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I suck at games: From Russia with fun

6:40 PM on 08.27.2009 // pixelpunx

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It was 1989 when a 7-year-old child walked into his local toy store to find it waiting. He had heard rumors of its existence for quite some time, but only hesitantly chose to accept its existence as truth. Nonetheless, there it was. Sitting by itself, singing a lonely song. From a distance it was hard to see, but once he finally walked past the rows of action figures and bicycles, his attention focused on its presence. It only displayed four colors, but it was one of the most beautiful things his prepubescent eyes had seen.

The Nintendo Gameboy rested before him. Moments after their introduction, the love affair began. He held the Gameboy in his hands. He gazed into its soul. Beyond its shell, he could see what truly made it special. Within the machine's matte exterior rested an even smaller device: a cartridge that seemed as though it were the Gameboy's heart. It was called Tetris. He immediately felt as if the unfamiliar piece of plastic was desperately trying to tell him something, but couldn't decipher its message until years later.

Much time had passed when the message had finally hit. It entered the boy's head with the impact of a brick being dropped from the top of the Empire State building. Tetris had been trying to tell him a single thing from beginning of their love affair. A hidden, and explicit message. After reading between the lines, the message became clear:

You Suck.

About 2 months ago, I dusted off my old Gameboy, with a Tetris cart still resting in its tired slot. I heard the familiar tune start as I began to play, by selected game type and level. I was looking forward to reconnecting with an old friend. I remember the game play being simple. Drop Tetrominos, arrange them into a solid line, and score a few points. I soon learned after powering the system on, that what I had intended to be a relaxing 15 minutes would soon become one of the most frustrating gaming experiences I had ever had. On my first attempt I managed to clear a measly 10 lines, but at that point I was already hooked. I was desperate to get a few more points. Like a drug-addled coke fiend, I continued down my dark path in hopes of clearing a few more lines. I pushed the blocks from side to side and mashed the buttons as hard as I could. And in the end, I felt dissatisfied. I simply needed more.

With my addiction in full flare, I had no other choice than to ask for help. I needed to speak with someone who's addiction out powered my own. Someone who's success in manipulating the tiny blocks would pull me out of my rut. There was only one person who I could turn to. He wasn't the number 1 player in the world. Nor was he the 2nd. He wasn't the 3rd, 4th, or 5th. Actually, according to Twin Galaxies, he was the 9th best Tetris player in the world. I was lucky to have such a sponsor to help me get through the hard times.

Adam Cornelius is a good friend, ex-band mate, and film-maker. His love for Tetris has rewarded him with the 9th best Tetris score for the NES, and has even inspired him to make a short documentary on the world's greatest Tetris player, Harry Hong (who recently scored 999,999 points -- the maximum allowable points in Tetris). Adam was kind enough to let me ask him a few questions that might shed some light onto the path of attaining a higher Tetris score:

When was the first time you played Tetris? On which console?

I think I played it on a computer at someone's house first, but the first version I owned was the NES version. Probably around age 11. At the time, my mother was quite good, and could score well enough to be in the "Nintendo Power" top 10.

On which console do you hold your record? How long did it take you to achieve your record?

NES. I've been working on improving at Tetris for about 5 years now. It started when I downloaded my first NES emulator (I now own a real Nintendo). The time I spent coincides with the time Harry Hong, the subject of my next documentary, had been training to reach a perfect score.

How do you feel Tetris differs between consoles?

There is a huge difference between old versions and the "new school" Tetris. I think the NES version is a more pure, and definitive version of the game. The most important difference is the random piece generation. On the old version, the pieces are completely random, so it's a blank slate- a 1 out of 7 chance every time a piece falls. This means it's possible to get a VERY unfavorable sequence of pieces at any time, and it's the ability to handle those situations that separates the good from the great. New school versions have various methods to ensure a more favorable sequence of pieces, so you never find yourself getting screwed over in the form of never getting an "I", for instance. To me this takes all of the art and excitement out of the game, so accomplishments on the new school version don't impress me as much. The converse argument is that many high scores achieved on old school versions are highly reliant on luck.... which is kind of true. The only way to really find the best Tetris player would be to have a live tournament, where players would be forced to settle on the best of three scores, for instance.

Do you rotate your Tetrominos with one or two buttons?

With two. Its only possible to play fast if you are good at rotating in both directions.

How important is achieving 'A Tetris'?

In the old versions, its the only way to a high score. In my 9th place game, I think something like 60% of my lines were Tetrises. When you are going for a high score, all you care about is Tetrises.

What is the best way to achieve a high score?

Just keep setting up Tetrises, and gamble as much as you can. You have to have an arsenal of save moves memorized, so that you can clear a few lines and survive without messing up the Tetrises you have set up.

What was your motivation behind achieving a high score?

Just to participate and try a new hobby. I've spent a lot of time playing video games, but I'm not really excellent at any one other than Tetris. I loved fighting games when I was a kid, but I never got very good. I'd be lucky just to get a fireball to come out of Ryu, but never with good timing. I think at one point I could beat Contra without dying, so that was my only other foray into video game greatness. I'm respectable at Robotron, which is a very hard game, but nowhere close to even dreaming about a record.

What tips do you have for novice players attempting to achieve a greater score?

I would say start playing at a higher speed right away, so that you get used to it. You'd be surprised how quickly you'll acclimate to the quicker speeds. I can play competently on level 18 now, which seemed insane and inhuman a few years ago.

If Tetris had an artistic message, what would you interpret it to be?

Its simple: anyone can find a place for a piece that fits. Its when a piece falls that doesn't fit that you get a chance to prove yourself. I actually think this is a good metaphor for a lot of real life situations.

Prior to interviewing Adam, I partook in a not-so-scientific experiment. I played Tetris (on my Gameboy) with the same approach that I have always taken: starting on level 0, rotating the Tetrominos with a single button, and playing for as long as I could. I played 10 games, who's average was as follows:

Lines: 73 Level: 7 Score: 30,483

After taking Adam's advice to heart, I started playing on level 5 , rotating with both buttons, and taking more risks in hopes of achieving more Tetrises. I played 10 games, who's average was as follows:

Lines: 83 Level: 8 Score: 62,162

Although I still hadn't become the best Tetris player in the world, Adam's training had more than doubled my score. Hopefully with a little luck and persistence, my scores will only continue to grow.

If you haven't guessed by now, the boy who previously learned Tetris' antagonizing message was me. I've always loved the game in spite of my difficulties in playing, and have always hoped to become legitimately good at it. When thinking about the game itself, I wonder if there is a gamer out there who hasn't played Tetris, considering its seemingly endless string of entries in the series. To me, Tetris still remains a unique experience that has inspired an enthusiasm for organizing oddly shaped blocks. Although my enthusiasm has carried over into various other puzzle games, none have quite felt the same as Tetris. Maybe someday I'll get to Adam's level. Until then, I can only dream of becoming one of the world's best.

End notes:
1>You can help fund Adam's documentary on the world's best Tetris player via Kickstarter.
2>Malin Nylander (Adam's girlfriend) holds the record as the world's 8th best Tetris player.

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