Bobby Fischer was one of the greatest chess players ever – he became world champion in 1972 and could have been champion longer had he been of a more conservative disposition. Fischer was an American and the fact that he became world chess champion is like a beautiful flower growing up through cracks in a pavement. Chess champions tended to come from Russia or the old soviet block countries at that time. Players were pro-actively discovered and developed within a system that was part of society – their champions were the inevitable outcome of that system. Fischer came from no such system – he was a maverick genius who came out of nowhere.
Tetris came out of the soviet system in much the same way that Fischer came out of the US. Russia is certainly no hotbed of game development. However one of the greatest games ever came from there – another beautiful flower growing through cracks in concrete.
The thing about Tetris is that it looks like a very simple game – all developers and game designers must look at it and ask why they can’t think up such a simple game themselves. The truth of course is that they probably won’t because it is NOT a simple game – it is the result of a piece of inspiration that hit Alexey Pajitnov – a Russian academic who had been steeped in puzzle games all of his life. Tetris is derived from a old puzzle game called Pentominoes – in which you must fill a rectangular frame with a set of different shapes leaving no gaps. Pajitnov’s inspiration was to take the set of shapes and simplify them (to shapes called tetrads – hence the game name) , introduce the shapes one by one into the box (now sitting up on one end instead of laying flat) falling under simulated gravity, and then the real stroke of genius – removing complete lines – making space for more shapes.
This created a puzzle that couldn’t really be made from physical material the way the original pentominoes was and thus the first true video puzzle game was created which up until then had mostly been just recreations of physical puzzles like mazes or board games like chess. A new genre was born.
Tetris has stubbornly refused to be improved upon. There may be a few games in the genre that are considered better by puzzle game enthusiasts (Puyo Puyo and Puzzle Fighter spring to mind – though I’d say they are not as approachable) but there are many Tetris-based variants around that simply are not as good as the original game. It has proven best when left alone. It feels as if Tetris was discovered rather than invented.
The game appeared in the late 80s and since then there have been precious few examples where changing the rules has delivered an enjoyable game. It is this very quality that makes Tetris a candidate for perfect game.
Older versions of Tetris such as the famous Gameboy implementation are still highly enjoyable and as playable today as they were when released. Over the years however, subtle changes have been made to the game; the more successful being those that have improved its implementation (control response, how the pieces rotate etc.).
These changes have come from various developers over the years. One of the most significant have been by Sega, whose arcade version introduced a new shape rotation scheme and the concept of lock delay – whereby the play can move and rotate a dropped piece around for a short period of time before it locks into position.
The two player battle game has turned the original game into a highly enjoyable and competitive game – the introduction of garbage attacks – where the creation of multiple sets of lines in one move generates extra lines in the opponent’s pit.
Game developer Arika have taken the game to its ultimate form in its Tetris Grandmaster series which demands such exacting skill as to appear inhuman when played by experts; its final trick in its hardest mode requiring memorising the placement of pieces as they are made invisible when they lock into place. It is these later changes that complete the basic game of Tetris and transform it into the perfect game.
Bobby Fischer met with quite a sad end. Not to put too fine a point on it – he went quite mad and was caught up in all sorts of conspiracy theories and was quite outspoken on Israel, the US and Judaism. He died from an illness in early 2008. His reputation as a chess player while controversial is happily intact however. It’s fair to say that the reputation of Tetris as one of the greatest games is still intact and modern interpretations of it continue to retain its purity and are all the better for it.
A retro gamer and occassional writer..