Franchise Festival #100: Tetris (Highlights)

Welcome back to Franchise Festival, where we explore and discuss noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries can be found here.

This week I’ll be dropping knowledge on Tetris. Cover art, unless otherwise noted, is from MobyGames. Please consider supporting that website, as its volunteers tirelessly catalog key information and art assets for an often ephemeral medium. Years refer to the first release of a game anywhere in the world unless otherwise noted.

Unlike most Franchise Festival articles, this history will only be covering series highlights. There are simply too many Tetris games to explore individually. I have tried to make references to games not fully covered where relevant.

While I make specific citations below, I am especially indebted to the following sources for their overviews of the series:

Table of Contents

Background
Tetris (1984)
Welltris / Hatris / Faces… Tris III / Wordtris (1989-1991)
Tetris Flash / Tetris 2 (1993)
Tetris Plus (1996)
Tetris: The Grand Master (1998)
The New Tetris (1999)
Tetris DS (2006)
Puyo Puyo Tetris (2014)
Tetris Effect (2018)
Tetris 99 (2019)

Background

Tetris’ fundamental simplicity belies the complexity of its origins. Its designer, Alexey Pajitnov, was born in Moscow in 1956 and found himself entranced by mathematical puzzles and games by the early 1970s. His passions led him to the Moscow Institute of Aviation, where he earned a master’s degree in applied mathematics, and then on to a career in computer programming at the Soviet Academy of Sciences in 1979. By June 1984, he and a handful of colleagues were using downtime at the office to experiment with game design.

Tetris (1984)

With the input of fellow programmer Dmitry Pavlovsky, Pajitnov produced the first version of Tetris on his government-issued Electronika 60 computer. The aging device, which lagged a full decade behind contemporary Western or Japanese hardware and lacked the ability to display anything but text, was no deterrent to Pajitnov’s creativity. His attempts to replicate the geometric analog puzzle game pentominoes using lines of text evolved into a representation of falling blocks; Pajitnov replaced the original game’s twelve pentominoes – shapes comprised of five squares – with seven four-square tetriminos. In an effort to iterate on a prototype which tasked the player with filling up a screen by rotating and interlocking puzzle pieces, Pajitnov opted to make completed horizontal lines disappear. Addiction to the program’s theoretically infinite gameplay loop spread rapidly around the office after its breakneck three-week development period.

The original Electronika 60 version of Tetris, as emulated on PDP-11. Source: Hard Drop

Publishing a commercial version of the game, on the other hand, would prove to be more complicated. Due to the absence of intellectual property (IP) rights within the Eastern Bloc and its creation on company time, Tetris was owned by the Soviet government. A graphically-enhanced IBM-PC version developed in collaboration between Pajitnov and teenage programming prodigy Vadim Gerasimov, however, was smuggled to Hungarian publisher Novotrade in 1986. Myriad bootleg copies were circulating throughout Eastern Europe and the wider world by the end of the year. In 1987 and 1988, a host of Western studios released versions of the game reprogrammed for unique platforms; the most popular of these, Spectrum Holobyte’s kitschy IBM-PC port, played up Tetris’ origins by including Cyrillic text, matryoshka dolls, Russian Orthodox architecture, and a soundtrack featuring 19th-Century Russian folk song “Korobeiniki.”

Spectrum Holobyte’s version is no longer the best-known, but it was a key step in popularizing the game throughout the West. Source: Hard Drop

Tetris’ major cultural breakthrough would come by way of Nintendo and video game licensor Henk Rogers following his discovery of the game at Las Vegas’ 1988 Consumer Electronic Show. Rogers’ initial efforts to bring the game to Japan were undermined by Mirrorsoft, one of several Western studios with a claim to ownership of the IP, as it had already sold Japanese home console and arcade publishing rights to Atari subsidiary Tengen. Undeterred, Rogers visited Moscow to meet with Soviet government rights-holder ELORG on behalf of Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi. Following a protracted legal battle, Nintendo acquired exclusive rights to publish the game on non-Japanese home and handheld consoles while arcade publishing rights remained with Atari, who subsequently licensed them to Sega. Nintendo’s decision to bundle its own port of the game with the Game Boy in 1989, at the urging of Rogers, is widely credited with the worldwide popularization of that platform and Tetris itself

Tetris‘ Game Boy port was the series’ most successful variant before the rise of mobile devices. Source: MobyGames

All versions of Tetris feature more or less identical gameplay. As sequenced tetriminoes fall from the top of the screen to the bottom, the player rotates them and moves them from left to right in order to produce full horizontal lines. The speed of their descent increases as the game goes on. When the player fills in an entire horizontal line, it is eliminated and frees up space for more tetriminoes. The player’s score, which rises with each eliminated line, can be more rapidly improved by eliminating multiple lines at once. Gameplay ends when the play space fills up and a tetrimino reaches past the top of the screen.

The Nintendo-published NES version of Tetris allows players to start their session with pre-populated garbage blocks littering the well for an added layer of challenge. Source: MobyGames

The most significant variations present in ports of Tetris’ original release are distinctive audio/visual styles (including an iconic soundtrack by Hirakazu “Hip” Tanaka on the NES), varied levels of challenge, and multiplayer features. Nintendo-published versions offer a truly random selection of blocks rather than a grab bag aimed at delivering a more algorithmically-authored difficulty curve and introduce the “next piece” preview, which identifies the next tetrimino in a nearby window before it appears in the play space. With regard to multiplayer, players can go head to head in splitscreen on the Tengen NES version or connect their Game Boys using a link cable to compete against friends. Eliminating multiple lines results in clutter – known as garbage – being added to the opponent’s play space.

Like Doom (1993), Tetris has been ported to nearly every device imaginable. Here are versions being played on the Commodore 64, TI-84 graphing calculator, and the side of a Philadelphia skyscraper. Sources: Hard Drop/Nineteendo/Time

Tetris has sold over 200,000,000 copies at the time of writing. It has been re-released on more platforms than any other video game, offering one of the medium’s most reliably compelling experiences on over 65 pieces of hardware from arcade machines to calculators. Its Game Boy version, which sold 35,000,000 copies alone, famously established portable devices as a viable way to play games in the West. Perhaps most importantly, Pajitnov’s experimental masterwork kickstarted one of the most critically acclaimed video game franchises of the past half-century.

Welltris / Hatris / Faces… Tris III / Wordtris (1989-1991)

Since he lacked the rights to design further entries in the series he’d created, Pajitnov’s continued presence in the games industry during the early 1990s was contingent on producing Tetris spiritual successors for a variety of studios in Russia and the West. The most noteworthy of these was Russian studio Doka’s Welltris, which was published by Japan’s Bullet-Proof Software for the MS-DOS platform in 1989.

The DOS version of Welltris is the most colorful. How cute is the headshot of series creator Alexey Pajitnov on the right? Source: MobyGames

Welltris  offers a rough approximation of Tetris in a 3D space. Rather than view the play area’s “well” from a profile perspective, players look down at it from above. Blocks are dropped down four walls along the z-axis, away from the player’s position, and must be arranged to produce full lines in an 8×8 grid at the bottom of the well.

Blockout (left) is more successful than 3D Tetris (right) due to the former’s consistent use of color to identify tetrimino shapes at a glance. Sources: MobyGames/Jeremy Parish

Blockout (1989), a contemporary game by Polish designers Aleksander Ustaszewski and Mirosław Zabłocki for American publisher California Dreams, resembles Welltris but features true 3D graphics rather than sprite-based approximations thereof. While these games seem to be an example of convergent evolution rather than intentional imitation, Blockout would later be remade for the Virtual Boy by T&E Soft under the name 3D Tetris (1996).

If the name didn’t tip you off, Faces… Tris III is a spectacularly weird game. Source: MobyGames

Three follow-ups to Welltris feature varying levels of involvement from the series’ creator. Hatris (1990), which Pajitnov produced directly for Bullet-Proof Software, sees players dropping different styles of hats onto people at the bottom of the play area in an effort to combine five hats of the same style. Spectrum Holobyte’s Faces… Tris III (1990) is an especially unsettling riff on the Tetris concept, as players rush to slide horizontal slices of human faces into place alongside like pieces before they stack up to the top of the screen. Though described in marketing materials as “the latest Soviet challenge,” Faces seems to have been entirely developed by US-based Spectrum Holobyte subsidiary Sphere Inc.; Pajitnov and collaborator Vladimir Pokhilko are credited only with the original concept. 

Wordtris features the bomb item, which had debuted in Sega Tetris sequel Bloxeed (1989) and would be a key component of later titles like Bullet-Proof Software’s Tetris Blast (1996). Source: MobyGames

Finally, Wordtris completed this bizarre quadrilogy of early Tetris spiritual successors in 1991. Developed by Sergei Utkin, Vyacheslav Tsoy and Armen Sarkissian for Spectrum Holobyte, this PC game requires players to combine falling letters to form words within the series’ traditional 2D well. Ports produced for the Game Boy and Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) feature unique graphics and music.

Tetris Flash / Tetris 2 (1993)

Nintendo began to produce its own puzzle concepts using the Tetris name in the 1990s. The first of these, Tetris 2 (Tetris Flash in Japan), repurposes the name of a rare ZX Spectrum Tetris variant originally developed by František Fuka for short-lived Czech developer Fuxoft in 1990 but has nothing else in common with that game. Tetris 2 was first developed internally by Nintendo R&D1 for the NES, then respectively ported to the Game Boy and SNES by TOSE and Bullet-Proof Software.

While ultimately a dead-end for the series, Fuxoft’s Tetris 2 is noteworthy for puzzles in which garbage pieces are arranged into a cute shape. Source: MobyGames

The game sees players attempting to combine three or more adjacent squares of the same color as shapes, including traditional tetriminoes and new configurations of colored squares, fall from the top of the 2D well. Though the presentation is unique, the mechanics are startlingly similar to Nintendo R&D1’s Dr. Mario (1990). The chief distinction between Tetris 2 and Dr. Mario is that the latter’s virus antagonists are absent from the former; a session instead ends once the player has eliminated all squares from the play space.

Though its colorful SNES edition (seen here) was quite popular, Nintendo’s Tetris 2 would fail to inspire the reappearance of flash blocks in later series entries. Source: MobyGames

Tetris 2’s most important contribution to the series’ array of features is the addition of flash blocks. These blocks, which are identified through a different sprite design, are present among scattered garbage pieces in the play space when a session begins. Combining at least two blocks of the same color with a flash block will cause all other blocks of the same color to disappear. Unlike in variants of the series debut, blocks left hanging with no underlying vertical support will drop to the bottom of the play area when their surrounding blocks are eliminated rather than hovering perpetually in place.

Tetris Plus (1996)

Tetris titles that bear little resemblance to Pajitnov’s original game proliferated throughout the mid-1990s during Nintendo’s lease of the property. Among the most memorable of these are Nintendo’s own Panel de Pon (1995/1996), which features unique fantasy elements in its original guise but was re-released with a Yoshi’s Island-inspired makeover in the West as Tetris Attack, and H2O Entertainment’s 3D Tetrisphere (1997). The Tetris Company, formed by Henk Rogers and Alexey Pajitnov following their emigration to the United States, began to wind this practice down when they acquired half of the IP’s ownership rights from ELORG in 1996. Rogers bought Bullet-Proof Software and founded a counterpart development studio called Blue Sky Software in Hawaii later that year. From this point on, licensees of the Tetris name would either have to submit to close oversight from The Tetris Company or have an established reputation for producing high-quality content.

If the player fails to eliminate enough lines in time, the li’l professor will be crushed by an ever-descending spiked ceiling. Grim stuff. Source: Yamishitsuji

One of the most innovative games produced under this new arrangement is Natsume’s Tetris Plus (1996 Japan, 1997 NA). While traditional Tetris gameplay based on Sega’s 1988 arcade variant of the original game is available in Classic Mode, Puzzle Mode combines falling block puzzles with sidescroller mechanics. During each Puzzle Mode stage – set in themed locations like the Angkor Wat or Atlantis – players are tasked with guiding a cartoonish archaeologist through the well’s pre-placed garbage blocks by manipulating falling tetriminoes. The archaeologist moves automatically when a path becomes available, and the player fails if an ever-advancing spiked ceiling crushes the archaeologist before he can reach his goal at the bottom of the well. The ceiling can be pushed back up by clearing three or more rows of blocks at once.

Tetris Plus 2 is mechanically and cosmetically similar to its predecessor. Source: Vysethedetermined2

In the year after its 1996 arcade release, Tetris Plus was ported to the Sega Saturn, PlayStation, and Game Boy. The 32-bit versions effectively recreate the arcade experience while the Game Boy version is necessarily scaled down to fit that platform’s monochromatic presentation. Reviews and commercial performance were strong enough to merit a lightly enhanced Jaleco-published arcade follow-up called Tetris Plus 2 (1997), though this sequel was never localized outside of Japan and has become very rare in the two decades since its release.

Tetris: The Grand Master (1998)

As with Tetris Plus before it, Tetris: The Grand Master is heavily influenced by Sega’s 1988 arcade interpretation of Tetris rather than Nintendo’s home console adaptations. This machine, exclusive to Japan and the United Kingdom, made a handful of important changes to Pajitnov’s original that were not retained in most Western titles bearing the series name over the following decade. Its most significant difference is its omission of the hard drop, a play technique in which the player taps a button to drop a tetrimino rapidly to the bottom of the well. Sega Tetris would inspire its own successors in Japan – including a canceled 1989 Mega Drive port (belatedly published on the Mega Drive/Genesis Mini in 2019) and the Sega Saturn’s Tetris S (1996) – but none of these matched the impact of the series’ Nintendo-published variants until the 1998 release of Tetris: The Grand Master.

Sega Tetris (1988) inspired its own line of successors featuring a physics system distinct from that in the Nintendo-influenced versions familiar to Western fans. Source: Hard Drop

This arcade title was produced by Arika, a Japanese studio known for Street Fight EX (1996) that would later gain a cult reputation for its undersea exploration simulators Everblue (2001) and Endless Ocean (2007). Its most noteworthy addition to the model established by Sega Tetris is a ranking system which assigns players a title based on their score and speed at the end of their session; the best rank is Grand Master. Unlike earlier Tetris variants, there is no endless mode – sessions instead end when the player has reached Level 999. The level counter ascends with each dropped piece until it reaches a 99th level (e.g. 199, 299, etc.), at which point the player must clear one or more lines to advance it again.

Tetris: The Grand Master looks like other versions, but its intense difficulty has made it a favorite among international competitors. Source: Hard Drop

The huge array of levels means that difficulty likewise varies dramatically over a play session. While tetrimino descent slowly increases in other versions of the game, Tetris: The Grand Master increases and decreases gravity irregularly over its first 450 levels. From level 500, gravity increases to its maximum value (known as 20G) and tetriminoes drop almost instantly upon their arrival at the top of the well. The player has one frame of animation in which they can direct the piece’s descent and must otherwise rotate it into a desirable position as it hits the floor. This mechanic is inspired by TETRIS SEMIPRO-68k (1989), an unofficial Japan-only Tetris port developed for the Sharp X68000 platform by Jun Shimizu.

Tetris: The Grand Master 2 and 3 (seen here) feature a bonus challenge mode in which tetriminos must be dropped onto invisible blocks. Source: MikeyTaylorGaming

Though Tetris: The Grand Master was wildly successful in Japanese arcades, versions planned for release worldwide were canceled some time after its English localization had begun. A Japan-only arcade sequel called Tetris The Absolute Grand Master 2 was developed by Arika and published by Psikyo in 2000; this game, which introduces an unranked Normal Mode and a distinctive sonic drop that mimics the hard drop but allows rotation once a tetrimino hits the floor, was followed by an upgraded edition called Tetris The Absolute Grand Master 2 PLUS only two months after its initial release. Tetris: The Grand Master 3 Terror-Instinct (2005) overhauls the sub-series’ ranking system and adds Sakura Mode, a gameplay variant based on Arika’s Tetris with Cardcaptor Sakura Eternal Heart (2000) which sees players attempting to destroy jeweled blocks scattered throughout the play area. The only Tetris Grand Master title released outside of arcades, Tetris: The Grand Master Ace (2005), is effectively an Xbox 360 adaptation of Tetris: The Grand Master 3 Terror-Instinct featuring online play. While no Tetris Grand Master games have been officially released in the West at the time of writing, the series remains exceptionally popular in competitive circles worldwide.

The New Tetris (1999)

Two years after Tetrisphere (1997), H20 Entertainment produced The New Tetris on the Nintendo 64. Poor internal management at H20 and a fraught relationship with publisher Nintendo, if scathing rants hidden in the game’s code are to be believed, are not reflected in the final product. The New Tetris was released to positive critical reception in North America and Europe in July and October 1999. The Tetris Company’s contemporary development of an annually-updated Tetris Guideline ensured that licensees from the late ‘90s on would hew more closely than ever to Pajitnov’s original vision for his series

Four-person multiplayer can get pretty hectic. Source: Poketwoo

The New Tetris features a handful of distinctions that make it one of the era’s most successful Tetris sequels and set it apart from later titles. As with many games on Nintendo 64, four-person multiplayer is emphasized; this works similar to head-to-head modes from earlier Tetris games, but the rate at which garbage shifts to competitors is faster due to the greater number of players. The addition of 16-block squares, produced by players combining tetriminoes in their wells, likewise alters the flow of gameplay. Squares composed of like tetriminoes turn gold while squares composed of varied tetriminoes become silver; both bear unique point values and can result in a player having the highest score even if his or her well fills up first, forcing players to balance the efficiency of clearing lines with the risk and reward of producing obstructive squares.

Squares can be difficult to plan around, but their point value makes them worth the effort. Note the hold piece in the upper-left corner of the interface. Source: frankJShark

While squares are absent from most future series entries, aside from THQ’s Tetris Worlds (2001), H2O’s second Tetris title also introduced two longer-lived mechanics. Players can designate a falling tetrimino as their hold piece with the tap of a button, placing it into a reservoir from which it can be swapped with a later tetrimino; the swapped tetrimino becomes the player’s new hold piece when this occurs. Infinite rotation, which allows players to spin their tetriminoes indefinitely once they hit the floor, also makes its debut in The New Tetris. Both strategic planning layers would outlast H2O itself, remaining essential parts of almost every Tetris released in the two decades since the studio’s 2001 closure.

Tetris DS (2006)

Nintendo R&D1 was combined with Nintendo R&D2 to form Nintendo Software Planning and Development Division (SPD) in 2004; Nintendo president Satoru Iwata took on the role of general manager, supervising three production groups that were independently developing software. Production Groups 1 and 2 primarily focused on content directed at the Game Boy Advance and DS, Nintendo’s cutting-edge dual-screen portable device. One of their most successful early efforts, under the direction of Masaki Tawara, would be Tetris DS (2006).

Puzzle Mode is the cutest form of Tetris. Source: MobyGames

Rather than highlighting abstract geometry or regions of the world, Tetris DS leverages its developer’s other IPs to offer a uniquely Nintendo-flavored appearance. Most of its six game modes focus on a specific Nintendo series, like Super Mario Bros. or The Legend of Zelda, though some shift between different franchises as play sessions progress. These series’ iconic soundtracks and sound effects likewise replace Tetris’ characteristic Russian chiptunes.

Push Mode is a rare instance of two opponents competing using a single vertical well. Bucking all established Tetris norms, blocks enter from the top and bottom! Source: MobyGames

While its cosmetic updates are instantly recognizable, Tetris DS’ most significant differences from earlier titles are mechanical. Push Mode sees two players, or one player and a CPU opponent, clearing lines to push a central set of blocks vertically towards each other’s goal against background elements drawn from Donkey Kong (1981). The Metroid-themed Catch Mode involves rotating a block in the center of the screen to capture falling tetriminoes as they scroll vertically; once a 4×4 block has been assembled, the player can detonate it or wait ten seconds for it to self-detonate, destroying any falling Metroid enemies that are beside or directly above it to improve their score. 

Much of Catch Mode is purely cosmetic – only flying enemies are effected by the player’s detonation of their square. Source: MobyGames

Puzzle Mode presents the player with a pre-filled play area and a selection of tetriminoes that can be rotated and dropped automatically into an empty space. If the player selects tetriminoes in the correct order and configuration, they will fully eliminate all lines in the well. This mode’s Yoshi’s Cookie (1992) graphics are either an amusing coincidence or an intentional nod to Tetris history, as Alexey Pajitnov had designed puzzles for Nintendo’s dessert-themed tile-matching game nearly 15 years earlier.

Touch Mode (left) bears a striking resemblance to Klotski (right). Source: MobyGames/Wikipedia

Mission Mode, which features a Legend of Zelda (1986/1987) aesthetic, assigns specific goals that the player must complete in a brief time period. Touch Mode is the only play variant that makes use of the DS’ touch screen, as players use their stylus to shift and rotate pre-placed tetriminoes to force higher tetriminoes down a tower arrangement and into horizontal lines for elimination. Though it includes a Balloon Fight (1984) visual style, its mechanics are more heavily influenced by analog Polish sliding block puzzle Klotski than any earlier Nintendo game. Standard Mode, which offers traditional gameplay that integrates hold pieces and infinite rotation alongside a variety of graphical backdrops, is most noteworthy for a multiplayer option that permitted up to ten participants using the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection until that service was discontinued in 2014.

Puyo Puyo Tetris (2014)

The Tetris Company and Blue Sky Software spent the years after Tetris DS producing online multiplayer versions like Tetris Friends (2009-2019) and licensing mobile adaptations like EA’s Tetris (2006-2020), eschewing any major mechanical overhauls in favor of improving accessibility. Following a handful of behind-the-scenes changes, though, Tetris’ conservative 2000s would give way to a highly innovative 2010s. The Tetris Company finally managed to acquire all remaining shares of the IP from ELORG around 2005, giving Pajitnov and Rogers full co-ownership of Pajitnov’s creation for the first time in two decades. Maya Rogers, who had been “[leading] the worldwide business initiatives of the Tetris brand since 2007,” succeeded her father as CEO of Blue Planet Software in 2014 and looked to the future. 

Combining Tetris and Puyo Puyo isn’t simple, but it’s a lot of fun. Source: MobyGames

Tetris would enter a new golden age with the 2014 release of Sega’s Sonic Team-developed Puyo Puyo Tetris on 3DS, Wii U, PlayStation Vita, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One in Japan. While a similar crossover between Tetris and falling block puzzle franchise Puyo Puyo had previously been rejected by The Tetris Company, the timing seems to have been right in the early 2010s. Early free-to-play prototypes soon gave way to a full retail release as the popularity of Puyo Puyo’s characters in Japan made a higher budget economically viable.

A countdown notifies the player how long they have before play shifts to the alternate well, displayed in miniature beside the primary well, during Swap Mode. Source: MobyGames

True to its name, Puyo Puyo Tetris offers modes based on traditional Tetris, traditional Puyo, and a fusion of the two. The former is broadly based on the mechanics of Nintendo-descended series entries rather than Sega Tetris or Arika’s Tetris Grand Master titles. Though superficially similar to Tetris, Puyo sees players manipulating falling two-square blocks composed of one or two colors in an effort to combine three or more blocks of the same color; this Sega franchise debuted in Japan in 1991 and had only intermittently been localized in the West. Experimental hybrid gameplay, in which the player must combine tetriminoes and Puyo blocks to clear their play area, constitutes the game’s most experimental addition to the Tetris series.

Adventure Mode offers comedy beats between sessions of white-knuckle gameplay. Source: MobyGames

Puyo Puyo Tetris’ biggest surprise is an Adventure Mode in which players proceed through a series of varied challenges based on Tetris, Puyo, and the combination thereof while watching fully voiced cutscenes between each stage. Characters are primarily drawn from the Puyo Puyo series, which had included story elements for the better part of two decades, but anime-inspired anthropomorphized tetriminoes make their debut here as aliens whose dimension is merging with that of the Puyo Puyo universe. 

Personified tetriminoes from left to right: Ai, Ess, Jay & Elle, O, Tee, and Zed. Source: Puyo Puyo Wiki

A host of additional modes include the return of long-running gameplay elements and new mechanics. With regard to the former, Endless and Versus modes respectively offer ever-increasing difficulty and split-screen or online multiplayer using Puyo, Tetris, or a hybrid of the two. The latter includes an especially intense new mode called Swap, in which the player switches between Tetris and Puyo play areas every 25 seconds; pieces do not stop falling when the switch occurs, forcing the player to anticipate where his or her next piece will fall and plan accordingly. 

Puyo Puyo Tetris’ positive critical and commercial reception in Japan led to a 2017 localization in North America and Europe on the PlayStation 4 and Switch. Its sheer variety and colorful presentation was universally praised, though its single-player campaign would attract criticism from longtime Tetris fans for its melodramatic presentation. A sequel is currently planned for 2021.

Tetris Effect (2018)

Tetris’ next step into the unknown was spearheaded by former Sega developer Tetsuya Mizuguchi. Though Mizuguchi had staked out a reputation for himself with rhythm-based rail shooter Rez, which had been released to poor sales but strong reviews on the PlayStation 2 and Dreamcast in 2001, his initial pitch for a Rez/Tetris crossover on the PlayStation Portable was turned down by The Tetris Company due to a preexisting licensing contract with EA; he opted instead to develop a rhythmic falling block game called Lumines: Puzzle Fusion (2004). That IP became so beloved among puzzle enthusiasts that Henk Rogers personally approached Mizuguchi with a proposal for a music-focused Tetris in the early 2010s. Sensing the opportunity to further explore audio/visual synesthesia using the PlayStation VR platform, Mizuguchi began producing the game following a 2012 meeting with Rogers. Development by Monstars and Resonair for publisher Enhance Games took an unprecedented six years, but the results were nothing short of extraordinary.

Screenshots are woefully insufficient for conveying the intense sensory experience of Tetris Effect. Source: Enhance Games

In Tetris Effect (2018), the player primarily works their way through a single-player mode in which they complete sessions of traditional Tetris set against a prominent soundtrack that emphasizes world and electronic dance music (EDM). Elements of the score are tied to the player’s actions, enhancing Mizuguchi’s intended impression of synesthesia. The PlayStation VR headset is used to surround a 2D well with an ever-shifting landscape that’s also tied to swells in Noboru Mutoh’s score.

Nothing feels better than blowing away a full well of blocks when you’re “in the zone.” Source: Enhance Games

Mechanics broadly conform to the Tetris Guideline, as had been the case for most Tetris titles since 1999. The most significant new wrinkle, Zone, allows players to freeze time once they’ve eliminated enough lines to fill an associated gauge. Players drop as many pieces as possible during the limited time that they’re “in the zone,” producing a chain of line eliminations that can exceed the four possible in traditional Tetris and dramatically increasing the player’s score. 

Mizuguchi’s ambitious vision reinvigorated the franchise without upturning its fundamental gameplay. Its soundtrack won numerous awards in 2018, while the successful combination of its innovative audio/visual elements with Tetris’ evergreen appeal led to the game receiving recognition as Eurogamer’s Game of the Year. Windows and Oculus Quest ports followed in 2019. An upcoming Xbox One and Xbox Series S/X version, titled Tetris Effect: Connected in reference to the game’s iconic theme song, will add online multiplayer in the vein of earlier Tetris entries when it is published in late 2020.

Tetris 99 (2019)

Arika returned to Tetris with the Nintendo-published Tetris 99. The idiosyncratic studio had taken a break from the franchise following Tetris: The Grand Master Ace (2005), developing 3DS remasters of arcade titles and several entries in the Dr. Mario franchise during the late 2000s and early 2010s, making its Tetris homecoming a delight for longtime fans. Even more unexpected was Nintendo’s decision to launch the game as a surprise release for subscribers to their Nintendo Switch Online (NSO) service in February 2019.

TetriNet running in a Linux client. Source: ChtiTux

Online components had been a key feature of Tetris games since 1997’s TetriNet, an unofficial Windows port designed by the pseudonymous St0rmCat. Tetris multiplayer grew steadily more ambitious over the following two decades, whether in home console releases like Tetris Splash (2007) or browser-based software like Facebook’s Tetris Battle (2011), but tended to top out at six total simultaneous players. Arika wisely built their newest series entry upon this already-fertile template.

Scoring a ‘Tetris’ by eliminating four lines simultaneously drops a multitude of garbage into the targeted opponent’s well. Source: MobyGames

In a nod to the battle royale subgenre of online shooters popularized by PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (2017) and Fortnite (2017), Tetris 99 sees players competing with up to 98 competitors. As with nearly every head-to-head Tetris since 1989, eliminating lines teleports garbage to other players’ wells. The most prominent new wrinkle to this timeworn gameplay concept is the ability to select the target of garbage in real time. Targets can be manually selected using the controller’s right stick or can be automatically determined based on one of four preferred criteria: random, KOs, badges, or attackers.

Players accumulate KOs when their target is defeated through a fully topped-out play well. Each successful KO grants the player at least one badge, though the player also receives all badges held by a victim at the time of their defeat. Badges multiply the garbage dropped by an attacker but also attract the attention of other players. Even so, defensive players can attempt to dissuade attackers by directing garbage back at them.

A warning alerts the player when he or she is being targeted by a competitor. This player is likely under fire due to their accumulation of badges, which you can see beneath their upcoming block queue. Source: MobyGames

Weekend-long online tournaments hosted by Nintendo during the game’s first year encouraged the accumulation of points by rewarding participants with new audio/visual themes based on historical Tetris variants or Nintendo’s own IPs. While the game was initially only available as a competitive multiplayer experience that required an active subscription to NSO, a physical edition respectively released in Japan and North America during August and September 2019 expands the gameplay to incorporate traditional single-player modes. This single-player content was integrated with the digital version as the Big Block paid downloadable content (DLC) pack in October 2019.

Conclusion

From its humble origins in a Soviet computer lab to its current status as the second-most popular video game franchise of all time, Tetris is an unmitigated success story. It popularized handheld game consoles in the 1980s, helped the medium become mainstream in the 1990s, and finally granted its creator the recognition and financial support he deserved in the 2000s. Medical workers have even used the game to treat post-traumatic stress disorder. With the aid of numerous developers over the past three decades, Alexey Pajitnov, Henk Rogers, and Maya Rogers have established Pajitnov’s simple puzzle game as one of the most recognizable icons of the 20th Century. Its ongoing evolution suggests that it may yet become one of the most recognizable icons of the 21st Century too.


What do you think about Tetris? Which is your favorite series entry or game mode? Do you prefer playing solo or multiplayer? Which tetrimino is the best? Let’s discuss below.

I’d also like to thank all you regular readers who have been paying attention since this column launched in early 2018. I can’t believe I’ve published a hundred of these fewer than three years! Time flies, eh?

While I had planned to continue the column through October before taking a break, the challenges associated with our current political situation and the need for ongoing activism have convinced me to take a lengthy break following Franchise Festival #100. The series will resume in January 2021.

In the interim, be sure to check out the podcast at the Franchise Festival website or your podcast app of choice. It will continue being published on the first of each month through the end of 2020 (and beyond) as we cover every entry in The Legend of Zelda and look ahead to Season 2.