Tetris, the ‘killer app’ of the Game Boy and proven-timeless time-sink has a pretty bizarre history. Alexey Pajitnov originally wrote it as a proof-of-concept for a Soviet computer that lacked graphics capability. Pajitnov’s coworkers ported the game to the IBM PC, and its availability on consumer hardware meant that unofficial ports popped up across the globe, and licensing deals were struck without Pajitnov’s involvement. Facing some difficult decisions regarding licensing, Pajitnov gave the Soviet Union the rights to the game. Licensing was then handled through a state-sponsored company known as Elorg (the famous Game Boy pack-in deal was during the Elorg era). During this period, brick colors and rules were inconsistent from this Tetris to that Tetris. Some games branded Tetris during this era bore next-to-no resemblance to the game we all know and love.
The Elorg deal was temporary by design, and some years later Pajitnov got the rights back and formed The Tetris Company. The Tetris Company has proven to be an absurdly aggressive intellectual property monster, which is hardly surprising given the game’s licensing history1. The Tetris Company has done one positive thing, though: standardized the rules and the colors of blocks into something known as the Tetris Guideline. This means that any Tetris from the late ‘90s and newer is largely interchangeable2 – and if you can make out the color of the next piece from the corner of your eye, you know what shape it is. The consistency is valuable, and even though years of NES Tetris have left me rather untalented at T-spins, all of my favorite Tetris games are of the modern sort. This also largely means that the distinction really boils down to hardware, but that’s kind of important when some form of the game has been released for pretty much any given system. So on that note, the four I most often reach for are:
- Tetris (WonderSwan):
- This one is solely about the hardware. The Bandai WonderSwan was a really clever handheld that never saw life outside of Japan. Designed by the original Game Boy’s creator, three iterations were made: one with a greyscale screen, and two with color screens. They’re not terribly expensive to acquire, but without a knowledge of Japanese, the playable library is quite limited. Tetris, of course, is an exception – which is why it routinely fetches ~$100 on eBay. One of the most unique features of the WonderSwan was an underutilized additional set of buttons that allowed games to be designed for either portrait or landscape play. Tetris plays portrait, and for that reason alone, the WonderSwan version is one of the most satisfying. It’s also the only WonderSwan color game that I’m aware of (it’s very possible there are others) that works on an original greyscale WonderSwan as well (like Game Boy DX titles). Being one of the earliest games to start adhering to a version of the Guideline, some of the gameplay seems a little off by modern standards – the game speeds up much quicker than a 2018 Tetris, and I’m fairly certain it doesn’t use the same shuffled/“bag” randomization algorithm as later games. Still, despite its quirks, its price tag, and its reliance on an obscure system, the WonderSwan’s Tetris remains among my favorites.
- Puyo Puyo Tetris (Switch):
- Puyo Puyo Tetris is a mash-up of Sega’s Dr. Mario-esque game Puyo Puyo and Tetris. I rag on this one a lot because I don’t really enjoy Puyo Puyo, and if you play the game’s charming story mode… you have to play a lot of Puyo Puyo. But, outside of the story mode, you can just play a regular game of Tetris, complete with the encouragement of the characters from story mode. It’s oddly satisfying to hear Ess inexplicably shout ‘Lipstick!’ when you clear a line. Puyo Puyo Tetris came out for the 3DS first, but only in Japan (and the 3DS is region-locked). The Switch release clearly wins for availability and localization, but I also think the Switch’s more tactile controls are better-suited for Tetris. Puyo Puyo Tetris uses ‘fixed leveling,’ where every ten lines cleared level you up. This makes for a quicker and more frantic play than versions with ‘variable leveling’. There is one huge misstep with Puyo Puyo Tetris, and that is the complicated path one must take to play an Endless game of Tetris. If you just choose the Tetris mode from the main menu, the game will stop after level 15. You must navigate several menus, and turn on Endless every time or else face serious disappointment. I’ve never understood why this tends to be the default mode, Tetris is not a game to be won, Tetris is a game of pushing yourself to your own limit.
- Tetris Premium/Tetris (iOS):
- There are at least three versions of Tetris on iOS (the situation on Android seems similar): Tetris Blitz, which is a two-minute version, and Tetris and Tetris Premium, which both contain a normal (Marathon) Tetris mode. Tetris is ad-supported with an in-app purchase to remove ads. Tetris Premium is paid, but costs less than removing ads from Tetris. Tetris also contains one additional gameplay mode, but ultimately you can download Tetris, and if you only find yourself playing the standard game, buy Tetris Premium. Bit of a mouthful, all that. These mobile versions use ‘variable leveling,’ where the line clears required to level up are 5 times the current level number. Compared to Puyo Puyo Tetris’s fixed leveling, this makes for a longer game and one that (to me) is better-paced. Playing on a smartphone has the same advantage as the WonderSwan: glorious portrait orientation. The obvious downside is the touch controls. There’s a weird mode that places phantom pieces in places the game suspects you might want them, but that somehow simultaneously feels like cheating and removes the rhythm enough that the game feels very different (and at times more difficult). The swipe controls, however, are… surprisingly manageable. Don’t get me wrong, at some point it will register wrong and throw off your entire stack, but for the most part it’s very playable. Swipe/hold left/right/down to move a piece, swipe down to hard drop, tap left/right half of screen to rotate, and swipe up to hold. I’m certainly not an expert player, but I have managed to make it to level 22 with the touch controls. They work pretty well.
- And an honorable mention, Tetris Worlds (Game Boy Advance (GBA)):
- This contentious title kicked off the Tetris Guideline. Its ‘endless spins’ drew the most criticism, and it does make for a significantly different game than older versions without. Tetris Worlds was released for a few different systems, but I’m concerned with the GBA version. With their relatively small screens, none of the GBA-compatible systems (GBA, GBA SP, Game Boy Micro, DS, and DS Lite) are the most visually-spectacular3 systems for Tetris, but among those five systems is a lot of varied hardware with varied use-cases. Notably, I think the clicky buttons of the GBA SP makes for a responsive, tactile experience, and Tetris Worlds on the Game Boy Micro is probably the best pocketable Tetris experience around (those keychain doodads are not great, and Pokémon Tetris on the Pokémon Mini is an expensive experience that pales in comparison to Tetris Worlds on the Micro). GBA’s Tetris Worlds does have two glaring issues: the animated backgrounds are distracting, and there is no Endless (Marathon tops out at level 15). The latter problem a huge deal-breaker, but I still think it’s great loaded up in a Game Boy Micro and tossed into a bag.
- According to this article by one of the PC port-developers, Vadim Gerasimov, Pajitnov’s plan was always to make money off of the game, which “[…] seemed unusual and difficult because we lived in the Soviet Union. Making and selling something privately was highly irregular.” While I don’t agree with the aggressive IP strategies of The Tetris Company, I can understand how fired-up an ex-Soviet capitalist-at-heart who created and lost control of a wildly successful product would be. ↩︎
- The Tetris Guideline has changed over the years. Piece colors were locked in at the start, which is good. There’s enough consistency between Guideline versions, and few enough versions that any modern Tetris game should feel pretty familiar. ↩︎
- One visually-spectacular element of Tetris Worlds was its cover art, by Roger Dean. Dean also redid the Tetris logo, which continues to be used to this day. ↩︎