May 13, 2008


Tetris is an abstract puzzle game released by Alexey Pajitnov in 1985. Tetris enjoyed a great deal of success with many demographics, across multiple platforms.

This game is usually categorized as part of the “puzzle” genre of games. Ironically, it behaves quite different than a puzzle – a puzzle has only one solution, but there is a host of different strategies and play styles.

The core mechanics of the game are absolutely simple, including only 7 piece types. The player maneuvers falling blocks by moving them left or right, or rotating them. The goal is to make horizontal sections without gaps (which disappear) while avoiding having the pieces reach the top of the screen.

There are only a few rules for this game, but the strategies for the game can very greatly from player to player. Some players will leave a groove missing in the accumulating structure in an attempt to fill them all at once to earn more points, whereas a conservative player may try to make lines disappear as quickly as possible.

Tetris was created 23 years ago (at the time of this article), but the original design has a completeness to it that leaves little that could be added to. The game would not be significantly improved with power-ups, more shape variety, or story. Adding anything more to the design would risk throwing the elegant simplicity off balance.

The experience of playing Tetris would not translate into other media. The experience can be so intense, in fact, that it is known to cause unusual - almost obsessive symptoms in some players - which is described by Wikipedia:

The game can also cause a repetitive stress symptom in that the brain will involuntarily picture tetris combinations even when the player is not playing the game (the Tetris effect), although this can occur with any computer game showcasing repeated images or scenarios.
-from Wikipedia Tetris entry

The Tetris effect is the ability of any activity to which people devote sufficient time and attention to begin to dominate their thoughts, mental images, and dreams. It is named after the video game Tetris

…People who play Tetris for a long time might then find themselves thinking about ways different shapes in the real world can fit together, such as the boxes on a supermarket shelf or the buildings on a street.[1] In this sense, the Tetris effect is a form of habit.
They might also see images of falling Tetris shapes at the edges of their visual fields or when they close their eyes.[1] In this sense, the Tetris effect is a form of hallucination.
They might also dream about falling Tetris shapes when drifting off to sleep.[2] In this sense, the Tetris effect is a form of hypnagogic imagery.
-from Wikipedia Tetris effect entry

[Wow... I thought it was just me]

In 1985 it was far more common for a game to be created by one person. It is perhaps understandable that many games of that period are stripped down to one or two single game mechanics.
Even today, the most successful games seem to be built from a simple set of mechanics that have been polished to a high degree.

May 6, 2008

A Critique of The Legend of Zelda

The Legend of Zelda was first released for the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1987 and gained a great deal of notoriety. It is an indirect descendant of Adventure for the Atari (which in turn was a direct descendant of Adventure for the PC).

This game was a genre blend of RPG style play, and an action.

The control of this game was using the control pad for avatar directional movement, and the two buttons. One button was used for the sword, the other uses an inventory item – whatever item is selected at that point.

Inventory item collection and management were a large component of the gameplay. In addition to fighting enemies, the player collects items – giving reward for exploration and combat, and enabling progress within the game.

The items in this game were noteworthy in that in most cases they could be used in several different ways.

The fire could be used to 1. light up dark rooms, 2. burn down hedges, revealing secret entrances, 3. attack enemies
The boomerang could be used to 1. pick up coins, OR 2. stun or kill enemies.
The recorder allows you to 1. kill the crab boss, 2. Open level 7, 3. Warp from place to place, 4. Annoy some enemies.
[You get the point]

Another noteworthy aspect of this game is that the level progression is primarily nonlinear. Levels are labeled 1 – 9, but in many instances there is no particular incentive to go in the prescribed order. If a level proves too difficult (or easy), a player has the option to explore other areas of the game world.

Item acquisition also has a nonlinear aspect to it. Items are scattered throughout the levels (with at least one unique item in each dungeon), as well as being hidden in the over-world. Obtaining an item is not tied to level completion, so it is entirely possible to acquire an item without fully exploring or completing the corresponding level.

Despite the nonlinear composition, The Legend of Zelda is an extremely structured game. There are rules for each level which give the game a high level of consistency. Each Level has a map and compass that can be obtained, an inventory item to be found (in some levels two), a boss to be vanquished, which is then followed by the acquisition of a heart retainer and a tri-force piece.

Doors in dungeons can be opened by keys – and any key will open any door. This changes the gameplay from traditional games with keys (that is to say that each individual key opens one specific door) significantly. A key becomes less of a rare item to be quested for and turns into a resource to be managed.

Bombs function as a resource in much the same way. Bombs can be used either to open passages hidden in rock surfaces or as a fairly powerful offensive weapon. The player is then faced with the decision of whether to use this resource offensively or to save it to aid exploration.

Bombs can open up secret passages that hide goodies, as well as things necessary for progression. Players have to either bomb every rock surface or get directions from an outside source in order to obtain particular items or progress at certain points.

Enemies have individual attributes which dictate how much damage they can incur or inflict, which player items/actions will cause them harm, as well as how the patterns and speed of movement. Most enemies have a twin created in another color, most likely to get maximum use of the art assets and give visual variety.

There are four main musical scores in the game - one theme is played in the over-world, one theme is played in each of the 8 main dungeons, one theme after the avatar is killed, and the last is played in the last dungeon. The first two themes are playing throughout the majority of the game – and have a high degree of complexity compared to games created at that time period. [I would guess that the complexity was a conscious attempt by the developer to keep the music that is played so frequently from getting stale / boring]

Sound is a major source of feedback to the player. There are different sound effects for: setting a bomb down, a bomb exploding, picking up a heart, having only one heart left, picking up money, killing an enemy, harming an enemy, hitting but not harming an enemy, receiving damage, finding a secret passage, getting a piece of triforce, etc. [Even today hearing the secret passage music fills me with glee – like I am about to see something never before uncovered]

Story elements are a non-central to the game, which is uncommon in the Adventure game genre. The majority of NPC interactions have only puzzle-solving or gameplay progression content.

Legend of Zelda’s nonlinear gameplay and systematic design made it an important participant in the history of gaming, and established a valuable license.