Friday 6 January 2012

Tetris: A Blog Squirrel Mini Special

Here's the situation. I killed The Obscure Research Project a few months ago. I regret nothing. But the problem is that as long as I choose not to maintain it, it will be sitting there, telling lies, and I don't like that. So I'm going to rectify this situation by covering not the one, not the two, but the three (and a half) Tetris games for the NES. And the 1988 Arcade version. And god knows what else.

It's 2012 Squirrel correcting 2008 Squirrel in what I like to call a "mini special". Much like the days when I went through tons of games, except here there's only a half dozen, and I can't be bothered to take it out of blog format.

A History

Tetris is a tedious video game. Many, many people were officially licensed to produce ports and sequels, and this is something that still exists today (albeit on a less grander scale). The problem stems mainly because communism doesn't play well with capitalism, thus despite the fact Alexey Pajitnov built Tetris on his own, it was technically owned by the Russian government (who got all the money), who in turn licensed it out across the world.

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Tetris ARCADE license was held by Atari Games. The Tetris CONSOLE license in Japan was held by Bullet Proof Software. The Tetris CONSOLE license outside of Japan was held by Nintendo (and the COMPUTER license was held by Spectrum Holobyte but we don't need to care for that). By 1988 these were all being dished out by Elorg, a Russian company who was put in charge of the whole Tetris affair. They were usually credited by everyone.

Of course, the story isn't quite that simple - between 1984 and 1988 tons of people were claiming to have the rights to the game, but I don't see much point in dwelling on that for the time being. I'd literally be here all day if I started pulling out Amiga and Atari ST ports and adding them to the list and I'm only here to debunk one release.

1988: TETЯIS, Arcade, Atari Games

So, between the creation of Tetris on the Russian Elektronika 60 comptuer and 1988 there were a few negligible ports here and there, the most notable of which was a DOS version. Atari Games (note: not Atari Inc. or Atari Corp - it's a minefield) set themselves the task of producing a decent arcade version. And they did. Contrary to popular belief, Atari Games weren't the ones which came up with the idea to use the Cyrillic letter Я rather than R (as evidenced by the 1987 computer ports), but it's still a good way to differentiate it from Japanese versions. Sort of.

For many, many years this particular version of Tetris was hailed as a standard. It was one of the first editions of the game to use Russian themes, namely images of the Kremlin and various Russian folk songs, and I'm fairly sure it was the first in which pressing down would simply speed up the rate at which a block falls, not instantly drop it. You can still only rotate in one direction though. All of the home ports which followed were aiming to be something a bit like this, and indeed most home versions owe something to this version of the game.

As is plain to see, this 1988 version was built with two-player games in mind, another first for the series. However, regardless of whether you have friends, the screen is always divided into two. Two player Tetris in this game is nothing fancy - a player gets a bonus if he or she finishes before the other. That's it.

December 1988: Tetris, Famicom, Bullet Proof Software

BPS, with their Japanese console rights, coincidentally decided to create a version for the Nintendo Famicom, along with versions for the MSX2 and Sharp X68000 (and probably others). But whereas the Japanese computer ports all look essentially the same, the Famicom version is a bit more unique.

But don't get me wrong, this is a lousy version of Tetris. It borrows some of its music from the above Atari Games arcade release, but it's otherwise about as bear-bones as you can get. It's only one player and adopts the "classic" control scheme rather than that of Atari Games (and every decent Tetris game since). Just because the Famicom has two buttons doesn't mean they should actually be used!

Controls are the only real reason this version of Tetris should be avoided. That and it's a slower game. Difference is, in 1984 when the concept was brand new, it's understandable that there would be control problems. But after four years of many ports and clones, you'd expect things to be a bit more refined (as evidenced with Atari Games' version).

Some other point in 1988: VS. TETЯIS, Arcade, Tengen

Oddball time. Now, remember, only Atari Games could release Tetris games in the arcade. Nintendo were in the business of making arcade games, but obviously couldn't make their own versions of Tetris without permission from Atari Games. But Nintendo did have an arcade system based on the NES - the Nintendo "VS" system, which essentially took modded two-player NES games and made them available for an arcade audience. Look it up - some games like Vs. Wrecking Crew are very different to their home counterparts.

So this is where it gets confusing. Tengen was Atari Games' home video game console division. The NES is considered to be a video game console, and thus if Atari Games wanted to work with NES hardware, Tengen would be the team getting involved in the process. So what, you might ask, if you're porting a console-based game to the arcade? Well... you get this.

The Christ is going on here? Well there's no easy way of describing this. It's a Tetris game built by Tengen (Atari Games) under license by Nintendo under license by Atari Games (under license by Elorg). It completely baffles the mind as to why this was done, not least because... Atari Games already built a copy of arcade Tetris... and it's better than this one.

This version of Tetris is not too bad, but is clearly an "earlier", "simplified" version of the other NES-based version of Tetris made by Tengen (which I'll cover in a moment). It's not as pretty and lacks most of the fancy features, but it's still a better version of Tetris than BPS' NES attempt, and most importantly, lets you rotate in both directions!

For the record this may have been released before the PBS NES version. It's not widely known and I don't think it's something to lose sleep over. And I'm not sure if this pioneered any fancy control schemes - someone else will have to tell you when specific features showed up in the Tetris timeline.

June 1989: Tetris, Game Boy, Bullet Proof Software

Granted, this isn't technically for the NES, but I figured it was pointing out because it has inspired almost every Tetris game since. BPS' Game Boy Tetris is a vast improvement over their NES adaption and stands as one of the most successful adaptions of the game in history, but you likely know that.

It was so good, in fact, that rather than create their own, Nintendo licensed BPS' version for sale in the rest of the world. So though there are three different versions of Tetris on the NES, only one exists for the Game Boy.

The Tetris "theme song" was popularised by this version, but it wasn't the first copy to have it. BPS' NES copy, for example, uses it, though only for the title screen rather than in-game. That being said, it's a public domain tune, so was adopted by the majority of future developers simply because they could. Also after the runaway success of the Game Boy version, it makes less sense not to include it.

The success of Game Boy Tetris caused most developers to use the rules set out by Atari Games/Tengen's versions and adopt the "two rotate buttons" control scheme.

1989: TETЯIS, NES, Tengen

In typical Atari not knowing what they're talking about fashion, Atari Games' console department, Tengen, thought it would be fun to voilate agreements and produce an unlicensed NES adaption of Tetris for a home audience. It's based on their earlier Vs. Tetris, which is based on the 1988 arcade version. And it's lovely.

This is the best version of Tetris on the NES. Tons of options, two-player, intermissions and most intreguingly, a "co-operative" mode (also available in Vs.), in which two players play one game of Tetris at once. This is generally a fantastic copy of the game, even outclassing versions on other consoles with superior specs. A great many years passed before it was truly bettered by something else. All it lacks is the "theme song", but I'm not really shedding any tears over that. It's quick, responsive, and generally good fun to play, even today.

Problem is, Tengen weren't allowed to release this game. They never consulted Nintendo and after a losing a legal battle, it was removed from store shelves after only a few weeks. Tengen wasted time fighting Nintendo over this until 1993, but by that point I'm not sure many actually cared. In fact, Tengen would be merged into Time Warner Interactive shortly afterwards and stop existing.

This isn't the only time a situation like this would arise. Sega would be sub-licensed by Atari Games to make their own arcade version of Tetris, which they then attempted to port to the Sega Mega Drive in Japan. But as this was the stomping ground of Bullet Proof Software, the game was pulled just months after its debut and now it's extremely rare. Fun stuff.

November 1989: Tetris, NES, Nintendo

Not wishing to borrow Bullet Proof Software's NES version of the game (or Tengen's Vs. Tetris), Nintendo constructed their own Tetris for a western NES audience in late 1989, not too long after Tengen's NES version hit the market. And of course, Nintendo in their infinite wisdom decided to go down the no-frills approach like they had with previous NES first-party games, leading to yet another dull release of the game.

This one doesn't borrow much from the Atari Games arcade version (if anything it borrows more from BPS, like the logo... presumably so they could recycle packaging). Instead, it has its own set of music and graphics, and significantly fewer modes. There's nothing particularly bad about Nintendo's version of Tetris (though it is as bit less responsive than modern day varients), it's just that Tengen's version is better.

For the interested, this one also lacks the Tetris "theme" popularised by the Game Boy version.

1989-1995: All those other Tetrises

There's a lot of messy stuff in the years that followed, where multiple companies would be releasing Tetris games, but this was all stop with the creation of The Tetris Company in 1995. Since then, TTC has owned the rights to all versions of Tetris, and merely licenses it out to whoever is desperate to make a game. The rules above no longer apply - if Atari Games still existed and wanted to make a Tetris game, they could reach an agreement with TTC and get it done. Likewise Bullet Proof Software (now Blue Planet Software) have to do the same. And Nintendo. And Sega. And EA who released one not too long ago.

And on top of this, Alexey Pajitnov gets royalties now.

The Tetris Company doesn't own everything ever associated with Tetris though. This theme is owned by Sega I believe, and hence can only be found in Sega editions of the game. Music B in the Game Boy and NES versions is owned by Nintendo (they say it's one of Hirokazu Tanaka's compositions). But generally nobody cares about all of that, just like they don't care that T blocks aren't always yellow.

Anyway I would hope this reverses any of the lies put forward by myself a few years ago. I figured it was good to be "as correct as possible", even though there's a good chance I might have to revisit this at a later stage. But if nothing else, fulfils my Tetris quota for the year.

1 comment:

  1. Why would Atari make a Unisystem version of Tetris? It was released as an upgrade kit for a popular arcade cabinet system. Basically, it's a special software platform for arcades. They could sell Tetris to operators who might not want to buy an entire cabinet, or weren't looking for something that ran on one of Atari's hardware platforms.

    I agree about the general quality of the Tengen Tetris port, and generally about the arcade version. The special "level types" in that game are a lot of fun. The arcade version does have something of a problem though in that there's a bit of control lag, which makes it difficult to survive at high speeds, and the game seems to have a "ramping" effect aimed at shortening long games regardless of level number. (KLAX does something similar on default settings.)

    From what I heard, Atari licensed the console rights to Tetris from Mirrorsoft, who were actually not qualified to sell them.