Why Modern Tetris is a Flawed Game

The video game Tetris probably needs no introduction. Most of you have probably played or at the very least seen it. I played (classic) Tetris extensively on the Nintendo Gameboy when I was a kid. In that version, the multiplayer mode is an afterthought. It is primarily a single player game. The Tetris pieces are randomized, which means that you need to be able to deal with a bad streak of pieces. This entails that you may not always be able to reduce your stack only with Tetrises. Sometimes, you have to clear fewer lines to accommodate a piece. Also, each piece has to be dealt with in the order it arrives. As you progress in a single player session, the game gets faster, forcing you to think and react quicker.

By contrast, modern Tetris, following the “guidelines” of the Tetris Company, is a much different game. The single player modes are an afterthought. Also, the speed at which pieces fall is basically irrelevant. In classic Tetris, a piece locks into place when it hits the stack or the bottom of the screen, while in modern Tetris you can move it across the stack with impunity for several frames, even at the highest speed in the game. If you have learned to build a relatively flat stack, then moving across pieces is quite trivial. To add insult to injury, the piece sequence has been trivialized as well. Instead of a random sequence of pieces, you receive permutations of the same fixed-piece sequence. This eliminates “draughts” altogether, i.e. you will never wait long for a piece you think you need. Also, there is a five-piece preview and, in addition, you can “hold” one piece, to remove all challenge in stacking.

As a consequence, the classic Tetris “marathon” mode is insipid in modern Tetris as you can play infinitely long with relative ease. Instead, modern Tetris players are all about execution speed. The main single-player mode is a sprint mode in which you clear 40 lines as fast as possible. Just based on that you can see that the nature of the game has changed dramatically. I would go as far as to say that classic Tetris and modern Tetris are completely different games, requiring skill sets that have little overlap. This is also mirrored in the observation that there are very few, if any, top players of the various Tetris implementations that are dominating in multiple games. The prime classic implementation is NES Tetris, on which Gameboy Tetris is based on. The first very popular modern Tetris version was Tetris DS for the Nintendo DS. It is not played competitively anymore as the online infrastructure has been disabled by Nintendo. Arika’s Tetris: The Grandmaster series is a single-player game focusing on speed. Their rule set deviates from the now canonical Tetris guidelines, so they constitute a niche that is coveted by a small group of hardcore players. Arguably the most popular modern Tetris implementation is the free online game Tetris Friends, while the most recent commercial release is Puyo Puyo Tetris, which has appeared on all mainstream video game consoles as well as Steam for PC. The latter two are competitive multiplayer games. In general, you will find that people play one or the other. As Tetris Friends and Puyo Puyo Tetris play very similarly, people play both. However, the top NES Tetris players tend to play none of the other versions, and the same is true for all other categories as well.

In modern Tetris, single player marathons are quite unpopular as they lack challenge. Clearing 40 lines as fast as possible, on the other hand, is good training for the multiplayer mode. However, the multiplayer mode has a few other aspects. You are not just supposed to clear lines as quickly as possible. Instead, the goal is to avoid topping out while sending your opponent as much “garbage” as possible. Topping out means that you hit the top of the screen. Garbage means that you send lines to your opponent, which are added to his stack from below. You send lines by clearing lines. You send additional lines by using two main features of modern Tetris: combos and T-spins. Combos are successive line clears, i.e. for n incoming Tetris pieces you clear n lines. Once a piece does not clear a line anymore, the combo ends. The longer your combo lasts, the more garbage you send. In longer combos you may even send multiplicative garbage, meaning that one additional line you clear in a long combo may send four lines of garbage to your opponent. Combos greatly de-emphasize clearing four lines at once. That is a “tetris”, and it is also the name of the game, as you have undoubtedly noticed. Thus, combos are by definition un-Tetris like. The same is true for T-spins, which means that you clear lines by spinning the T piece into place. First you create an overhang. Afterwards, you spin the T-piece. This takes some time getting used to as the visual representation is as such that you technically spin the piece through an obstacle.

T-Spin illustrated, from 

T-spins send twice the lines they clear as garbage. If you clear one line, you send two lines of garbage. At most you can clear three lines with a T-piece. This sends six lines of garbage, while a traditional ‘tetris’ clears four lines and sends for lines of garbage. Renaming modern Tetris to T-Spin would be very apt, given the prominence of that mechanic in high-level play. I dislike the idea of T-spins, or any spin that moves through obstacles. Allegedly, this feature was a programming bug at first and later promoted to a feature. Rewarding T-spins and not similar spins with other pieces that likewise clear lines and counterintuitively move through obstacles also seems arbitrary to me.

The difficulty of stacking has been almost completely removed in modern Tetris due to the predictable input. This has led to people discovering methods for ‘infinite stacking’, i.e. being able to stack with a pattern that repeats itself ad infinitum. Others have been focusing on “openers”. This works because with a five-piece preview from a permutation of a known number of pieces you can plan well ahead. Openers are normally used to set up T-spins, ideally a “double triple T-spin”. However, you can also aim for an “all clear”, i.e. wiping the board of all pieces, which sends 16 lines of garbage to your opponent. This only works on your own pieces. So, if your opponent sends you “clear” garbage from a Tetris, which you can easily get rid of with the long piece (the so-called I-piece), you won’t get the all-clear bonus. At the very high end you find people who are able to perform successive all-clears, which completely changes the character of the game.

Balancing modern Tetris has seemingly been a nightmare for Tetris developers. In competitive Tetris Friends, combos are “soft banned” in the Arena mode, which is a five-player mode. If you start pulling off combos, the other players will gang up on you and try to send you all their garbage. This works because the target you send your garbage to rotates, so you only need to wait until the player you want to send your garbage to is your active opponent. The reason for this is that combos are seen as “unfair” because they are simpler to set up and pull off than T-spins. Yet, they generate more damage. If player behavior like that emerges, you know that the game is fundamentally flawed as the existing game rules should take care of that. It would be as if you played a fighting game with a buddy and banned throws, or projectile special moves. That that kind of attitude has emerged is, in my opinion, the clearest sign that modern Tetris is flawed.

In the end, modern Tetris is all about execution speed. In fact, execution speed can even overpower a technically more advanced player. Now we get to the point why I’m writing this article: I was re-introduced to Tetris by my girlfriend, who showed me an online game called “N-Blocks” about a year and a half ago. That game has horrible mechanics. It claims to emulate the mechanics of classic Tetris, but it falls way short of that. My girlfriend thought that that was “real” Tetris. As I didn’t like N-Blocks at all, due to years of playing classic Tetris, I looked for an alternative, so I came across Tetris Friends and played that for a while. In the end, the forced 20-second waiting period where they show you ads, before a game, was too annoying. You can block the ads, but you cannot skip the waiting period without paying. Also, I was curious to learn how good I am on the world stage. Tetris Friends only offers a chaotic Arena mode, which offers pay-to-win items, while the other multiplayer modes have you play against recorded games. Thus, I bought Puyo Puyo Tetris for the Nintendo Switch, a mash-up of Puyo Puyo and Tetris. That game has some balancing issues in mixed match-ups as the Puyo Puyo player is at a clear advantage. A simple triple-combo in Puyo Puyo sends 12 lines of garbage already. The outcome is that the very top players play Tetris. This is followed by a very large group of Puyo Puyo players, mostly from Japan. In the top few percent on the leaderboard, Puyo Puyo is clearly dominant. Afterwards, people play either mode. Tetris has a higher skill level, which boils down to the speed of execution. In Tetris, you can drop a piece down to the stack immediately — this is a hard drop —, while you can’t do that in Puyo Puyo. Thus, in Tetris the skill ceiling is given by how quickly you can input commands, while in Puyo Puyo there is a minimum duration the piece needs to hit the stack, which means that the game slows you down. Tetris, on the other hand, does not.

To put my opinions into context, I should probably highlight my skill level. On Tetris Friends, both my Spring and Marathon score are in the top one percentile, which is the highest percentile that is indicated. In Puyo Puyo Tetris, I am competitive even against good Puyo Puyo players. On the world-wide leaderboard, I’m at around the top 2% level. At that level, you are facing an army of Japanese Puyo Puyo players, a sizeable number of Japanese Tetris players, and extremely few Western players, who almost all play Tetris. This is a genuine wall to break through as Puyo Puyo has the upper hand. In country leaderboards in the West, in which Tetris dominates, I am very comfortably in the top 0.5% in every country I checked. Depending on the size of the player pool this puts me solidly in the Top 20 if not the Top 5 or even Top 3. I was also in the top 10 in Hong Kong and Singapore; I think I ranked in the top 3 in either country. So, yes, I’m pretty good at competitive Tetris. I am also competitive against Japanese Tetris players with a comparable Elo rating, so it’s not the case that I’m only a high-level player for Western standards or Asian countries that are not Japan.

In my opinion, modern Tetris falls apart for a few issues. I pointed out my discontentment with the dominance of combos and T-spins, and the trivializing of stacking. However, in the competitive scene, the issue is that the game is all about how quickly you can place pieces. The ceiling consists of execution speed. I’m quite fast and I can beat, by raw execution speed that relies on only tetrises, a player who has practiced openings and T-spins excessively but can’t pull them off very quickly. (That isn’t to say that I can’t pull off T-spins. I can, and I do, but I don’t like them.) The problem with execution speed is that it takes a toll on your hands. I spend my days largely in front of a computer, and on some days I spend a few extra hours at home writing even more. Thus, the idea of playing Tetris at an internationally competitive level for a prolonged amount of time started giving me the chills when I realized that I’m setting myself up for tendinitis. This is due to the very high input speed required for top-level play. After a one hour session of high-level Tetris — this was after I had broken into international top ranks — I tended to notice a clear discomfort in my hands. Part of it is probably due to my hands being a bit too big for the Nintendo Switch, but even if I ignored that, the fact remains that you move your fingers at an absurd speed. I clearly need to prioritize my day job as well as my moonlighting as a hobbyist writer, so Tetris had to go and I retired from online play. Puyo Puyo Tetris was the first competitive online game I ever played, and I liked seeing myself climb on the national and global leaderboards, and finally taking on and beating players in the top 20. Too bad that modern Tetris is not sustainable for me. I may look into different genres to get my competitive fix; maybe I’ll check out Super Smash Bros. Ultimate when it comes out in December. Fighting games in general seem a lot less taxing on your hands than Tetris.

Modern Tetris is not for me. On the other hand, classic Tetris is still a fantastic game. The reveal of the upcoming game Tetris Effect gives me some hope as it seems to have decelerated the game. It also seems to focus more on classic marathon-style single-player gameplay as opposed to competitive multiplayer. I have not seen a master of modern Tetris play Tetris Effect, but footage of NES Tetris master Trey Harrison playing it is available online. Thus, it’s not clear if hard drops and the other shenanigans of modern Tetris are implemented in Tetris Effect. Tetris Effect has only a one-piece preview, like classic Tetris. You can also hold a piece. Thus, from all I can tell, it seems that it is closer to classic Tetris than modern Tetris. I hope there is a way to disable those pesky particle effects, though. I’ll wait for more gameplay footage, but I’m keeping my hopes up that Tetris Effect will bring Tetris closer to the version I’d prefer playing.

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3 thoughts on “Why Modern Tetris is a Flawed Game

  1. FYI there are numerous examples of high level TGM players becoming high level NES players. Koryan and Kitaru, off the top of my head.

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