Listen, I’m good at Tetris. Not incredible; not a world champion or anything. But I could easily beat for instance, you. I’m not so good that I can routinely do back-to-back T-spin triples, but I’m good enough that I know what a back-to-back T-spin triple is. I know how the randomiser works (fun fact: it’s not entirely random), and therefore what the longest you can wait for a long one is. I’ve got, as it were, some game.
The future of gaming is apps, I hear. I’m not sure about this, because I have an Android phone and I have a Nintendo 3DS XL, and I know which one has Mario Kart 7 on it – but what’s definitely true is that phones are now the destination for casual gaming, for the kill-two-minutes puzzle or adventure thing. For Angry Birds or Temple Run or the many who trail in their wake (I recommend Ruzzle and Draw Something, although the latter only guardedly). These games are fantastic at what they do, which is provide a few moments distraction in moments of need, like when there’s a delay to your train, or you’re waiting for a kettle, or you get bored of playing one of the other games you downloaded, seconds of your vigorous youth draining irreversibly into the abyss.
Tetris Blitz, then, sounds like a great idea at first. A version of Tetris – free to download – with each game limited to two minutes, the objective shifting from the slow accelerando of the classic game to breaking combos as quickly as possible, pushing the game into ‘frenzy mode’ and using tetrises to increase a points multiplier. The name evokes Chess Blitz, of course, and the comparison is a good one – the pure strategy of the long-form game is switched for a different kind of purity, the purity of concentration and energy.
I stayed away from Tetris games on touchscreen for a while because to me, button bashing is what this game is all about. But the Blitz concept intrigued me, so I downloaded it. I must say, the controls thing isn’t an issue – it’s smooth, intuitive, straightforward. In fact, there’s good design all over this game. But then, you realise, as your coins dwindle (coins? asks the regular Tetris player), there’s also a problem.
Here’s what it is: it used to be that games got harder. You wanted that to happen. Level 18 of Game Boy Tetris was harder than level 5. Sonic the Hedgehog was impossible to finish – one Japanese guy did it and now spends his days in a large sofa grinning aimlessly out of the window and whistling the Marble Zone music through his clenched teeth. Games getting harder makes logical sense – it’s expected that completing the game, or simply getting further in it than you did already, gives you a sense of accomplishment, of superior skill. Of work for a goal achieved. But with the introduction of coins and micropayments, games get easier as you go on. Worse, they get easier because you buy your way through them. You don’t pay for the challenge (buying the game), you pay to complete it (bribing the game). This represents an important shift in the relationship between gamer and developer. The developer no longer feels like a puzzle master setting you a mission, but like a landlord asking for the rent – sliiightly too much rent.
There are a ton of different powerups in Tetris Blitz. They’re all extremely satisfying – what player of the classic game hasn’t fantasised about the magnet, which draws all the minos to the left of the screen, opening an ideal chute for your next long one? But when enabled, at a price, powerups fall arbitrarily. They can’t be used tactically because their effects always have a degree of randomness. And whilst reacting to surprising new situations is one of the attractive things about the blitz form, a wedge of powerups (you can enable three in a round) swiftly severs the link between skill and accomplishment. On two adjacent games I got 30,000 points and 400,000 points, and I didn’t play differently, have any notable triumphs or fuckups in either. Most importantly, the powerups cost coins, and coins are earned either at a glacial rate by completing games or at phenomenal speed by paying cash money. Either through work or your credit card, you strive to increase the randomness of your score. Something else: I’ve not lost this game yet. The pieces piling to the top of the screen, The Nightmare Of The Children Of The Eighties, simply doesn’t happen any more. There’s no threat; no risk.
Tetris Blitz wants your facebook longin. It wants to share your scores with your friends and connect you to the other Tetris players out there. What this all compromises is the very purity of experience which the blitz notion offered in the first place. Every four hours or so you can roll a special dice which gives you – again, randomly – various rewards from a selection of coins and powerups. This is not what Tetris is about. As I said at the start, the randomness of classic Tetris is actually extremely narrow, allowing a sensitive player to formulate strategies, reactions.
This game doesn’t want you to know that the best way to experience it is to turn off all its features. Doing so restores something like a status quo, and although the frantic joy of some of those powerups is lost, a place for skill slowly reasserts itself. The extra features are not for you, the player – they can’t have been designed to make the game better, because they make it worse. They’re for the developer, who wants to monetise. If this game had had cunningly designed powerups integrated into the basic design, and then cost £10 up front, it would have been amazing. As it is, with their subscription randomness social marketplace, they won’t get a penny off me. Real shame.