Tetris Microcard vs. Tetris Micro Arcade

This is going to be an attempt to review two ostensibly similar products, one discontinued that paved the way for the other. Both are pocket-sized Tetris games, officially licensed and generally adherent to the Guideline. They follow the same basic physical format, and comparing them should be pretty straightforward (it is, actually; one is good and the other is bad). I think that properly comparing them, however, requires examining the technical decisions that were made, and for this we need to back up and establish a couple of other things. This is because the first product, the discontinued one from 2017, is based on the Arduboy platform.

Arduboy is a tiny open gaming console that vaguely resembles a Game Boy, based on the Arduino ‘open-source electronics platform’. Arduino kits are typically used to ease the embedded microcontroller portion of hardware products. It’s a dinky 20MHz ATmega processor, with enough flash memory to hold (in the case of Arduboy) one game at a time. Tetris Microcard, released in 2017, took this overall platform, rotated the physical format so it was more like a Game Boy Micro (and in the process, orienting the display portrait, perfect for Tetris) and matched it with a custom port in ROM. Both the Arduboy and Tetris Microcard were manufactured by Seeed Studio, a fabrication shop that also sells a number of premanufactured devices based around these sorts of microcontrollers. I doubt these were manufactured in massive quantities. All of this together led the release price of the Microcard to be a whopping $60.

Onward to the 2019 release of Tetris Micro Arcade. It retains the basic physical format of the Microcard, but is no longer based on the Arduboy platform or manufactured by Seeed Studio. Mass-produced by Super Impulse alongside (currently) five other games in the same format, Micro Arcade sells for a more consumer-friendly $15-20. Some have speculated that these run Arduinos as well, but I suspect this is simply because of the obvious evolutionary path from the Microcard. My suspicion all along has been that these run on a Famicom-on-a-chip. Opening the case up, the processor has (of course) been epoxied over, but it certainly doesn’t look like the format of an Arduino’s ATmega. Regardless, even if it is the same platform, it is a wildly different ROM, and one that fits its role as a cheap, mass-produced device, devoid of love.

That is to say, the Micro Arcade ROM is… bad. Really, really bad. It plays through the background music (“Korobeiniki”) once, and then just… stops. At some point after that, the screen just blanked white on mine, even though the game was still technically playing in the background. There are no lines to delineate between minos in a tetrimino, which always feels like a Programming 101 port to me. There’s no ghost piece. It doesn’t save high scores1 (Microcard has a ten-spot leaderboard). Despite largely adhering to the guideline (pieces are colored correctly, at least, and rotation is SRS2) it feels terribly unofficial.

Which isn’t to say that the Microcard was a perfect port either. Its pieces were not the correct colors, because the screen was monochrome3. It showed one ‘next’ piece compared to Micro Arcade’s three. But aside from the price difference… that’s all Micro Arcade has going for it. The screen blanking may be a glitch on mine, or something that will be patched in a future revision, but I’m not the only one reporting this issue. Even if that wasn’t an issue, and even if the music didn’t randomly cut out, I would still play Microcard over Micro Arcade in a heartbeat. It feels like Tetris to me, vs. a knockoff.

I may put more effort in to figuring out what’s under the hood. Delidding the epoxied ASIC isn’t entirely in my wheelhouse, but I also don’t care about destroying this thing. I may also try to dump the ROM at some point, which could theoretically provide some insight.

  1. Given that the Famicom/NES had no inbuilt means of storing save states for games, this also reinforces my theory that it’s a FOAC. Many current retro systems that reimplement old games simply omit the on-cartridge storage RAM, opting to simplify matters to just FOAC and ROM at the expense of save states. ↩︎
  2. Or, close enough to SRS. I haven’t tested all the kicks, &c. Not worth the extra play time. ↩︎
  3. Microcard’s monochrome screen was a beautiful OLED, just like Arduboy, likely contributing to the cost. Micro Arcade is an acceptable backlit LCD. ↩︎