‘Tetris 99’ Is a Maelstrom of Industry Trends

“Tetris” might be the perfect video game. Even now, thirty-five years after the first time, it still feels good to drop a long block into a narrow shaft and erase four lines at once. That this action is called a TETRIS is a clue to the game’s self-confidence: No other game would be so boastful as to name its finest moment after itself. Jumping on the flagpole is not the “Mario;” sniping an alien headshot is not the “Halo;” completing your block house before dark is not a “Minecraft.” And yet as I drop the slender slab into its waiting valley, the word “TETRIS” flashes on screen accompanied by that tell-tale bell ring diphthong and I feel like I’m home again.

Over the decades, the game’s core competency–spin blocks, destroy lines, stay alive–has barely wavered. The developers know they don’t have to change what works so well. But with two key releases in the past six months, they have. Such decisions will become increasingly necessary for any classic IP that wishes to remain relevant in our quickly shifting industry. Indeed, the move pushes back against decades-long habits that have become so ingrained as to be dogma, rules that may one day threaten to stagnate our fastest growing entertainment industry.

This past year has seen two versions of the Russian block-dropper emerge from its dressing room wearing the trendy threads of the day: VR in “Tetris Effect” and Battle Royale in “Tetris 99.” And here’s the crazy part: each elevates the classic perfection of the original into something else, something modern… something better.

In a nod to its past, “Tetris 99” held a timed event over the past weekend for players of the Nintendo Switch Online exclusive: Players who accumulated 100 points unlocked a new theme that reskins the game in homage to the beloved Game Boy version. All games during the event took place on this reskinned version. Those who logged in found themselves in the middle of a very crowded intersection of industry trends–Battle Royale meets timed event meets classic puzzler meets subscription service meets platform nostalgia.

I did not realize how smitten I would be at this blatant nostalgic ploy. I didn’t even realize I was nostalgic for “Tetris” at all. The game has always hummed around me: I played as a kid on the Game Boy (when my mom wasn’t hoarding the system); I enjoyed the Nintendo-published “Tetris DS” for its cheeky use of familiar characters; my wife bought “Tetris Party Deluxe” and we battled across handhelds. But the tetrominoes never held me in the kind of thrall other favored intellectual property has.

When I hopped online in “Tetris 99” and started vying for the unlockable theme, and every sound effect and graphical embellishment from the Game Boy game started blasting from my Switch, I was surprised at my utter delight. Those pixelated patterns! The digital swish of each rotation! Had I simply replayed the original, my reaction would have been muted or non-existent. But this, a reimagining of a classic in a surprising place using novel rules, re-established a love I had forgotten ever existed.

But the skin is just a carrot to lure me back into what was already a bold proposition: this thing you once loved, disassembled and put back together in a new shape. Making “Tetris 99” was not the obvious or easy choice. The path of least resistance? Keep selling the same, old game. And though many laud the efforts of studios like M2 or Digital Eclipse who painstakingly recreate old games for new systems, players’ collective enthusiasm for remakes and ROM collections is misplaced, sending a message that the way forward is to move toward the past.

Look at this month alone and see the remakes and compilations coming in fast and thick. Last week Konami released “Castlevania Anniversary Collection,” the latest in a series that honors their 50th year in existence. This week Capcom launched “Resident Evil 0,” “Resident Evil Remake,” and “Resident Evil 4” on Nintendo Switch. Square Enix and Sony recently showed the first playable footage of the long-awaited “Final Fantasy VII” remake coming to PlayStation 4. Microsoft will hold public testing of “Halo: The Master Chief Collection” on Steam sometime later this summer. All of these games have been covered and feverishly anticipated by press and fans alike. And all of these games already exist.

Publishers attempting to sell you old games is not a new thing. Nintendo, long the king of repackaging fan favorites, sold “Donkey Kong Classics,” a two-pack of “Donkey Kong” and “Donkey Kong Jr.” for NES, in 1988, just two years after each had been released separately. And with an increasing interest in game history and archiving, many have called for a rapid influx in porting, remaking, and collecting even more old games onto current hardware.

I worry the rush to sell familiar games to risk-averse players will deepen an already present rut. I worry that, instead of more “Tetris 99s” and “Tetris Effects,” we’ll get more of the same with added ray-tracing and save states.

Imagine if the most anticipated film of 1988 was the colorized version of “Casablanca.” (It was not.) Imagine if the Police Academy Complete Collection was salivated over the way we’ve welcomed the Belmont’s back into our hearts, and not simply lumped together to fill that $5 Best Buy bin of DVDs. We are being taught to be okay with sameness. Risk and innovation are being slaughtered in the name of goosing our memories for a quick hit of remembrance.

Perhaps remaking “Final Fantasy VII” twenty years after the original is not the same as making Rick’s Cafe neon sign glow red and blue. But I’d much rather play some strange new offering from the Final Fantasy team than experience the same beats from decades ago, even if the resolution is higher.

Beats of another kind helped redefine, and magnify, the experience of playing what had become a known quantity. When Tetsuya Mizuguchi and his team at Enhance Games took the reins from The Tetris Company for 2018’s “Tetris Effect”, they pulled off an impressive feat: Maintaining the crisp playability of what is normally a spartan affair and enveloping it in something luscious and, with a PSVR helmet, almost spiritual. Outlets hailed it as Game of the Year. Reviewers cried. What “Tetris 99” brings in the way of scale and heated competition, “Tetris Effect” does the opposite: Funnels that intensity into a single point of light that bursts all around you, falling down like stardust.

One would think puzzle games are poorly positioned to be trailblazers in experimentation. But more change is on the horizon; Nintendo promises to update another puzzler’s formula for modern audiences with “Dr. Mario World,” a new smartphone game coming this summer. If this new Doctor invokes half the charisma and spirit of our new breed of “Tetris,” I may fall for a forgotten flame all over again.

I know the wind is in my face; there’s no stopping progress, as they say. Collections and remakes will continue. “Shadow of the Colossus” for PS4 sold better than its original PS2 counterpart. “Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy” has sold shockingly well, enough to greenlight another 90s mascot’s return in “Spyro Reignited Trilogy,” coming soon. History dictates we’ll continue to buy and play the same games over and again.

For now, there’s still room for small, personal, eccentric games. And the occasional blockbuster (that’s not about busting blocks) will shake up the formula. But I hope more mainstream experiments like “Tetris 99” make it through the rigor and homogenization of market-testing. And if the rag-tag adventurers of Franchise X won’t do it, let the noble shapes and blobs of puzzle games lead the way.

Digital Rituals is a monthly column examining the culture of video games by Jon Irwin, college instructor, freelance journalist, and author of “Super Mario Bros. 2.”

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