Sunday, January 29, 2012

Tetris and Lost Relics

Platform: Game Boy
Developer: Bullet-Proof Software (original concept by Alexey Pajitnov)
N.A. Release: August 1989

The world-encompassing reach of the Tetris name is undeniable. Unfortunately, the wider a popular concept is spread, the shallower its real impact tends to become over time. The extraordinary stories of Alexey Pajitnov's conception of the game and Nintendo's battle to secure the rights to make the first blockbuster rendition of it still exist, but are long buried under sedimentary layers of adaptations, ports and free online knock-offs.
You can even play whatever this is, available now on the official website!
But I'm not going to tell those stories; they're already out there if you're willing to search. Instead, I'd like to tell you about the one Tetris game pak that would mean the world to me to have.

I never knew my great-uncle Jim that well, and he passed away early enough in my childhood that I don't have a great store of memories from which to draw of him. But there's one image I saw much too often to ever forget: whenever he and my great-aunt Rose visited my grandmother's house, he would sit in the same chair at the bar, beneath the overhead light, and huddle over Tetris on Game Boy.

I do mean huddle. He never actually held the system, as far as I can remember. It was always resting on the bar in front of him, with one of his fingers on the D-Pad and another poised over the B and A buttons. And that's how he would stay, tapping away with the intense confidence of a scientist at the helm of his nuclear powered robot.

The Game Boy almost never held anything else but Tetris. His children had tried to buy him other games to play like Qix and Super Mario Land 2, but I only know this because he let me play them one of the rare times I visited his home. He barely touched them himself, if he ever did at all.

The picture definition of "iconic."
No, great-uncle Jim's Game Boy was very much a Tetris-only machine, and the severity to which it had to bear this dedication still amazes me. The small grips that are on every Game Boy's directional pad were worn off completely, the entire pad itself somewhat sunken into the hole from which it protruded. The vibrant red of the B and A buttons were faded to a medium-rare pink in the center. This was all from the heat and friction of my great-uncle's large fingers over the many hours he spent playing a single cartridge.

Best of all, there was always a small strip of paper just below the screen, sealed into place with a piece of scotch tape: his high score. Occasionally changing, it was worn by that Game Boy like a badge of honor and always possessing a number I could never dream of getting close to.

It's not that great-uncle Jim was all-consumed with Tetris. He always took time to talk with the family, and he had no qualms about letting me play with his Game Boy once he had finished his current game—which often took an especially long time to an impatient 7-year-old but is something I can look in awe upon today.

If I had known back then how fondly I'd look back on that gray piece of plastic, I might have it today. Unfortunately, my childhood self never asked what had ever happened to the Game Boy and its treasured game after my great-uncle passed away. In fact, it wasn't until last year when I actually contacted my great-aunt, still living, and asked her if she had kept it with her all these years. She had not. She had given it away to another child whom she does not recall.

I wish I could run my fingers against that strangely smooth d-pad, or for the life of me remember that last high score and see how it stacks up on the Internet today. Sometimes I wonder if some kid now will feel this way in 20 years about an iPad he watched a loved one play Angry Birds on. Yes, I know that sounds silly now, but all I know is in a world full of so many ways, there's one game of Tetris I'll never be able to play again.  


  1. Good read. Can't count the number of hours I played with the good old brick Gameboy and some Tetris under a lamp.

    My favorite though was The New Tetris on N64. Probably because my brother and I would battle back and forth, taking down each other's high scores.

    And its no surprise Tetris Axis was my first retail 3DS game. I'm an addict and it's the best puzzle game hands down.

  2. The New Tetris was fantastic! I'll never forget the name of the guy who did the music for that: Neil Voss.