The new mobile Tetris is a travesty

It’s probably pretty obvious by now that I love Tetris. Enough so that I was able to write a 1200-word post detailing my favorite Tetrises. It is, then, incredibly disheartening that I feel forced to write two posts in one month (back-to-back, even) about modern Tetris implementations that are just absolutely terrible. Unfortunately, this also renders part of the aforementioned list of favorite Tetrises outdated1. Until recently, Electronic Arts (EA) was the developer for Tetris on mobile. As of last year, the ridiculously-named N3TWORK is the exclusive rights-holder to mobile Tetris. Once upon a time, this would simply mean that EA could no longer make or sell a new Tetris game on the respective platform, but it’s 2020 and all technology is hell. So, as of April 21, 2020, EA’s mobile Tetris will simply… stop working. I’m sure EA was forced into some phone-home scheme that would allow such a thing to happen, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that the ability for such a thing to happen should be 100% illegal.

Capitalist technohell aside, there’s a new mobile Tetris in town! In my 2019 video game retrospective, I pointed out that “[a]pparently there’s a battle royale Tetris game coming to mobile as well, which is exciting.” This game (Tetris Royale) will, of course, also be made by N3TWORK, and I have to say… I am no longer excited. While EA’s mobile Tetris was essentially a perfect implementation, N3TWORK’s is an unplayable steaming shit. The controls are utterly broken – one’s finger must be lifted in between swiping sideways for lateral movement and swiping down for a hard drop. Bonuses aren’t acknowledged (I’m unsure if they’re scored properly or not at the moment) for T-spins, back-to-backs, or combos – only Tetrises. And visually, the game is a nightmare.

Compare these screenshots (EA on the left, N3TWORK on the right). EA’s app has a bunch of black space at the top and bottom, as it was never updated for X-sized iPhones. N3TWORK’s has been made for modern phones, but it… does nothing useful with that space. In fact, it is objectively worse because the score is floating so far away from the field. One of the big reasons that EA’s made my list of favorite Tetrises is the boxes for the next piece and hold. The backgrounds of these boxes are the same color as the piece, which means that if you know your Guideline colors, even the slightest hint of these out of the corner of your eye tells you the necessary information. N3TWORK’s does not do this. To be fair, this is also something I miss from all of the other implementations I enjoy. However, N3TWORK goes far beyond the normal level of disappointment by making their next and hold pieces nearly invisible to an eye focused on the grid. There is absolutely no reason for them to be so small, it’s just a foolish design decision that makes the game objectively less playable. On top of that, the colors in these boxes are absurdly pale, making color-based recognition difficult as well. It’s worth noting that there are five different skins. Of these, the one in the screenshot is the only one that bothers to color the hold/next boxes at all. It’s absurd. The bizarre pseudo-3D effect and half-baked ‘90s-hacker-film aesthetic are distracting (though fitting for a company called N3TWORK) and ugly, but that’s a personal opinion. You’d be hard-pressed to make an argument about the other aforementioned visual issues not making the game objectively worse to play at a high level.

EA’s Tetris also had excellent stats tracking, both per-game and over time. It would graph out scores over the course of a week or a month. It had some silly additional modes beyond Marathon, but for someone who primarily plays Endless Marathon at a relatively high level, it was the perfect companion. My stats didn’t carry over from my last phone, but I’m glad I cleared over 35,000 lines with EA’s Tetris on my current phone. I will keep an eye on updates to N3TWORK’s Tetris, but a lot would have to change for me to pay for it or even continue to play it for free. It is utterly, devastatingly disappointing.

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.

2019, a personal video game retrospective

Last year, I did a sort of year in review post which began with an explanation of the difficulty in creating such a post. I don’t tend to consume a lot of media as it comes out, and… 2019 was even worse in that regard. I think my escapism was fairly concentrated this year in two media: video games and comics. Hopefully I’ll do a second post on the latter after sorting out what all actually came out this last year. But for now: VIDEO GAMES.

Tetris 99

I rather enjoy Tetris. Tetris has changed a lot from the pre-Guideline games I grew up with. I’m glad the Guideline exists and has made for a largely consistent experience among recent Tetris titles. But I still haven’t adapted perfectly to, say, a world with T-spins after no such moves existing in my formative Tetris years. Over the years, more and more multiplayer Tetris games have been released as well, the strategies of which are completely antithetical to the way I play solo. To put it lightly, I have never been good at multiplayer Tetris – some of the stronger AIs in Puyo Puyo Tetris’s story mode even frustrate me.

So when Nintendo announced Tetris 99, a battle royale match between (guess how many) players, I was skeptical. Not that I thought the game would be bad1, but I definitely thought I’d be bad at it, which would simply make it… not super fun for me. But, due to there simply being so many players and a large degree of randomness in how much you’ll be targeted for attacks (additional bricks), simply being decent can keep you alive for a considerable portion of the round. I’ve only played a handful of games, maxing out at 9th place (and dropping out nearly immediately at 74th once!), but I’m really enjoying it so far. Something about seeing 49 other players’ teeny tiny Tetris screens on either side of the screen is quite engaging (and honestly a bit humorous).

You can, either manually or according to four rule sets, choose who of those 98 others you are targeting. The mechanisms for this are not made entirely clear – in fact, they aren’t really explained at all, you just kind of have to stumble across them and suss out how they work by name. Likewise, because the rounds are short (and, to an extent, shorter the worse you are at the game) it’s hard to get into a groove, and there isn’t really a mechanism for practicing. If one didn’t already have other Guideline-era Tetris games, and particularly games with a multiplayer experience, I feel like they’d be a bit sunk here. Those minor quibbles are the closest things that I have to real complaints about the game. I’m curious how they’ll monetize it. The mobile Tetris games from EA have additional soundtracks that can be unlocked w/ coins won in-game (or purchased). Perhaps Tetris 99 will end up with a bit of this, or additional skins. Perhaps it’s just an incentive for Switch Online. For now, save for needing a Switch Online account, it is completely free… and it is a blast.

A few of my favorite: Tetrises (Tetrii? Tetrodes?)

I spent a couple of weeks writing this, and of course remembered More Thoughts basically as soon as I uploaded it. For starters, I had somehow completely forgotten about Minna no Soft Series: Tetris Advance for the GBA, which is a somewhat difficult to find Japanese release superior to Tetris Worlds in every imaginable way. Second, I neglected to mention leveling details and have updated the Puyo Puyo Tetris and mobile sections accordingly (as of 10-28).

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: