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How Gen Z is pushing NES Tetris to its limits

·Editor-at-Large
·13-min read

In the fall of 2018, tucked away in a side hall at the Portland Retro Gaming Expo, seven-time Classic Tetris World Champion (CTWC), Jonas Neubauer, found himself against the ropes. 37-year-old Neubauer, the Tony Hawk of Tetris, was two games down to teenage rookie Joseph Saelee. To stage a comeback, he now had to win three games in a row, a monumental task that would require every last drop of focus.

As his third game came to an unsuccessful end, Neubauer’s strained expression appeared to dissolve from frustration to the realization that his long reign as champion could be over. Neubauer may have lost in three straight games to 16-year-old Saelee, but the real defeat – for the Tetris old guard at least – was the arrival of a new era for the world’s most played game. An era that would upend over 30 years of convention and redefine, quite literally, how the game is played.

Saelee’s disruptive victory, or one like it, was inevitable. Neubauer played Tetris just like you or I do – holding down the D-pad to move the pieces (a technique called “delayed auto shift/DAS” in competitive Tetris lingo). He just happened to do it with a level of skill beyond almost anyone else. Saelee played differently. He used a style called “hypertapping” – a contorted mix of fingers and thumbs designed to sidestep the game’s built-in speed limit – and it allows you to move pieces much faster than DAS.

Saelee didn’t invent the technique, but he coupled it with enough skill to secure his victory over Neubauer and, with it, would kick start its popularity in competitive play. “So 2018, it was just Joseph [tapping]. 2019, honestly, it still hadn't quite taken over yet.“ Adam Cornelius, CTWC Co-founder told Engadget. “2020 was the year that it totally flipped, by then, there was like, 100 kids who were tapping.”

Tetris, invented in 1984 by software engineer Alexey Pajitnov, is considered by many to be the perfect puzzle game – easy to learn, difficult to master and endlessly playable. It exploded in popularity in 1989 after its debut on the NES and release as the pack-in title for the Game Boy. Tetris has since been officially released on over 65 platforms and holds the Guinness world record for the most ported video game. Despite all that, there’s possibly never been a more exciting time for fans of the game than right now.

Tetromino blocks from Tetris, colored in the NES color palette.
Tetromino blocks from Tetris, colored in the NES color palette.

“Classic Tetris” usually refers to the NES port of the game. It’s considered the gold standard original and is the version played in the CTWC tournaments. This means original NES consoles, controllers and big old CRT TVs. “A lot of people make fun of us in the comments. They're like, can’t you afford new TVs?” Cornelius told Engadget.

This not only ensures authenticity, it creates a level playing field. Other competitions, like Classic Tetris Monthly are more relaxed about what hardware/emulation you can play with, but CTWC and any world records will usually be played on original Nintendo consoles. There’s a slight concession allowing for a special version of the game that’s modified to allow for higher scores (often done with a Game Genie) and you’ll understand why later.

Saelee’s victory at the 2018 CTWC finals may have surprised everyone, but it didn’t happen in a vacuum. Interest in the game had been steadily growing since the tournament’s inaugural event in 2010, which was also the subject of a documentary: Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters (directed by Cornelius). The film followed a rag tag bunch of high-ranking players toward the climax of the first CTWC event. The winner? Jonas Neubauer.

CTWC soon found a home at the Portland Retro Gaming Expo and grew in size every year. In 2016, another newcomer found their way to the final against Neubauer, who was competing for his 6th title. That player, Jeff Moore, was having the run of his life, scoring repeated Tetrises much to the amazement of the commentators. “Boom, Tetris for Jeff” they yelped every time he slid a long bar down the right hand side of the screen.

“The commentators got so overly excited about this new dark horse candidate, Jeff, that they kind of said, ‘Boom, Tetris for Jeff’ maybe a little excessively. And people just stumbled across the video [on YouTube]” Cornelius said. Cutdowns were made and t-shirts were printed. “Boom, Tetris for Jeff” was just the right sort of silly in the right sort of venue (YouTube) to pique the interest of younger eyes and kickstart a growing appetite for competitive classic Tetris videos.

“There are a lot more young players getting into the game, especially since Joseph Saelee won the world championship, because he kind of blew up the scene in terms of teenagers and stuff.” Christopher “Cheez” Martinez, told Engadget.

Cheez, as he is known in the Tetris community, is one of those teenagers. He found the game via Saelee’s world championship win video and then another recommendation about Tetris Effect. At 16 years old, he’s exploring a game that was already twice his age. Like many other of the new, teenage players, his progress has been remarkably fast.

Tetrominoes from the game Tetris, colored with the NES color palette
Tetrominoes from the game Tetris, colored with the NES color palette

Before there were competitions like CTWC, there were two white whales for elite classic Tetris players. The main one was the “maxout.” The NES version of the game only has a six digit scoreboard meaning 999,999 is the highest score obtainable, but reaching that was difficult, not least because of the second elusive goal: beating level 29 (aka the “kill screen”).

As anyone who has played any version of Tetris will know, one of the main dynamics is that you clear lines to advance to the next level, as you do the blocks fall faster than the level before. In NES Tetris, level 29 is when the game reaches its maximum speed and was widely considered impossible to beat when DAS was the only play style. This, in turn, meant that if you were playing for a maxout you had to get there before level 29.

The maxout was officially first achieved by Harry Hong in 2009, but it’s widely accepted that another old school player, Thor Aackerlund, achieved it earlier, but in a time long before video phones, YouTube and social media. Aackerlund also claimed to have reached level 30 (albeit briefly) but myth about the achievement meant it'd be many years before the kill screen was truly considered beaten.

After Hong’s maxout in 2009, a slow trickle of players started achieving the goal each year. Until you get to 2019, at which point the number exponentially accelerates. “It took me a year, I progressed pretty slowly compared to a lot of the players now actually. People are maxing in like four or five months. It's kind of ridiculous.” Cheez said. He achieved his first maxout in 2019 and was the 65th player ever to do so. Today, around 400 people have reached the magic million points..

As for passing the level 29 “kill screen.” This was, at one point, considered almost impossible. A hard wall that could not be surmounted due to how the game was designed. DAS simply cannot move the pieces to either edge fast enough, meaning that once the “stack” is above a certain height math takes over and failure is guaranteed. Despite that glimpse of level 30 by Aackerlund, kill screen’s reign of terror truly ended when Saelee reached a verified level 33 just months after winning his first world championship.

Yet, despite the two main goals of high-level Tetris no longer being out of reach, these achievements seem almost quaint by today’s standards. As DAS gave way to hypertapping, the once impossible soon became a a rite of passage for elite players. But with the limitation of the kill screen now removed, the theoretical score limit was also eliminated. While level 29 probably was intended to be the last level (the level counter breaks once you hit 30 and the speed no longer increases no matter what level you reach) hypertapping was perhaps still not quite fast enough to allow players to progress much further.

Cheez had other ideas.

An animated Tetromino GIF
An animated Tetromino GIF

While he had made a name for himself as a player with hypertapping, Cheez eventually found a video of someone using a technique that doubled the inputs for one press. “They would put their thumb down, and they would hit on the bottom and the top into their other thumb, and you would get two inputs with the same motion pretty much. So I kind of took inspiration from that in like, late 2020. And rolling became a thing.”

"Rolling" is a strange technique to watch. Most players rest the controller on their thigh or knee, many wear a single glove and then “strum” the controller from below with one thumb on the D-pad. However you get there, though, you can move pieces left and right even faster than with hypertapping. It’s such an efficient technique, Cornelius says, that some fans consider it cheating. It’s entirely legal in CTWCs eyes as it is done with unmodified NES hardware and nothing but your hands.

Rolling is so effective, it’s allowing players to dismantle the current limits of the game. Remember how Saelee achieved the first level 33 in 2019? Well when I interviewed Cheez for this story the new record for the highest level was 63 – kill screen and then some. By the time I clicked publish, that record has been smashed again, with an eye-watering level 95 now the goal to beat.

This rapid advancement isn’t just about new world records, it’s fundamentally changing how the game is played, strategically and physically. Competitive classic Tetris is all about the score. Not the number of lines or how many Tetrises you make, just who scores the most points in a best of three game.

In the old world, the kill screen’s hard limit forced players to focus on efficient play, scoring as many Tetrises as possible before level 29. In the era of rolling, pros are training by starting at level 29. This is where the Game Genie comes in as the original version of the game just can’t count above 999,999 which you’ll definitely need it to once you get to this level. If you hone your skills on the fastest level possible, that becomes the new normal and you can theoretically play indefinitely. That’s how we can go from the impossible kill screen to a level 95. But this also presents some challenges for the burgeoning esport, something Cornelius is all too aware of.

“I predict that in, maybe it's this year, maybe it's in five years, but sometime very soon, everyone's always going to max out on level 28. And they're always going to get to level 50. And tack on another million points. And it's really just going to be this… who flinches first, who messes up first, is really all that matters” he said.

This is already happening, at least on the record-setting circuit. Shortly before I interviewed Cheez he had recently set a world record for the highest score: 2.3 million which casually included a level 61 and a total of 551 lines cleared – both also new world records at the time. All of these have since been beaten, and by considerable margins. The game is now at the stage where players are looking to more niche or specific goals and records to break – such as the highest score achieved with a level 29 start – because these are the areas of the game yet to be broken wide open.

In early 2021 something unexpected rocked the Tetris community. On January 5th, at 39 years old, Neubauer collapsed and died of a sudden cardiac arrhythmia of undetermined cause. The game’s most iconic character was gone, and with him the last champion DAS player. “Jonas' passing is a big part of the story and he was a friend of mine” Cornelius said. “Obviously, nothing compares to the loss in general. But for the Tetris scene, it was really cool to have one person from the old guard who could really hang with all the kids.

Despite renewed interest in the game from a much younger generation, Tetris is still somewhat of a fringe esport. You’ll find games featured on ESPN and it has obviously been growing in popularity, but prize pools remain modest compared to more popular games like Counter-Strike or League of Legends.

“The highest paying tournament is CTWC right now. And the first place prize is $3,000. So it's no Fortnite but it's kind of a decent sum of money anyway.” Cheez said. When I asked him if he’d consider doing this full time should that become an option, he was diplomatic. “Honestly, it's hard to predict the future of the scene but like if the money gets good, I might try to make it a job at some point, but I don't know how stable it would be.”

Cornelius is a little more optimistic about where the future could lead. “You know, when you watch an Olympic sport, you don't watch to see someone beat everyone else by double, you're seeing people winning by these tiny, tiny, tiny margins that are almost imperceptible,” he said. “I think that's where Tetris is headed, where the players are all going to converge on a point where they all play exactly the same. And there is one ideal way to play and we're witnessing them try to just add, just push it a little bit further every year.”

Cheez, for his part, made it to the semifinal for April’s Classic Tetris Monthly event and will no doubt be looking to beat his 2020 top seven placing at CTWC after finishing 21st in last year’s event. One thing’s for certain, whoever wins will likely be a roller meaning Cheez’s mark on the tournament and the game in general is indelible.

Thanks to the pandemic, CTWC was forced to take the competition online. This year’s plans aren’t confirmed yet, but the hope is to return to an in person event if possible. Current world champion Michael "Dog" Artiaga is set to return to defend his title. After Saelee’s 2018 victory, he won again in 2019. Dog took the title the next two years and there’s a host of players ready to take his crown. Dog is widely considered the one to beat, especially after recording a 2.2 Million high score on a level 29 start. Because today’s Tetris begins where the old game left off.

An i-piece Tetronimo, about to take its place in column 10.
An i-piece Tetronimo, about to take its place in column 10.
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