Tetris and Life

Last week while chatting with friends, the topic of Tetris came up. I suggested they watch Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters, a 2011 documentary about the world’s best Tetris players. Discussion continued and to make a long story short, a bunch of middle-aged men scattered across the country are once again playing Tetris and comparing high scores.

Most people know that Tetris was created in the Soviet Union by engineer Alexey Pajitnov. It took Pajitnov’s game four years to migrate to the United States. The first officially licensed version of Tetris, published by Spectrum Holobyte, appeared on US shelves in January of 1988. In the beginning of 1988, no one had heard of Tetris; by the end of the year, the game was literally everywhere. Licensed and unlicensed versions of the game appeared on every major home computer and video game console. Nintendo sold an astounding 8 million copies of the game for their Nintendo Entertainment System (NES); in 1989, they packaged the game with their new portable Game Boy and sold another 35 million copies. On the list of Top 10 Best Selling Video Games of All Time, Tetris appears twice. Nintendo’s version of Tetris is ranked number 10 with 43 million copies sold, while Electronic Art’s mobile version of Tetris, released in 2006, is number three on the list with 132 million sales. Neither of these numbers include the hundreds of Tetris spinoffs, sequels, and knock-offs.

Nintendo’s version of Tetris became the de facto standard for competitions. The consoles, games, and controllers are all identical, removing all variables except for a players’ skill. The original national Tetris championship took place at the Nintendo World Championship in 1990. Today, the Classic Tetris World Championship takes place annually as a part of the Portland Retro Gaming Expo. Each year, scores previously assumed to be unobtainable and levels assumed to be unreachable are regularly surpassed. In 2009, a Tetris fanatic maxed out the game’s score (999,999), an achievement thought to be impossible. As of today, more than 150 people have done the same. Some of them — most of them — hadn’t been born when Tetris debuted on the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1989.

Which brings things back to us — a group of middle-aged men revisiting Tetris at home during our lunch breaks and in between emails. All of us were alive in 1989. Some of us had already graduated high school.

In Tetris, players clear horizontal rows by placing falling bricks into position. Whether you refer to the pieces as Tetrominoes (their original name) or Tetriminos (their new name), there are only seven of them, each one consisting of four small squares (Minos) . The seven shapes are trademarked, copyrighted, and patented by the Tetris Company. Every kid had nicknames for the shapes, although they are frequently referred to as the letters they resemble: I, O, T, J, L, S, and Z. In 2007, GameFAQs ran a contest to determine the greatest video game mascot of all time. Originally submitted as a joke, the L-shaped block from Tetris was voted the winner.

The game starts out deceptively slow, with pieces floating toward the ground as if they were weird, geometrically-shaped feathers. There’s time — so much time! — to make plans. Beginners tend to eliminate rows one at a time as quickly as possible, while more experienced players go for the big points. The highest scoring move in the game, literally called a “Tetris,” is achieved by dropping a straight piece into a narrow gap, eliminating four rows at once. In early rounds, game pieces fall so slowly that arranging them is relatively simple. Each time one, two, or three lines are eliminated, the rows magically disappear and a short tone plays. Pull off a Tetris and a longer, happier tune plays as the screen flashes momentarily.

“This is easy,” you think to yourself. “Why would anyone do anything except clear four lines at a time?”

The first time my father saw the video game Space Invaders, he told me he didn’t like it. “There’s no way to win,” he said. “It just keeps going until you die.” The way he said it bothered me because I assumed he was talking about life. No matter how you plan, how much you save, or how much you own, life just keeps coming at you until you die. The closer you get to the end, the faster things move.

That’s how Tetris works, too. The first few levels tease you with a false sense of security. In the beginning pieces fall so slowly that most players press down on their controller to make them descend even more quickly. There aren’t many other controls to the game. Left and right move the pieces as they fall, and the controller’s two buttons rotate the pieces clockwise and counterclockwise, respectively.

“I didn’t know you could rotate the pieces in both directions,” says Dana Wilcox in the Ecstasy of Order documentary. It seems laughable that anyone who grew up playing the NES version of Tetris wouldn’t know that. For the record, Dana Wilcox maxed out the game’s score (999,999) in 2015, ostensibly still only spinning pieces clockwise. It’s kind of like interviewing one of the world’s best Super Mario Bros. players and hearing them exclaim, “wait, Mario can jump, too?”

In Tetris, the reward for success is punishment. After successfully eliminating 10 rows, the blocks change colors and the pace increases.

The game assists you in two ways. The right hand side of the screen shows what piece is coming next. The left hand side shows a running total of how many times each piece has been played — the game’s way of keeping itself honest. All of this information is helpful, until it isn’t.

Like life, things don’t always go according to plan. Sooner or later, the game will drop the wrong piece at the worst time. Sometimes this means burying a hole in your previously pristine tower of Tetrominoes. “Digging” is the art of working back down through the layers and eliminating those holes. Clearing rows while not continuing to bury those holes is an art unto itself; failure to do so is akin digging a hole in your backyard while dumping each load of dirt back in the hole.

When the stack of pieces gets too high, the music (“Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies,” by default) speeds up — an audio warning that danger is imminent. As the pace of the song increases, so does your heart rate. Suddenly, waiting for a straight piece all this time seems like a bad idea. This is the point where deals with the Devil are often made, and if he doesn’t deliver, it may be time to stick the proverbial square Tetromino into a round hole. When enough lines are cleared to get players out of the danger zone, the music returns to normal… for now.

Unfortunately those same cleared lines that temporarily saved you were just enough to advance you to the next level, and the game speeds up yet again. Has this been four times or five? The idea of holding down the controller’s d-pad to make pieces fall more quickly now seems preposterous. It becomes increasingly difficult to watch the playfield and still see what piece is coming next. Pieces begin to land in “less than optimal” positions. Now you don’t need just one straight piece to bail you out of this mess; you need two.

Maybe three.

Any semblance of a plan is long gone by now as things are out of control. I’ve reached level nine, and surely this is as fast as the game gets, right? (Spoiler: it’s not.) The pieces zoom down the screen as if they were thunderbolts thrown by Zeus. My stack of blocks has more holes in it than a piece of Swiss cheese, and even when I do manage to complete a row, the game refuses to slow down. Eventually I am unable to sustain the unrelenting attack. I spend the last few seconds of the game engaged in a Tetris Death Rattle, haphazardly tossing pieces to the left and right in a futile attempt to extend my game just a few more seconds. The pieces have nowhere left to go. They reach the top, and the game ends.

I check the clock. I’ve been playing for four minutes.

There’s no way to win. It just keeps going until you die.

If you’re lucky enough to achieve a high score you’ll be prompted to enter your name into a system that can’t save it. Any record of your heroic Tetrising will be erased the moment the machine is powered off, unless you snap a picture of it and share it with your middle-aged friends.

And now the game sits there, waiting for players to press “start” and begin again. Before restarting, it’s good to pause for a moment and let your pulse settle down. This is also a good time to let whichever deity you were pleading to that you were kidding about trading your first born for a straight piece, and apologize to anyone within earshot who may have overheard the frothing stream of foul words that spilled out of your mouth during the final round.

The game begins again, the screen wiped clean. “Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies” plays slowly as the seemingly weightless pieces float toward the bottom of the screen.

“This time,” you say to yourself, “I’ve got a plan.”

“This time, I’m going to win.”

Comments? Join us on the forum.

Flack

Mischief Maker’s Top 20 Games of 2021!

20. Doki Doki Gravity Dive

Devil Daggers meets Mario Galaxy; your ship hops between “Little Prince”-sized wraparound planetoids orbiting a black hole and fighting off an endless army of hostile invaders who can attack you from land, sky, and other planetoids.

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Metroid Dread (Nintendo Switch)

It’s a new side-scrolling Metroid, not a 3D one like Prime. Super Metroid is still the reigning champion of side-scrolling Metroids, but this one is pretty good. It’s also hard. I died an embarrassing number of times on bosses. Part of that is because propping my foot up on my opposite knee is apparently enough to interfere with the Bluetooth connection of these FUCKING joycons, creating infuriating lag, and the other is that I’m probably old and stupid. Like, seriously, I was making rookie mistakes that my 10-year old self would have found embarrassing.



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Dungeon Encounters (PC)

I feel like I should hate this, but then I find myself playing it for 2 hour blocks at a time. I can’t tell if it’s actually any good, or it’s something that appeals just enough to the OCD in me to sucker me in.



If you’ve never heard of this game, it’s a barebones turn-based RPG. Every element in the game, the player characters, the battle and magic system, items and inventory, exploration, the artwork, the music, etc. is reduced to the bare essentials to make a complete game. I’m not going to bother to deep dive into the all of the little details to set up my thoughts, because every review ever already perfectly explains all of the details. There’s so little to explain it’s impossible they left anything out. So if you want a deeper explanation of everything, just go read a proper review.

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Roar (Movie, 1981)

A friend of mine recommended I watch “Roar”. It’s a 1981 film about a guy who opens up a wild animal (mostly lions) rescue and lives with the animals. They guy who wrote and directed the movie also starred in it. Essentially the actors simply moved into a house filled with dozens of wild (not trained or tamed) lions and let the cameras roll.

Here are some of the trivia facts listed for Roar on IMDB:

During filming in 1977, Melanie Griffith was mauled by a lion and required plastic surgery. Griffith reportedly received fifty stitches to her face.

Cinematographer Jan de Bont was mauled and scalped by a lion on the set. de Bont required over 120 stitches to sew his scalp back from where a lion had bitten his head. After medical treatment, de Bont actually returned to the production to complete his D.O.P. duties.

During production, director/star Noel Marshall was attacked and severely injured by one of the lions in the film. He was hospitalized and it took him several years to completely recover from his injuries.

Assistant Director Doron Kauper was attacked and mauled by a lion during production filming of this picture. Kauper’s throat was bitten open from whereupon the lion proceeded to bite his jaw and attempted to rip an ear off. Reportedly, this attack on Kauper almost cost him his life.

Tippi Hedren fractured a leg during production when an elephant bucked her off its back when she was riding on top. Moreover, also during production, Hedren was bitten on the back of her head by a lioness called Sheri. Hedren received thirty-eight stitches to the open wound. The incident can be seen in the finished picture. Hedren is hanging to the branch of a tree when thirty-four lions run across her. The thirty-fifth lion bites at her head. Hedren’s screams and the blood seen are real. Hedren once said of being bitten by a lion: “Let me tell you, it hurts when you’re bitten by a lion. It’s not only that you may have an open, gaping wound, plus shock, but the pressure of those enormous jaws is so strong that it hurts”.

In 1978, a flood from a dam break killed many lions in the film, washed away the set and destroyed nearly all of the movie, including sets, completed film footage and three key lions including Robbie, the movie’s lion king. The picture was set back several years and the damaged done amounted to approximately US $4 million.

John Marshall was bitten by a lion during production filming of this picture and required fifty-six stitches.

Deputy Sheriffs had to shoot three lions during the flooding of the Marshall ranch. One of these lions was Robbie, the lion king of the picture. Robbie was a unique black-maned Rhodesian lion.

During the promotion of this picture, Tippi Hedren categorically stated that there would never be a ‘Roar 2’ sequel.

I like that last one the most.

Roar is a horrible, horrible movie with a terrible plot and worse acting, and yet you find yourself watching every second because these ain’t no CGI lions. Every second that unfolds you’re just waiting for the lions to attack another actor or crew member or each other, and it happens pretty often.

Horrible. Terrible. Highly recommended.

Comments? Join us on the forum.

Flack

Mischief Maker’s Mini-Review Roundup, Autumn 2021

Been a while since I did one of these, but I bought a few games recently. So thoughts:

Slipways



Wonderful strategy/puzzle hybrid based on the “early game” of a space 4X that sees you peacefully colonizing an infinite galaxy by colonizing planets then building faster than light gates between them to satisfy trade demands, with the goal being to create the most prosperous civilization you can within 25 years.

I can’t say enough good things about this game. It has a zillion overlays to clearly communicate what can be built where and for what at a glance (protip: the Alt key is your friend!) and the whole drag-to-link interface will see you creating a galaxy-spanning trade empire in minutes. Add to that a whole science research system that unlocks crazy new ways to connect and exploit (and occasionally explode) the planets of the galaxy. And unless you scan new planets, you can undo every move in case you colonize yourself into a corner by mistake.

I honestly can’t come up with any complaints about this delightful game, it’s my top contender for 2021 Game of the Year. Highly, highly recommended!

(More games after the break!)
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Halloween (Movie, 2018)



Halloween is one of the most convoluted movie series of all time. As of the release of Halloween (2018), there are now five separate timelines in the franchise. There’s the original, which consists of Halloween (1978), Halloween II (1981), Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988), Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (1989) and Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995). (That’s films 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6.) Then there’s Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982), which refers to the first two movies as fictional films. Next is the Halloween (1978), Halloween II (1981), Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (1998) and Halloween: Resurrection (2002) timeline (films 1, 2, 7, and 8), in which Halloween H20 jumped over movies 3-6 and picked up where #2 left off. There’s also Halloween (2007) and Halloween II (2009), Rob Zombie’s reboots.

The latest trilogy, beginning with Halloween (2018), is a direct sequel to the first film, leaping over everything after that. It is also, somewhat confusingly, the third film in the franchise to be simply named “Halloween”.

In Halloween (2018) we find a 61-year-old Michael Myers, who has been in captivity since the murders of 1978. During those same 40 years, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) has been preparing for the return of Michael Myers. Strode is almost a carbon copy of Sarah Connor in Terminator 2 as she has spent decades building a fortress and learning how to handle weapons, preparing for an adversary that no one else believes will come. Because of her fears she has been diagnosed as mentally ill and shunned by her daughter’s family, who thinks she needs help.

Don’t worry, most of the people who doubt Laurie Strode end up dying gruesome deaths.

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Psychonauts 2 (PC)

DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE FIRST GAME AND THE SEQUEL

Controls in 2 are much MUCH better and more refined, which is to be expected. In 1 I’m constantly fighting the camera (pro-tip: if you decide to replay it, turn off smart camera) to some degree, the lock-on targeting is clumsier, and so are certain interactions with the environment like rail grinding and climbing poles. In 2 you “snap on” to climbable objects much better. In 2 you can also jump up climbable objects to move up faster, whereas in 1 it just dismounts you.

NEIN

This is one of those labor of love games. Production is top-notch. Everything retains that Tim Schafer / Tim Burton-esque weird cartoon design aesthetic from the first one. Animation is great and characters animate with actual personality instead of being generic, indistinguishable mo-cap. All of the acting so far is excellent, except for Sasha Nein who sounds really wooden for some reason. I checked and it’s the same actor, so I don’t know what the deal is. Based on the first level, it looks like the level design and the little details are going to be just as inspired as the first game.

The introduction / first level cuts right to the chase which is GOOD. There’s an intro movie on launch and then a brief level introduction when you start the game, but then you get to play through a level right away and get into the weirdness of a mind invasion. The way the level transitions between parts of the level and in-game cutscenes to hide the fact they’re teleporting you around is really well done and doesn’t feel like it’s obnoxiously pulling you out of the action.

So far, it’s pretty much the same style of action-platforming as Psychonauts 1. You also get about 6 powers right at the start as well, so you get several abilities to play with as opposed to a slow trickle of doling out one thing at a time over 6 hours until you FINALLY have enough abilities for things to start to get interesting. There’s still unlockable powers, as well as the ability to level up powers.

Some of the enemies actually have weaknesses to certain abilities, so the combat looks like it’s a bit more than “you have different abilities but they all do interchangeable damage.” I can’t remember the depth of combat in the first game, so I don’t remember if that’s standard.

All of the collectibles are back (figments, baggage tags, etc). I’m not sure how I feel about the figments. I guess if they do a good job of scattering them around and making it fun to navigate around and collect them it’ll be fine, otherwise it’ll just be a chore.

Initially I found that the writing is good. It retains the subtler, drier humor of the first game, in contrast to something more over-the-top like Portal. Characters all feel like they have unique personalities and aren’t just one-note joke machines you find in other shittier games trying to be funny.



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Galactic Civilizations III: Crusade Expansion Notes!

The official wiki hasn’t updated, unless there’s a special Crusade wiki somewhere, so let me help you with the almost entirely new rules (as compared to the game in 2016).

The teaser trailer for the expansion!

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Infinite Space III: Sea of Stars (PC)

Infinite Space III: Sea of Stars

I’ll admit my bias right off the bat, the original Strange Adventures in Infinite Space was the title that started my love of indie gaming. A Star Trek inspired coffee break game that had you illegally exploring the cloud nebula as its first human representative, (for better or often worse), grabbing everything not nailed down then delivering it all to your mob boss patron for fame and fortune. The sequel Weird Worlds was more of the same but better, yet retaining many flaws from the original. Then FTL came out and was a worldwide sensation. Years later this third iteration was finally released to middling response in a post-FTL market.

Which is a damn shame because not only is the third the best of the series, its innovations elevate it to the point of… I’ll put it this way, what King’s Bounty is to the Heroes of Might and Magic games, Infinite Space III is to the Sword of the Stars games (The 4X originals).

The game takes place on a 3D map of space where you have 25 years to explore all the star systems of the cloud nebula by moving in straight lines from star-to-star, avoiding nebula clouds that will slow (most) star drives to a crawl, and grabbing as much loot as possible before the time limit… and maybe saving humanity from certain destruction along the way. All finished in 30 minutes or less! Some veterans of the series complained about the switch to 3D, but I love it; you no longer get trapped in a corner by nebula clouds like you could in the 2D games, and navigating a single fleet in 3D is a piece of cake compared to ordering around an entire 3D space empire in SotS.

Your ship is fully modular, letting your replace your weapons, shield, FTL drive, impulse drive, and many other systems with higher-tech alien equipment you find on your journey. On the way you might pick up or hire alien ships to add to your fleet, including fighter-craft. Unlike the earlier games, the world is alive in IS3. Alien fleets move from star-to-star and if you arrive in a system when two enemy fleets are there, you have the option of allying with one to team up against the other. As time goes on in your 25 year mission, the technology level of the nebula increases (indicated by announcements from home of a new ship class available) and if you reach an alien homeworld with a ship of that species in your flotilla, you can upgrade it to a higher class with more weapon hardpoints and potentially new abilities (like upgrading to a Garthan light carrier with its unlimited hangar of disposable fighter-craft). PROTIP: You only need one corvette or survey-class ship in your fleet to get the full cargo space bonus.

Combat in this game happens in pauseable realtime in a 2D circular combat arena whose size is based on the number of fleets taking part and their respective weapon ranges. Unlike earlier games, you can warp in individual ships where you want when you want, so Urluquai-style pincer maneuvers are totally doable for the player at last. Once on the map, ships autofire their weapons at whatever is in range, each hardpoint having a different visible firing arc, and you can maneuver them by dragging a path. Fighter-craft make strafing runs based on their own AI, but you can specify their target ship. And its worth noting that while capital ships suffer permadeath, if you win a battle any fightercraft of yours that died can be recovered and repaired afterward.


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