Tetris is and always will be this basic set of rules:
- One of the seven tetrominoes is dealt by the game.
- Rotate and move the piece as it falls in a 10 × 20 well.
- When the piece lands it locks into place, and a new piece is dealt.
- Complete a 10 wide row of blocks to clear it from the board.
- If the well fills up and a new piece cannot enter, the game ends.
Along with various others, but that isn't the topic for today.
If breaking any of these rules, it no longer is a Tetris game. Yet somehow we have over 200 games that follow these rules, play nothing alike, and are still strictly Tetris.
Out of these 200 games, the few that people play are part of three different groups. So what actually makes these games different, and why have players created distinct communities instead of one large one?
To answer that, let me then introduce to you the three archetypes of Tetris.
The Hero: Classic Tetris
This Tetris is defined by slow left and right piece movement, emphasis on Tetris line clears, and no lock delay when the piece lands.
The principle game in this archetype is the NTSC version of Tetris for the Nintendo Entertainment System. In 1990 it was featured as one of the three games used at the Nintendo World Championships, the largest esports event at the time, spanning the United States. The game stood quiet for a long period after, with only a few dedicated players still playing.
20 years later, Robin Mihara, a competitor of the 1990 NWC, wanted to find out who was the best Tetris player. In the documentary Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters1, he assembles the players with the best scores online to compete in a new tournament called the Classic Tetris World Championship.
Players challenge themselves with the goal of reaching the max score possible in the game, 999,999 points. This is known as a maxout. All but the best can manage to score enough Tetrises and survive the higher levels to achieve this goal.
It is made difficult by how slowly you can move the pieces left or right. If the player's stack of pieces becomes high, they have less time to move a piece to a side to place it. Once they are not able to anymore, clearing a line becomes impossible, and the game ends quickly after via top out. The player can choose to keep the stack low by always clearing lines, but if those line clears aren't Tetrises, the player wont be scoring enough points to maxout.
The slow left and right movement has been a restriction players have been trying to overcome since the game's release. Thor Aackerlund, winner of the 1990 NWC age 12–17 division, got the upper hand when he realized he could move pieces left and right faster by vibrating his thumb to tap the D-pad. This technique became known as hyper tapping.
Hyper tapping remained unused at CTWC until Japanese Tetris player Koryan started learning the technique. This inspired others to do the same, notably Joseph Salee who was able to defeat the current 7 time champion in 2018.
Now an even more sophisticated technique exists called rolling. The players who have adopted it have completely overcome the slow left and right movement, and dominate the scene.
It has since become a huge spectator sport, drawing in many viewers on Twitch, YouTube, and even airs on ESPN.
Main community hub: CTM Discord
The Outlaw: The Grand Master Tetris
The smallest of the three archetypes, its characteristics are fast falling pieces, emphasis on tetris line clears, lock delay when the piece lands, 20G, and grade requirements.
The games that belong to this archetype are part of the Tetris The Grand Master series, a series of games released exclusively in Japanese arcades between 1998 and 2005.
In the series, your gameplay is graded, sometimes based on how fast you play, how many Tetris line clears you get, or how many points you score. These grades give players a benchmark for how good they are, how far they have to go, that is, a sense of progression.
The way the pieces can move and rotate is an unseen elegance. The system, simple, but restrictive yet feels more refined than any modern system. There are no waste elements.
At 20G, the maximum gravity speed, pieces appear instantly landing on the stack. You have less than half a second to maneuver each one. Build your "stack shape" wrong, and pieces will get stuck when trying to slide them into place. It's a new puzzle on top of what you already know, you must learn an entirely new way to play the game. TGM advances Tetris in a way that no game had done since. Not because it is artificially difficult or has new gameplay gimmicks, but because it actually does something new while still staying purely a Tetris game.
There's no doubt the main focus of archetype is the grading aspect, but that alone isn't what gives it its own archetype.
In 2015 some community members demoed the series at AGDQ, a speedrunning event. Tetris is an odd fit for a speedrunning game, and the TGM series is no exception. Unlike some of the Tetris games that came before it, TGM games have an end, and one of the goals is to reach that end as quickly as possible.
This emphasis on speed has existed since the series debuted, with players submitting fast times to Gamest and Monthly Arcadia magazines. Japanese players also kept track of nation wide top scores on online leaderboards, a custom that would soon be adopted by western players2. Its history of speedrunning dates back long before any large online events.
Because the game was only released for arcades in Japan, the game was hardly known to outsiders. When the word began to spread through viral videos of skilled gameplay3, but with no way to play, people started to develop alternate ways to play the games. Through clones and emulation, many players were given a way to experience this series without importing prohibitively expensive hardware.
Evidently this caused conflicts with the publishers and producers of the series. Ichiro Mihara, the series' producer, stated it was the reason that the 4th title did not get released.
Once the relations between fans, and the producer, got better, talks of a new game release were restarted. After seven years of rumors, failed plans, and non-announcements4, no new release has come out, and the best way to play the game is still clones, un-official ports, and emulation. No one wants to be an outlaw, but when faced with the option of spending thousands for used hardware, versus playing a freely available version on your PC, I think it's clear what option people will choose.
Main community hub: The Absolute PLUS Discord
The Jester: Guideline Tetris
Sometimes referred to as modern Tetris, it's comprised of nearly all Tetris releases since 2001. Defining this archetype are the Super Rotation System5, 7-bag randomizer6, hold, slow falling pieces, multiple previews, emphasis on T-Spin line clears, and forgiving lock delay.
While this archetype is the newest of the three, it has had extremely prominent releases spanning two decades, such as Tetris DS, Tetris Friends, Tetris 99, and Tetris Effect.
SRS and 7-bag are the bread and butter of modern Tetris gameplay. While they aren't strictly necessary, many strategies are based on these being present, such as openers, perfect clears, and other specific "builds". These strategies are normally not employable in the other archetypes.
As the rules for gameplay evolved, the T-spin became more and more prominent. The T-spin triple—a bizarre piece twist that doesn't look natural—scores the most points of any line clear. T-spin doubles score the most points per line and are the most efficient way to score points. The same goes for multiplayer, t-spin line clears are a central part of gameplay, more important than the 4 line clear, "Tetris".
Because modern Tetris has been around for so long, every old gimmick has been rehashed in some way with these modern rules. But some still say it has felt stale for years. Whether they want to see older mechanics come back, or new ones introduced, no main mode in a game has had a significant gameplay change in a very long time.
Since The Tetris Company has mostly ignored players' need for a competitive platform for years7, the community started to make their own games. There were a few prominent fan made Guideline competitive games, but the one that really blew up was Tetr.io, with over 1 million registered players.
Modern Tetris feels like playing a casual phone game, there is no real challenge other than the one you put on yourself, or the leaderboard with thousands of scores better than yours. Completing any mode in the game is relatively easy for an average player. The modes that are hard, don't feel good to play. The Tetris Guideline rules don't scale well when the game speeds up, that's why most of the time the game caps out a moderate speed.
Fans are at the mercy of the licensee. Tetris Ultimate promised a lot, but ended up being buggy and ultimately the fans did not like the game. It has a "Mostly Negative" score on Steam. The only viable alternatives at the time were Tetris Friends, and fan games. It was over 2 years before a new title was released, Puyo Puyo Tetris, that would satisfy fans.
At the moment there are three options, Tetris 99, Tetris Effect, and Puyo Puyo Tetris 2. They all have their own pros and cons but overall it's one of the strongest lineups this archetype has had so far. They have raised the bar enough that any future main Tetris game will have to think twice about making something stale or not well thought out. I still think there is room for the bar to go up, and it's where I hope future games will set their targets.
Main community hub: Hard Drop Discord
There's a lot I had to simplify or gloss over, or even omit entirely about these groups. They all have so much depth and history that can't fit in a single article. I hope to have at least given some insight to the world of Tetris, and its community of players. ❤️
An excellent film that every Tetris fan must see. You can watch it for free on tubi.↩
Tetrisconcept ran leaderboards for TGM from 2006 to 2019. Now these are held on theabsolute.plus.↩
A demonstration video released by Arika in 2001. It went viral a few years later. Watch Japan tetris finals on YouTube.↩
Mihara tweeted "[Machine translation]The announcement about the TGM series for home use, which was scheduled for today, has not been released yet due to reasons other than Mr. Arika. Also, although it is a new TGM work that is under consideration separately, there is a request from the licensor side that I want you to make the 'success' of this case a condition, so it is very legitimate."↩
See my article on randomizers here: The history of Tetris randomizers↩
I've written about these issues before on Reddit, I may have to reiterate my thoughts in a new post.↩