Tetris is quite possibly one of the most popular videogames ever made, originally created by Alexey Leonidovich Pajitnov in 1984 and was ported over to a multitude of home computers and consoles.
Every machine that could run the game had its own version made for it, most notably the Nintendo Game Boy (which came bundled with a free copy of the game, being a launch title for the handheld console). The Nintendo Entertainment System actually got two (2) versions; the first one was withdrawn due to licensing issues thanks to a court dispute between Atari and Nintendo, and was replaced with a second, often considered inferior, edition.
I am going to take a look at the version that I consider one of the best (official) releases for home computers on the Atari ST, a home computer introduced in 1985 by Atari Corporation and intended to compete with the Commodore Amiga.
The game’s legacy can be attributed to its simplicity and addictiveness, in addition to unintentionally stimulating the player’s brain, indirectly making them more skilled at certain tasks outside of this game.
It is believed that players who have played Tetris consistently and for long enough may develop some cognitive advantages such as improved memory, enhanced concentration and increased perceptual awareness. However, this theory has yet to be confirmed or disconfirmed. It can also act as a tranquilliser for people with anxiety, soothing their worries while they play what appears to be a deceptively plain-looking game.
When the game boots up, the player is greeted with a pleasant chiptune composition courtesy of composer David Whittaker along with some opening credits followed by a basic high score table.
On this screen, the player can change the difficulty level by pressing 7 and 9 on the numerical keypad to lower and raise it respectively (the lowest possible level is 0, while the highest is 9). When they are ready, they can press the Space Bar on the keyboard or the fire button on their 9-pin Atari joystick, commonplace to home computers from this era. I will play the game (and recommend playing) with a joystick, as the controls for the keyboard are extremely counterproductive and unintuitive (and cannot be redefined unlike most games from this era).
The goal of the game is to keep the main playing area as clear as possible of falling objects known as tetrominoes, building blocks consisting of four (4) squares connected together orthogonally. This is accomplished by forming a constant line of tetrominoes horizontally (without gaps).
When a line is formed, it will disappear, clearing that line of the playing field - additional points can be gained by clearing multiple lines simultaneously. The player is given a set of seven (7) tetrominoes, all named after letters of the Latin alphabet: I, J, L, O, S, T and Z. They are all colour-coded, depending on the version (except for the Game Boy, which uses different textures due to its monochrome display).
The player can manipulate the tetrominoes by moving them left and right as they gradually descend from the top of the “sky” in addition to rotating them in either direction. They can accelerate each tetromino’s descent if they desire, although this is usually only recommended if they are absolutely sure of their choice and confident that they can make a line which can be cleared with future tetrominoes.
When a certain amount of lines have been cleared, the game’s level of difficulty increases and the game speeds up slightly, getting faster and harder with each successive level. As in most versions, blocks do not automatically fall into open gaps when lines are cleared.
The player can see what the next tetromino block will be in the “Next” box (can be toggled on and off on the Atari ST with the 1 key on the numerical keypad), which will begin its descent when the current block has landed and locked into position (the player can still move and rotate the current tetromino until then, providing they have enough space to manoeuvre it into place).
Due to its simplistic arcade-like nature (although no arcade version has ever been made officially), the game can only end in a single manner: when the player inevitably fills up the playing field, so the overall goal simply involves getting as high a score as possible (some versions reward the player with an ending cutscene upon reaching a high enough score).
Being a 16-bit version, one would expect more flair than its 8-bit counterparts, and it delivers fairly well, although not exceptionally well due to it being an early title for the Atari ST. A main menu would have been nice as opposed to a basic high score table, although I do like the pseudo-cinematic opening credits.
Graphically, this game is OK for a 16-bit computer, but it does very little to push the visual envelope, making it look like an enhanced 8-bit title.
It is nice that the tetrominoes are all different colours to help differentiate them, but a part of me wishes that the golden psychedelic background in the main playing area could be disabled, as I did find it slightly distracting while playing this game. Most of the visual appeal comes from the title screen.
The game uses the Atari ST’s YM2149F sound chip. It is similar, but not identical, to the AY-3-8912 chip found in the Amstrad CPC, MSX series of computers and ZX Spectrum machines (starting from the original 128K “Toastrack” model onwards), so the music is going to sound very close between the three main 8-bit computers and this 16-bit machine. There are only three (3) compositions:
There are no sound effects to speak of and from what I understand, the music cannot be turned off, making this a rare case where the only sound available is music, which is unusual for a game from this era. The lack of sound is disappointing.
As stated earlier, the game can be played with either a keyboard or a joystick, but the controls for the keyboard are ridiculously awkward and unconventional, forcing the player to use the numerical keypad, and even then, it takes a long time to adapt, although this is mitigated slightly by the on-screen display telling the player which key does what. Joystick heavily recommended. The controls are also inconsistent in their responsiveness - sometimes a tetromino will rotate or fall at the push of a button, while other times it will require multiple presses to perform a single action. I suspect this may be due to most of the CPU’s runtime being used to generate the psychedelic effect in the background and, unlike the Amiga, the ST has no dedicated graphical assistance, so everything must be done via the processor.
When the game runs smoothly, it truly shines and shows the player what the ST can do - it can be fun, frustrating and even taxing, forcing the player to think on their feet and adapt to their new situation, never letting up (there is no way to pause the game as far as I can tell, unlike most versions). However, the gameplay itself is limited, as other than racking up a high score, there is precious little to offer.
While Tetris on the Atari ST may not be the best overall version of the game (that honour would go to the Nintendo Game Boy), it is the best version officially available for home computers of the era (the Amiga version doesn’t count because it is a straight ST port, which was typical until 1989 with the release of Shadow of the Beast, after which ST-to-Amiga ports became less commonplace).
The gameplay is hindered by the awkward keyboard layout, unnecessary psychedelic visuals and often-unresponsive controls - the real standout in this game is the music. If this is the only version available to you, then by all means, play and enjoy, but you’re better off searching for other versions such as the aforementioned-and-often-compared Game Boy release, or even Tetris 2 on the ZX Spectrum, an unofficial clone with some unique gameplay elements of its own such as 2-player competitive play and a distinctly Russian (or rather, Soviet) theme, hailing from the former Czechoslovakia.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.