October 15, 2015

NES30 #3: Tetris

In 2015, Nintendo's hugely successful Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) turns 30 years old. The NES, an adaptation of Nintendo's already successful Famicom console, re-invigorated console gaming internationally after the collapse of Atari and went on to sell 43 million units worldwide. NES30 celebrates this anniversary by counting down my favourite 30 games for the system.

In 1984 Alexey Pajitnov was an artificial intelligence researcher working in a Soviet Union laboratory. He had a tendency to program small computer games to test new hardware when it was installed. One day he created a simply puzzle game comprised of falling blocks. He made the shapes tetronimos - objects comprised of four squares arranged together. When it became clear that his screen was rapidly filling up with tetronimos he programmed his game to erase any row on the screen that became completely filled with squares.

When Pajitnov's little game proved hugely popular among the laboratory workers, a few of them ported it to the PC. It suddenly became an enormously popular game across Moscow, under the now legendary title Tetris. Today Tetris is almost certainly one of the most famous and well-played videogames in the entire world. and for many gamers it is a brand synonymous with Nintendo.

By 1989 there a solid half-dozen versions of Tetris being sold on home computers both in the Soviet Union and around the world. None yet existed for home consoles. A year earlier a Dutch developer named Henk Rogers saw the game playing at a trade show, and successfully brokered a deal between its Russian games distributor and Nintendo for Nintendo to secure the worldwide exclusive console rights to the title.

The deal came at the perfect time for Nintendo, where under the supervision of Gunpei Yokoi an all-new handheld games console had been created. The Nintendo Gameboy was all set for release, but lacked what the industry refers to as a 'killer app': a game so popular that players would purchase the entire console just to play it. For the Gameboy Tetris was that killer app, and it became such a success on that platform that it's difficult to imagine one without the other.

Nintendo also published a version of Tetris for the NES, developed under contract by Bulletproof Software. At the same time Tengen, the home console division of Atari Games, published a version of Tetris for the NES as well, based on the mistaken belief that Atari's arcades contract for Tetris would cover a console version as well. Lawsuits ensued over the following four years, with Nintendo's claim ultimately winning over. In the end the Tengen edition was in stores in the USA for mere weeks before being pulled under threat of litigation.

So this is basically a celebration of two games, one by Nintendo and one by Tengen. The general consensus among Nintendo enthusiasts is that it's Tengen's version that is the superior one, however it's the still-excellent Nintendo/Bulletproof version that is commonly available. Either version provides the player with an enormously addictive and outstanding puzzle game.

It's difficult to imagine a puzzle game more perfectly balanced. The basic gameplay is very simply to understand, and the speed at which the tetronimos fall gradually increases in a challenging fashion. It's endlessly replayable; one of those games where you can enter 'the zone' and play the thing largely on an instictive level. While Tetris continues to be re-released on pretty much every computer platform imaginable, it's on a Nintendo console - the NES or Gameboy - that the majority of gamers likely first encountered it. It's on a Nintendo console that I celebrate it.

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