Paul McCartney, so the story goes, woke up with the tune to “Yesterday” in his head, fully formed, and had to be told that it wasn’t anyone else’s song that he’d heard somewhere before, and was in fact, a wholly original creation. It’s as if, in writing the song, McCartney wasn’t performing an act of creation so much as giving form to something that already existed, something that necessarily must exist. One wonders if Tetris creator Alexey Pajitnov ever felt something akin to this during the creation process of the game.
It may, perhaps, do a disservice to the the real work and creativity that Pajitnov put into the game to suggest that it was instead the result of some divine inspiration, but the fact is that it is difficult to conceive of the idea that Tetris was created by a mere mortal. It is the very definition of genius in simplicity, a game so simple that anyone could have come up with it, but, of course, anyone didn’t. Alexey Pajitnov did. And for all its apparent simplicity, there are many choices in the design that could so easily have gone another way that might have prevented the game from taking the world by storm in quite the same way. The width and height of the well into which the shapes fall, for instance; or the speed at which they fall, and the rate that this increases as you progress. The fact that you can speed this up yourself on a case-by-case basis. The ability to rotate your tetrominoes, which reduces nineteen distinct shapes to just seven. How many other similarly simple games exist that never quite caught on due to making a wrong decision on their equivalent to any one of these factors? It is impossible to know.
Anyway, for all that pinning Tetris down to a single version is an act of fundamental absurdity, we are here to talk specifically about the NES version, or at least, that is the particular version that I played in preparation for writing this post. So let’s run through the notable features that set the NES version apart from its colleagues. First up, it has the wrong music; instead of the standard tune (seen in this video, which is additionally a far better piece of writing about Tetris than I could possibly hope to muster up), it uses a version of Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”, which is a valiant effort at finding a suitable substitute, but still just isn’t right. Secondly, the game keeps an utterly useless on-screen tally of how many times each tetromino shape has shown up, perhaps in an effort to subliminally influence the player towards the Gambler’s Fallacy thinking of “it’s been ages since I had a straight piece, there must be one coming soon” which, let’s face it, we all do anyway. And that’s about it. But the NES version is by no means the definitive version of Tetris.
It’s certainly not the version I remember playing. That would be the version for Windows from the Microsoft Entertainment Package. Although when I say that I remember playing it, this is something of a misrepresentation; what I mostly remember is watching my mother play it, and being a lot better at it than me. And this is not a memory that is uniquely associated with Tetris; though most of them will not be gracing us with their presence in this project, there are a whole lot of games from my youth where I remember watching mum play them at least as well as I remember playing them myself. I’d hope that in time, I’d have ultimately come to reject the lie that women do not play video games either way, but obviously, having seen clear evidence to the contrary for as long as I can remember must have helped me avoid falling into that particular well of toxicity. We are all shaped by our experiences, the blocks of our life falling into place.
The NES version of Tetris is also not the version that the world at large remembers playing. Which is not to say that it wasn’t played by an awful lot of people; that is, after all, the reason that particular version is on our list. But the one that has eked out the largest space in the public consciousness, the canonical version of Tetris, if you like, is of course the version for Nintendo’s Game Boy. Tetris was not just one of only four titles (five in the US) available for the system at launch, it came packed in with every Game Boy sold. And that was a whole lot of Game Boys.
We’ve talked in the past about how the gaming industry in Europe at this time was a very different beast from its counterparts in America and Japan, but the Game Boy became the first games console to really bridge that gap. The choice between console and computer gaming, where Europe, on the whole, went one way, and the US went the other, boiled down to a choice between two broadly similar machines that plugged into your television and made it interactive. But the Game Boy offered something entirely different; the ability to take games with you to play during school breaks, during commutes to work, when you couldn’t get on the TV because Coronation Street was on, whatever. The Game Boy was absolutely huge (and not just in the physical sense). It is, to this day, the third best-selling system ever, both globally, and in Europe specifically.
And Tetris was a vital ingredient in that success. With its small, dimly lit screen in four shades of green, the Game Boy wasn’t winning any beauty contests, and the nature of portable gaming meant it needed a game that could be picked up and played in short bursts as easily as marathon sessions. A gap that the game slotted into so perfectly, it feels like it was created intentionally for Tetris to fill it, like blocks piled up with a gap of one square width, waiting for a straight piece to come along. If Tetris did not exist, Nintendo would have had to invent it.