Tetris, the Transcendent Game
How this simple game about stacking blocks has grown, changed, and adapted to each new generation
My earliest memories of gaming come from the NES version of Tetris. As one of the first games I ever played, the sights and sounds that came with it are forever engrained in my mind. A flat gray background, colored blocks, and an 8-bit cover of Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies on repeat.
For most of my life, this is how I always envisioned the game. Then I played Tetris Effect for the first time, and everything changed. My original preconceptions of the game shattered, and I saw all the possibilities of what Tetris could be.
Despite not playing it in years, I was as enraptured with this new version of Tetris as I was with the original. I had the same level of focus and drive to complete each level. My heart raced and my mouth became dry like it always did when the speed went beyond my comfort level. It was Tetris. My Tetris. But at the same time, it was far more than that.
You have your own memory of Tetris. It could be like mine, playing it on a Nintendo, or in a dimly-lit arcade at some point in your childhood. Or it could be one of the other hundred-plus variants of the game that have been released over the years. But it is something that we all have; a shared memory of a single game. Because Tetris persists. It grows and changes alongside us. Even as technology improves and games become more dynamic, Tetris will still be there.
The shock of what Tetris could become forced me to sit and reflect on the game. Where it began, and how it evolved since then. Computers became more advanced and new consoles replaced older models. Yet at each junction, there was always a newer version of Tetris, ready to show off to a new generation of gamers.
I was never one to pick up these new versions of the game. “How do you change Tetris?” I would think, assuming they were flashier versions of what I grew up with. I had already played Tetris, so why would I want to spend money to play it again?
What I didn’t understand at the time was that these newer versions weren’t for me alone. The jump from Tetris on the NES to Tetris Effect opened my eyes, though, and forced me to see this. None of these games were ever meant to completely change the original. Rather, they expanded upon the classic idea to revitalize the game for a new audience.
The changes that transformed Tetris into Tetris Effect came from years of work. Each new game added something different, each one making the game a better fit for the current era of gaming. Sometimes it was a slight mechanic change, like showing where a piece would land, or the ability to hold a piece for later. Other times it came as something bigger, like the addition of multiplayer.
Regardless of what changed, the game’s core was still there. I was able to pick it up Tetris Effect and play it the same way I always had, even after so many years. Everything else about the experience — the graphics, the music, the new mechanics — only added to the original game.
The most recent installment is a perfect example of how this works. Turning Tetris into a battle royale shows how the game has grown, finding a new place in a new genre, and adapting to our current gaming climate. When Tetris 99 was first released, it felt new and exciting, but at the same time like a natural progression.
I’m not one for battle royale games, but this new version is something I keep coming back to. Each frantic match leaves me shaking and breathing heavily. Despite being absolutely terrible at the game, I keep going back for another round of punishment because of its blend of engagement and comfort. It’s still the same beloved game I grew up with, just transformed to fit this new world of gaming.
Tetris is simple with room to grow. It is so ingrained in who we are, not as gamers, but rather as people, to the point that it will always be a part of our culture.
I never once felt the need to explain Tetris to anyone. It’s a part of life that most everyone understands, whether they’re a gamer or not. The rules are so simple that it takes any time at all for someone to learn them. Blocks fall. We naturally want to stack them neatly. Then completed rows disappear, and it all makes sense. It’s a distilled puzzle that is immediately recognizable. Everything else reinforces that core concept.
Tetris is a gaming experience that will pass from generation to generation. As new gamers arrive in the community, they’ll be able to pick up Tetris on their own and see the roots from which it came from. It’s a part of our shared heritage, linking gaming’s past with its future. It simultaneously shows us where we came from, and where we are going.
In a landscape that is always growing and changing, Tetris remains a constant. It reflects gaming as a whole, acting as a living history of our shared pastime. As long as people have a desire to play video games, Tetris will always be there, ready to show them the road that brought them to that point.
Someday, I’ll be sharing Tetris with my kids, and I can’t wait to see what form it takes at that point. But I have a pretty good idea of what to expect. It’ll look like Tetris. Our Tetris.