendo's whacky commercial ("Get Tetrisized!"), and I'd seen the game advertised basically elsewhere, but I had no idea what, exactly, Tetris was supposed to be. No matter how it was depicted, I just didn't get it--neither the point of the game or why it was supposed to be interesting--and I was content to pass on Nintendo's new "block game" even though the company ordinarily had a lock on my wallet (well, my parents' wallets, mostly).

Tetris faded from my consciousness and remained buried until the middle portion of 1990, when it started appearing in the homes of both friends and cousins, who described it to me as a "block-falling puzzle game." The implication of "puzzle game," alone, would have been enough to rouse my interest, since I'd recently become a big fan of the genre, but it turned out that Tetris was something genuinely new and interesting--fun in a way I'd never experienced. I don't know that I was fully comfortable with its classification, since I associated "puzzle games" more with block-busting and sequential item-placement, but Tetris, regardless, now had my attention. And you know what that meant!

Tetris became part of my collection sometime around the start of summer 1990, when I had all the time in the world to spend learning about its intricacies and discovering the limits of its strategic depth. In my earliest experiences with Tetris, I tended to employ a minimalist strategy, treating it like a game of endurance as I cleared away individual lines in pursuit of making it to the highest level possible. I could usually make it to around Level 12 or 13 before the speed would become too overwhelming and a single screw-up could potentially result in a tall junk pillar and subsequent failure.

With a lot of practice, I eventually become a more-rounded Tetris player and began centering my game around building strings of Tetrises. Though, the double-digit levels' speed remained troublesome for me, so I'd tend to revert back to my minimalistic strategy once I neared, say, Level 13. The problem with the higher-speed levels, of course, was that they made setting up for Tetrises a risky proposition, since the pieces were falling too fast and there was no guarantee that a line (or a "straight polyomino," as my research tells me) would ever again appear; continued absence of a line would result in my last-ditch survival tactic of plugging up the open column to necessarily create a flat surface before it was too late. And, naturally, a line would appear immediately in following, leading to a lot of angered mumbling.

Other annoyances included the game starting me off with long strings of Z-shaped Tetronimos and its insistence on doling out 10 straight square Tetronimos when no two-block surfaces were available. My mental image of the man behind the curtain--the unseen Tetronimo-doling nuisance--was that of a cackling old man who was trying to get under my skin.

I liked the concept of the B-Type mode, but it felt a little underdeveloped; there seemed to be no point in playing anything other than Level 9, which was the only level to present both an actual challenge and an appropriate reward. It's really the only level on which I played, more so because I liked seeing the victory screen with that conglomeration of my favorite Nintendo characters, instruments in hand as they synchronized their movements to match the Carmen - Overture fanfare (all except for the Mario Bros., who were apparently bereft of musical talent and could only express themselves via leaping in alternation). 

Actually, I didn't initially recognize the green spikey monster on the left as Bowser and figured it was some dragonesque protagonist from an obscure Nintendo title (like maybe one of those lightgun games I'd missed). This visual was also a source of frustration, since its depiction of Kid Icarus (as I referred to the character for most of my youth before being informed that his name was actually "Pit") served to remind me that Nintendo was failing to properly utilize a beloved character who deserved more after starring in such a fondly remembered game (well, not so fondly remembered by me, since I liked the character much more than the game itself). It only made his continued absence more obvious, and it felt to me as though an important part of the family was being slighted for some unknown reason.

I didn't overlook that Tetris had some pretty great music. The default theme, creatively titled "Music - 1," was very much iconic, but over time I leaned more toward Musics - 2 and 3. I felt that Music - 2, which I identified as "the cowboy theme," had a lot more energy to it; the cosmic-sounding Music - 3 was seductively calming in contrast--the perfect accompaniment for whenever I was seeking a more calm, contemplative session of Tetris.

Tetris earned some extra life with me thanks to the famous "Warp" code (highlight a level, hold A, and press Start), which all of us learned from Nintendo Power. If I was feeling frisky, I'd try out my luck on the ultra-fast Level 19 to see how long I could survive. The speed was too considerable to try for anything beyond single-line clears, and I don't believe I ever cleared more than 10 lines. I had fun trying, at least.

Though I booted it up every now and then, my time with the NES version of Tetris was relatively short. Even then, the game served its purpose: It provided me the ultimate quick fix--a satisfying gaming experience without my needing to invest more than a few minutes at a time, which even abbreviated games like Renegade and Trojan couldn't offer.

In truth, I ditched Tetris because I was won over by another high-quality game.

You might have heard of it: It was called Tetris.

It came as a pack-in with my new Game Boy, which I received as a gift for Christmas of 1990. At the time, I didn't see much use for another iteration of Tetris, since I already had the NES version, so I wasn't in a rush to play it. "What's the point?" I thought. Besides, there were so many new games for me to explore--titles like Super Mario Land, The Amazing Spider-Man and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Fall of the Foot Clan. Not to mention the handful of NES games I got in combination.

The monochrome version of Tetris didn't find any in the way of substance until I discovered the virtue of taking the Game Boy on the road with me, whence its existence suddenly made a whole lot more sense. It was the perfect time-killer for long car rides, I realized, and the answer to any of those long, boring days spent at the houses of our electronically deficient relatives (those silly adults who preferred their "talking" and "communication." Who needs any of that?).

Tetris quickly gained rank and became a staple of my Game Boy library. I liked it much more than the NES version despite its lack of color, which wasn't as big a negative as I originally judged. Though, the main reason for my preference might have been that the Game Boy version didn't grow too overwhelmingly fast until, say, Level 17 or 18, which was still slower than speeds experienced in the NES version's high teens (I'm guessing it's because the Game Boy's processor couldn't handle NES-level speed). Whatever the case, Tetris cemented itself as a much-played "road game," joining the likes of Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins and Castlevania II: Belmont's Revenge.

Tetris gained new level of appeal when my friend Dominick also got a Game Boy and began bringing it along whenever he'd join us on a trip to Atlantic City or Long Island; it was the only time I ever put to use my link cable, which allowed us to play Tetris' competitive mode. I don't recall how our matches played out, but I think we were about even in skill. What I remember most, instead, were the cameos made by Mario and Luigi, who acted as the opponents' avatars. I was fascinated by their involvement because I didn't even know they were in the game, and all I could think while watching their likenesses victoriously jump about and weep in defeat was that I was accessing forbidden content. "How did they do this?" I wondered. "Does this hidden content originate from the link cable, itself?" (Yeah--I didn't yet have a good grasp on technology.)

Whatever the results of our many battles, playing competitive Tetris against Dominick made for some of the most fun car rides I ever had.

Due to its slower speed increment, I was more comfortable with attempting all-Tetris runs--mainly to see how far I could get without ever clearing anything less than four lines. Such runs would usually end right about when the game began doling out nothing but Z-shaped pieces when no single-block gaps were available, which forced me into the emergency-recovery mode that preceded imminent failure. More so, attempting as much taught me how completely nasty this version was in its Tetromino-dispensing. For one, the appearance-rate of lines was ridiculously low, and it seemed that at least two-dozen other block types would have to drop before a line would show up. By then it was almost always too late, as I'd probably already been forced to seal the open column, or the stack had grown so high that I couldn't both flip the line upright and shift it over to the field's side in such a limited span. Yelling at the game to "Give me a freakin' line, already!" never seemed to help.

Otherwise, I put in a fair share of time in B-Type mode, which I also liked better in this version. My only disappointment was that the musically inclined Nintendo characters were replaced by generic humanoids, which somewhat diminished the whole feeling of reward. Their absence probably had something to do with the screen's low resolution, but still. At least they kept the "cowboy music," which I selected almost exclusively.

As in the case with the rest of my Game Boy collection, I was cut off from Tetris when the portable ceased operating after years of neglect (I'd say, "Hey, kids--remember to take out those batteries before storing your electronics!", but this generation thankfully doesn't have to deal with such issues). I didn't lay eyes upon it again until January of 2013, when I downloaded it as a Club Nintendo reward. I actually had little interest in grabbing it, since I didn't feel I'd get much use out of it in light of my affinity for Tetris DS ("Catch Mode," baby!), but I rationalized that it was a rare opportunity to snag the Game Boy version in light of its assumed limited availability, since such licenses tend to lapse unexpectedly (it's not like Nintendo or other licensees can release their Tetris-themed games whenever they want).

From then to now, I've actually put a whole lot of time into it. Most of my gaming sessions, these days, revolve around turning on my 3DS, looking through my game-filled folders, and playing whatever grabs my attention; Tetris is one of the titles toward which I've repeatedly gravitated. It remains a great piece of software. Though, my reconvened love-hate relationship with it has started to veer more toward the latter; that is, it's more cruel than I remember, and it seems even less inclined to ever want to give me a friggin' line! Also, it seems to become more self-aware as the levels increases, almost able to read the field and spitefully resolve to never provide me a piece I actually need. You know--right before immediately supplying that piece a moment later, when it's no longer useful. It makes an all-Tetris run seem more like suicide mission. 

It's that old man behind the curtain, I tell you. He's out to get me.

Not that you would think otherwise, but I appreciate the game's aesthetics more now than I did when I was a kid. It's pretty clever how Bullet Proof Software textured each Tetronimo in response to the system's color limitations; their doing so provided this version of the game an unmistakable personality. Under the circumstances, it's amazing how well it's held up.

I've played many variations of Tetris over the years, but one in particular that sticks out in my memory is Tetrinet, to which VGMuseum Supreme Overlord Mek introduced me in the early 2000s. Tetrinet holds a special position as the first online game I ever played. At the time, servers, proxies, and IPs were all alien terms to me, so I left the preparation and setup to Mek, who knew of such sorcery.

But the competitive aspect of it was still quite familiar, if not a bit more chaotic; that is, up to six people could now partake in the Tetris-style battle of endurance. More likely, your aim was to spoil the other players' efforts by scoring multiple-line clears and filling their respective fields with excess junk. Exclusive to Tetrinet were special items, which you could use to your own benefit or to the detriment of your flustered opponents. "C"s could clear away one line from the bottom of your field, for instance, or you could use "A" to add lines to the other players' fields. My favorite was the "S" item, which could be used to switch fields with a competitor of choice.

Really, we only played a few lengthy sessions of Tetrinet before abandoning it, but even our short run provided a lot of funny moments and some good memories. It was a pleasure to do battle with both Mek and Micah Cage, who were both fellow members of GX Entertainment--the most powerful force in online entertainment since that one guy in AOL Wrestling Chat who would repeatedly scroll giant ASCII images of the Energizer Bunny.

I don't know that I could label myself a Tetrinet savant, but I manged to amass my fair share of victories. I scored the majority of my wins in honorable fashion and with the most noble of strategies; mainly, I'd build up a tree of Tetronimos, form a V-shaped obstruction, plug up the sides, then immediately switch fields with a person who was earnestly setting up for a Tetris opportunity (or whoever wasn't the owner of a site that happened to be providing me free web-space). It's your call as to whether or not my tactics matched the fighting spirit of the MIDI-based Final Fantasy IV battle music that I used in place of Tetrinet's default theme.

Once I had everyone else copying my strategy, though, everything kinda broke down. Tetrinet would soon run its course.

In the end, that's what makes Tetris so unique. It isn't a single game or a standardized product as married to any particular format; it's an enduring concept that continues to reemerge in many unique incarnations. It's a safe bet that future versions of me will continue to enjoy Tetris in one form or another.

Tetris is most important to me for how it helped expand the definition of "puzzle game"--further stretching the bounds of what was becoming one of my favorite genres--and created the block-dropping sub-genre, which opened the door for other well-remembered, much-enjoyed alumni like Dr. Mario, Columns, Yoshi, Wordtris, Lumines and Meteos. Though, I wouldn't call any of them Tetris' better; in terms of longevity and ubiquity, none of them could hold a candle.  

Tetris is a concept so well-conceived--so perfected in its original form--that it's superior to even its variants and sequels, like Tetris 2, which features a clever bomb-based mechanic but lacks the simplicity that makes the original so much more accessible. I doubt we'll ever see a block-dropping puzzler capable of supplanting it.

All I can say is thank goodness for Alexey Pajitnov, who proved that one man's contributions could alter the course of video game history perhaps more so than any industry giant's. Using only the most adequate of tools, he erected a tower of inspiration so enormous--its scope of influence so far-reaching--that nothing could ever possibly come along to clear it away.

Besides--even if anyone ever tried to do so, that old man would never toss 'im the pieces he'd need.

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