It’s the greatest sport since Tit Cricket

Tetris (1989)

You wouldn’t believe the kind of sports, games and events out there that are being done competitively. Ever heard of the Bog Snorkelling Championship? Here in Ireland we have the National Ploughing Championships, and once you’ve stopped laughing, I’ll have you know that it’s quite a big event on the redneck social calendar, and I’ve never gotten an invite to it. And believe me, though I hate to say it, I want one.

But competitive Tetris? How on earth does that work? You won’t need me to explain Tetris to you, although just so you are aware, I happen to possess the title of Tetris Maximus, which means I’m always invited to dine in the Tetris Invictus hall in Tetris 99. I would even ask that you refer to me strictly as Tetris Maximus from now on, whether that be in your letter of complaint or the eventual online cancellation of yours truly.

Anyway, you know the drill: all kinds of different square pieces drop into a well, and you’ll need to line up in a diligent fashion to make lines out of them. It’s addictive as anything, and there’s something about Soviet propaganda in there as well.

The game even has its own effect, which believe it or not is called the Tetris Effect. This affects your mind’s eye or peripheral vision; you’ll start to see Tetris pieces dropping just out of your view. Or you might look at shapes in the room around you and mentally start solving them into strong, healthy Tetris wells.

You’ll probably think you’re going fully doolally if this happens, but fear not – it appears that Tetris has been proven to combat the onset of the old dementia, which means I should stand a pretty good chance of not falling victim to having a Swiss cheese brain. It also helps in problem solving, and I’m sure a bricklayer or two out there has gotten something out of it.

But how on earth do you play Tetris competitively, for top dollar and Tetrimino shaped trophies? Tetris is a game against yourself, until it gets too quick for you, or more likely you get an evil drought of those fiendish line blocks and instead get all the hateful Js, Ls, Ss and Zs in the world.

Well, let me introduce you, dear muggle, to the Tetris World Championships – a nerdy get-together where people play each other for points on the NES variant of Tetris, in front of quite an impressive crowd of fans, baying for blood and T-Spins.

You will laugh and think it’s absolutely ridiculous, in much the same fashion as you laughed at the Bog Snorkelling Championship or Olympic Skating. But I’m telling you, check out a video of it and find yourself getting drawn into even thirty minute videos of the Finals.

The best part of the whole setup is the hyped up commentators – oftentimes the commentators could ruin anything, whether that’s by making inane comments during proper sports, or talking strictly in advanced game jargon, community fan terms and inside jokes during Smash Bros. videos.

But when it’s the Tetris World Championships and someone like Jonas Neubauer (God rest him) or Jeff Moore are gearing up for a Tetris, you’d be lying if you say you don’t find yourself damn near out of the seat when that line block finally comes, and the commentators yell, “Boom! Tetris for Jeff!”

It’s an achievement and a half to get a Tetris at high speed in the NES version of the game as well because the higher levels of the game get bloody quick, so quick indeed that there’s a quasi-killscreen that spits out all but the most hardened players.

Only Joseph Saelee (obviously and quintessentially Asian) seems able to stand up against the killscreen, and it looks like he may dominate the Tetris scene for some time, if studying to run NASA or some other less cerebral vocation than Tetris doesn’t get in the way first.

When a falling piece lands somewhere in this iteration of the game, that’s it, it locks in place and you can forget about moving it. That’s frightening – what if the Bog Snorkellers could only dive under one location, and that location ended up trapping them underneath with no air and no chance of survival? Well, sorry pal, that’s elite level play for you.

This game doesn’t have the Korobeiniki, that classic Russian song that’s become better known as the Tetris theme. That’s a shame, although you’ve got Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker instead. That’s fitting, since it really cracks one’s nuts when a drought of necessary pieces hits.

In this version, however, you actually have a handy counter onscreen that gauges how many of each of the different pieces you’ve received, and the game does actually try to do the distribution evenly. Naturally, this causes its own problems for the highest level Tetris players.

Just bringing this game from the Soviet Lego brick of a computer known as the Electronika 60 over to consoles beyond the Iron Curtain was its own ordeal, and it’s a story well worth checking out actually. I’d only butcher the main facts of it, if I tried to explain. But it’s incredible to note that the game, broadly speaking, was the brainchild of just one Russian computer programmer, Alexey Pajitnov.

Of course, given that Pajitnov was an employee of the Soviet Government, they made sure they did all they could not to let have the West own any part of this wonderfully addictive game. And you better believe they wouldn’t give their man any a share of the considerable royalties it stood to make. That’s some textbook communism for you.

Pajitnov didn’t begin to make money off the game until the mid-1990s when he formed The Tetris Company, which meant he unfortunately missed out on the crest of that beautiful Tetris wave around 1989/1990. At that time, the game sold very well on the NES, but it went like hot cakes on the Game Boy, where it had the honour of being a pack-in title that moved more Game Boys than the whole of Communist Russia had hot dinners.

Wait, let me just take a deeper look at that. So you have a Japanese tech phenomenon with the Game Boy, with a Soviet / Russian made killer piece of software for it. But what did the Americans contribute to this? Sales figures and batteries, I suppose.

Pajitnov himself will tell you that Tetris succeeded mainly, he feels, for two reasons. The first one is easy to guess: the game is very simple. Anyone can pick it up, or even watch it for a while and decide that they want to have a go, and broadly speaking they’ll know what they’re doing.

I find that if a game passes the girlfriend test, i.e. your missus can play it and enjoy herself without things quickly descending into farce, then it’s a winner. In my house, Tetris, Animal Crossing and of all things The Last of Us passes the girlfriend test.

Pajitnov’s second reason for Tetris’s success, and one I find very interesting, is that the game’s design is abstract. The look of the game is not focused overly on something that perhaps 20% of the market love, but a more significant 25% of the market hate.

Now, he didn’t specify this in his answer, but I should think he was talking about Tetris’ lack of anime schoolgirls, which I (obviously) don’t care about. But I think he meant that there’s nothing in Tetris that will turn you off, or indeed turn you on.

It’s a no frills puzzle game, Tetris NES, and no frills is always what the competitive gaming community look for, to see who’s best. After all, they’ve cancelled out all kinds of elements in the Smash Bros. equation to make everything Final Destination only, with merely a handful of viable characters and absolutely no items, you filthy casual.

Filthy casuals can play Tetris NES and enjoy it, though they might find it a lot more difficult than they would have thought, and they’ll quickly go back to a more modern spin on the game. But it’s Tetris, easy to follow, easy to play, and a real pain in the backside to master. If you started honing your skills 30 years ago, you might just have a small chance at making some waves in the competitive leagues. If you didn’t give yourself that head-start… how does ploughing competitively sound instead?

23 July 2021

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