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A property like Tetris is a rare occurrence in any medium. Rarely do we see a piece of work so strong or timeless that it can be released and re-released countless times over without a hint of dissipation in its success. It happens occasionally in other areas - Unchained Melody always hits number one, no matter who is covering it, and Casablanca is an obvious cinematic example - but in videogames? Nah. And no, before you ask, yearly EA Sports updates most certainly do not count.
Yet Tetris has been around since 1985 and has been released successfully on every platform from the Elekronica 60 to the Xbox 360. There are even board game and 3D puzzle versions. In fact, such is the game’s evergreen, widespread appeal that there’s probably scope to make a very lucrative port of Tetris to a small pile of sticks and a lump of jam at some point in the future.
American author E.B. White once said that ‘Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested, and the frog dies of it.’ Similarly, Tetris works on such a simple, instinctive level that it’s nigh impossible to do a proper analysis of what makes it such a lasting game. We’re still going to try though. It’s kind of our job.
Tetris seems to work because it taps into concepts which are universal to absolutely anyone. Everything is based around gravity and basic spatial awareness, and the core gameplay harks back to memories of the jigsaw puzzles we all did as kids. Everyone comes to Tetris pre-equipped to play it.
And the real genius of the game is the way that its visual layout actually teaches you what to do without having to give a single instruction. If by some freak accident of cryogenic freezing you come to Tetris totally unaware of its concept, a three second glance at the screen will tell you everything you need to know. The clear tessellating design of the blocks draws an obvious and instant link between the edges of the falling shapes and the gaps in the stack below. The old Lego building instinct immediately kicks in and you just want to fit them together. The fact that one is falling towards the other just clinches it, and you’re throwing together lines before you even know it. We spoke to Alexey Pajitnov, the man blessed with having created the game, about his design philosophy.
"Specifically for Tetris, the simplicity was vitally important, but it is not an absolute rule [for lasting game design]. Modern games suppose to have a certain level of features and diversions to keep the level of the player’s interest and curiosity. But the main idea must be very clear and understandable.
"Probably I didn’t have any design considerations when I worked on the game. I tried to make a 2-player board game on a computer using the Pentamino set, so the theme was kinda set up, and gravity and the other features came naturally."
Once the basics are grasped, it’s all about the fun of building them up and knocking them down. You meticulously build your stacks, see them drop, and start all over again. Its tension and release, risk and reward all the way, and the way that both elements are tied together makes Tetris horribly addictive. Couple in the fact that there are no enemies, no dastardly AI, and indeed no opponent whatsoever but your own level of skill and practice, and you’ve got a game self-perpetuatingly fresh at its very core. And the music kicks arse too.
But we shouldn't underestimate the importance of Nintendo's first Game Boy in Tetris' success either. Ol' Bricky and Tetris were the perfect combination when the machine was released in '89. The portable format was the perfect 'casual' forum to get Tetris noticed by a huge number of people, and Tetris itself was the perfect title to show off how portable gaming culture could work.
Since then, Tetris has just got bigger and bigger. There have been slight tweaks to streamline the format along the way, but the strength of the core concept has been enough for the game to maintain its success virtually unchanged for 23 years. It's perhaps strange that it took until this generation for casual gaming to 'officially' take off in the eyes of PR people given the lengthy example set by the Russian block-sorter (As Alexey himself says, "There were lot of short and simple good games available for all these years…"), but any developer now making money out of that market owes a massive debt of gratitude to the game.