Tetris is a Perfect Video Game

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Originally released in Japan like three years ago, the falling block/blob puzzle mash-up Puyo Puyo Tetris finally arrives on Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4 this week in English. I’ve been playing the Switch version (it’s not Zelda) and having a great time. But while the appeal for most is seeing how well these two classic puzzle formulas go together, to me it’s just a reminder that Alexey Pajitnov’s Tetris may be the only perfect video game.

Tetris isn’t my favorite video game by any means. It’s not the Citizen Kane of video games exploding the medium’s potential wide open like Super Mario Bros. And it’s not the intellectual equal of chess like StarCraft. However, it is perfect. It effortlessly draws the player into a zen state of pure play where they stop thinking consciously about the falling blocks and just start matching them through sheer instinct and reaction. It’s beautiful. Just watch pro players in action as they match without even seeing the blocks.

It’s simple, but it’s also anything but. The variety of tetrominoes, derived from all possible ways to arrange four blocks in two dimensions, means players must constantly and quickly evaluate the strength and weakness of each block in each position before making a move. There’s a reason why the long piece might be the biggest hero in gaming. Since 1984 we’ve proven with science that while it is theoretically possible to play Tetris forever, it would take very specific conditions and a tremendous amount of skill.

Tetris ultimate

By being more complex, other games open themselves up to unforeseen flaws that mar their perfection. You can’t make a game as big and bustling as Grand Theft Auto V without some open-world jank. However, by that definition, most puzzle games should be this excellent. And yet, in my opinion, decades later still none of have dethroned Tetris. They add intriguing new features like RPG elements or in-app purchases or whole other puzzle formulas, but that just makes them different, not better. Even Pajitnov’s later games like Hexic and Tetrisphere don’t compare. Tetris remains a flawless diamond of a video game with the only close runners-up being Bejeweled and more recently Threes (screw 2048).

Even the multiplayer is brilliant. It’s one thing to try and survive against faster-falling pieces but having to form as many Tetris chains as possible to attack your opponent adds a new, incredible layer of strategy and tension. And while getting hit with garbage blocks threatens your run, they also provide their own opportunities for chains and turning the tables on your foe. It’s great!

Tetris is proof of the purity of form and mechanics that can make a game excellent with no story whatsoever. However, it’s also important to mention the history and metanarrative behind the game since no art is without politics. I find Tetris so fascinating as a piece of Russian entertainment that blew up right around the time of the Soviet Union’s collapse and became a hugely successful worldwide product.

But even as Western capitalist pigs enjoyed the game on the go thanks to their fancy new Game Boys from the 1980s Japanese economic menace the game never hid its Russian roots. From its classic theme to its box quote of “From Russia With Fun!” to its Kremlin-like background buildings, Tetris is so Russian it’s controlling the current U.S. government.

And beyond aesthetics, the idea of matching differently shaped blocks to create solid wholes and win is the kind of casual, elegant, metaphorical endorsement for communism that defines the best Russian Constructivist art of the 1910s. It’s like Vladimir Tatlin made a video game. Is Tetris’ perfection obvious now?

Suffice it to say, most of my time playing Puyo Puyo Tetris has been spent in regular-ass Tetris mode. But the game does have other modes worth exploring. Puyo Puyo, for those that don’t know the beloved Japanese series, is a match-4 puzzle game about combining colorful blobs that fall apart and stick back together. The goal is the clear them while also setting off stylish chains. In America, the formula was re-purposed in games like Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine and Kirby’s Avalanche. It’s neat, even if it took me playing some in-game lessons to stop being trash, but it’s no Tetris.

If you want to get really fancy, though, you can play the various weird Tetris/Puyo Puyo combinations. One has you playing Tetris for a few seconds and then switching to Puyo Puyo before switching back to Tetris. It splits your brain in an enjoyably stressful way. Even crazier is the mode where Tetris blocks and Puyo Puyo blobs both fall down on the same board keeping their unique attributes. For example, tetrominoes crush Puyos but Puyos fall through crevices tetrominoes leave behind. Players explore the possibilities of this fusion across a surprising amount of varied single- and multi-player modes.

The insane, voice-acted story mode gets most of its mileage from this crazy anime crossover nonsense. Merging worlds. Anthropomorphized blocks. It’s like Street Fighter x Tekken but a puzzle game, and much like Super Bomberman R, who knew Puyo Puyo and/or Tetris had this much lore?

For American Puyo Puyo fans, Puyo Puyo Tetris is a clean and cool glass of water in a desert. Tetris fans aren’t quite as thirsty, but in a world where Ubisoft is making new versions of Tetris with bad framerates some how, this is still an excellent option. It’s not like you can go buy Tetris DS anymore. But no matter how much you dress it up or down, nothing will change the fact that Tetris and Tetris alone is truly a perfect video game. I sure hope that movie works out.

Want to learn more? Here’s everything you need to know about the Nintendo Switch.

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