Tetris the Grand Master - A gameplay essay

Here's the english version of my previous article, for those who doesn't understand Molière's language. La version française, c'est ailleurs sur ce site ;) .

IMPORTANT UPDATE : A far better version (less typos, more things) is available here. Please read it here. I keep this old version just "in case of" (and because I'm too lazy to update it :P).

This article is dedicated to one of the smallest and most least known gamer niche: Tetris the Grand Master players. All my thanks to Tetrisconcept.com and its members. Without them, this article wouldn't have been written. Special thanks to colour_thief for the translation and some corrections or remarks and Jagorochi for THE TOOL.

"Tetris Japan Finals"

There is a famous superplay video found throughout the web. Perhaps you've seen it before?
[youtube PhJG6YvtyaA]

Like many people, my initial reaction to this video was something along the lines of "WTF? O_O Wow, that's fast! This japanese guy is crazy." and I left it at that. But behind this video there was a game of unimaginable depth: the Tetris the Grand Master series. "Come again? A deep Tetris game? What's so special about that??" you might say. Patience, young grasshopper, for the real presentation is yet to begin.

Now Presenting: The TGM Series

TGM, this is the reader; reader, I present you Tetris the Grand Master, or TGM for short. Oh. Right. It doesn't quite work that way does it... Let's try this again shall we?
TGM is a Tetris arcade game released in 1998 on Sony's Playstation-based ZN-2 hardware (the same as games like Strider 2 and Battle Arena Toshinden 2). It has had 2 arcade sequels (Tetris the Grand Master 2 The Absolute (2000) et Tetris the Grand Master 3 Terror Instinct (2005)) and most recently a release on Xbox 360 (Tetris the Grand Master ACE (2005)). There is also a Tetris with Cardcaptor Sakura Eternal Heart released on Playstation, but that's more a puzzle-game-with-Tetris than a "real" Tetris.
Tetris the Grand Master Tetris the Absolute the Grand Master Tetris the Grand Master 3 Terror Instinct Tetris the Absolute the Grand Master ACE

TGM, TGM2, TGM3, TGMA

The people behind TGM are a small studio called Arika. Started by several ex-Capcom employees, it's a relatively little known company. They are responsible for some pretty famous games such as テクニクティクス and 対局麻雀 ネットでロン!... More seriously, they developped the Street Fighter Ex series and are responsible for the celebrated top-quality ports of a couple manic shmups to PS2 (Dodonpachi Dai Ou Jou, Esp. Galuda). They've also done many games with Clamp licences, such as Card Captor Sakura or Tsubasa Chronicles.

Ichiro Mihara… ?

Ichiro Mihara... Uhh, not this one, sorry

The vice president of Arika, and also the designer behind TGM, is Ichiro Mihara. A Capcom veteran (he worked on the original Megaman), he is a diehard perfectionist. For example, he did not hesitate to cancel the PS2 port of Ketsui (another Cave shmup) when it did not meet his expectations in arcade accuracy.

Street Fighter Ex

Street Fighter Ex
DoDonPachi Dai Ou Jou

DoDonPachi Dai Ou Jou
Esp Galuda

Esp Galuda
Tsubasa Chronicles DS

Street Fighter Ex, DoDonPachi Dai Ou Jou, Esp Galuda, Tsubasa Chronicles DS

For the rest of the story, I'll give the floor to Needle, a member of the TetrisConcept forum and a veritable fountain of TGM knowledge (reading Japanese, Mihara's Blog, and 2chan certainly helps with that).

Back in the late nineties, there was a popular TV variety show called Gotsu Eé Kanji, in which the show hosts occasionally played Tetris against each other on air. Arika was originally internally developing a versus-oriented home console game inspired by that show, with lots of items, PaRappa the Rapper-like characters, and bells & whistles. When they talked with the show's hosts however, they stated that they'd like more of a vanilla game since the beauty of the game lies in its simplicity. In the end, the show folded without Arika's game materializing.
About half an year later, there was some incident that irked Mihara (specifics are not mentioned), which made him decide to develop a game for the arcades. The "simplicity" quote by the TV show host still stuck with him, which influenced his design of the overall game, while the versus parts were carried over from the unreleased console game.

Even if Needle seems to suggest that TGM was born from a TV Show, one musn't forget that TGM was heavely influenced by previous Tetris, notably those developped by Sega (their own Tetris, Flashpoint, Bloxeed) and a fan game ("Shimizu Tetris", a pretty obscure clone for X68000 that for the first time featured a 20G like gameplay). But the original impulse still comes from a television show, a certain culture of players and the mantra of "simplicity".

From it's game show roots it took... umm... nothing. Bad example, sorry. Perhaps the jingles ? From its player culture it took the spirit of competition. And from the mantra of simplicity, well... Tetris has a pure and simple premise. All Mihara did was add a few subtle changes to the basic game. And like the game of Go, it is possible for simple rules to give birth to complex and deep gameplay.
Jeu de Go

A game of Go

Easy to learn, hard to master

Let us review the progression of a game of "normal" Tetris, such as on the Game Boy, for example. It happens like this: the player receives a piece (tetromino, tetramino, piece, mino, @#*$& piece, noooo not that one, etc...) which he must place in the game space in such a way that he fills lines.
When a line is completely filled with blocks, it clears.
As you clear more and more lines, the pieces start falling faster.
Here comes a distinction with TGM: in Game Boy Tetris, for example, the maximum speed is fixed at 1 unit every every 20th of a second (aka once unit every 3 frames, with the Game Boy screen running at a refresh rate of approximately 60Hz). In TGM, the pieces never stop falling faster and faster. Put another way, the gravity increases until piece begin to fall instantly (20 units each frame). And this, it changes everything.

Chute Tetris Game Boy Chute TGM
Why? Because this gravity significantly constrains the player's piece placement options, radically changing the way pieces are stacked. It takes more than to simply avoid making holes. You must maintain a vaguely pyramid like shape so that pieces can flow to the sides of the screen. In fact, everything is tuned for high speed play.

This is how it's all dressed up: the stack of placed pieces is darker than the active piece. A white line contours the shape of your stack to provide a good impression of its structure. A unique sound is tied to each of the 7 pieces and is played in advance so that you know what is coming next. Similarly, each piece has its own colour. It might seem like small details, but these features add up to allowing the player to know the state of the game in the blink of an eye.

The gameplay also has features dedicated to facilitating high speed play. After a piece is placed, there is a brief pause before it locks in place. This is essential at high speed, for without this pieces would lock on top of each other rapidly before you have time to do anything with them. Not cool.
Another new element is the IRS (Initial Rotation System). It allows you to pre-rotate pieces before they enter the screen. It might seem like this is useless or nearly useless. But at high speed, it it indispensible. These pictures will explain it better than words ever could:

Utilisation de l’IRS Utilisation de l’IRS 1 Utilisation de l’IRS 2

The first animation is a simple demontration of how IRS works. In the second animation, the player wants to place his piece to the left. Not quite up to the challenge, the "member" of the piece blocks the way putting him in an embarrassing situation. In the third, the player has properly handled the beast, and now it glides over and into the hole perfectly. (any dubious interpretation of the preceding passage is entirely your imagination :D).
Aside from these gameplay additions, certain existing elements had to be changed for high speed play.

Notably, the piece randomizer. Theoretically speaking, each Tetris piece is given out completely at random. This is all well and good, but it permits the existence of "the sequence of doom" (<insert evil laugh here>). What is this? Simply put, it's a streak of S and Z pieces, without others. It's a sequence that forces the player to lose. Well, in practice, you rarely get this exact scenario. But the point still stands: it's really shitty when you get too many of the same piece in a row. To prevent this problem, you need a good piece generator. In a nutshell, here's how TGM's works. We don't truly know if really works like this, but statistically, it gives a similar distribution of pieces (yes, people have done statistical analysis on this... says something about the passion of the players eh? :D ).

  1. The randomizer maintains a history of the 4 most recent given pieces.
  2. Every time it needs to generate a piece, it will impartially choose one of the 7 pieces.
  3. The randomizer checks if this chosen piece is found in the history. If it isn't, this piece is given. If it is, it picks one of the 7 pieces randomly again. If after a certain number of attempts (4 for TGM, 6 for its sequels), it still does not succeed at finding a piece outside the history, it settles for this recently given piece.

The advantage of this generator is that by and large you get an even distribution of pieces. Put another way, the player never feels cheated by the machine (by repeatedly providing the same unwanted pieces), but is still surprised by the unpredictable piece sequence.

The second point I want to discuss is the rotation system of the pieces. Have you ever asked yourself how a Tetris piece rotates? Well, in reality, the term "rotation system" encompasses other gameplay elements as well. It would perhaps be best to rephrase the question as "how can the player interact with the pieces"... but the previous term is sexier so I'll keep it.

The rotations themselves are not that important, it's what's around the pieces at the time that is. What happens when a piece, up against a wall, is rotated? An elegant general solution to this problem is wallkicks. Here, I'll demonstrate it with pictures:

Wallkick ? Wallkick ? Wallkick !

The first picture depicts a piece up against the wall (though it could just as well have been blocked by other pieces). The second picture shows how the piece wants to rotate. Certainly, having a piece encassed in the wall is not what the player wants to happen here. One solution would be to simply make rotation impossible in this scenario, but this would limit the game too much. The solution TGM adopts is shown in the third picture: the piece is simply rotated as it wants, but one space to the right. If one space to the right still overlaps another piece, TGM would then try to place it one space to the left.

Failing all 3 of those options, then it would simply fail to rotate (lest things get ridiculous >_<).

Système de rotation TGM

TGM's rotation system has plenty of restrictions, without being overly restricting. Err, well, that sounds like an oxymoron. But it's true! Certain restrictions on rotation prevent the player from placing pieces wherever he likes (especially in 20G), which forces the player to not overthink things.

TGM is a game that is nervous, fast paced, and completely dedicated to the talent of the player. Mihara focused on the quintessential essence of Tetris (placing pieces correctly) and through his game, challenged players to new heights. This is why the game is limited to fewer than 999 pieces, and timed: at this level of skill, survival is assumed. The real task is to prove your talent through more tetrises and a faster time to 999. This aspect of competition is emphasized wih a grading sytem (9 to 1, then S1 to S9, then finally Gm) which permits a general way of classifying the player skill.

Even if it's a game that favours a certain type of elite super human that can surpass 88 miles per hour, it doesn't exclude the rest of us: it's still just Tetris! You don't need to be a beast to enjoy playing the game, and without great difficulty a novice can discover the subtleties of the game for himself (though obviously, at 100 Yen a pop, it's a little different than 1 or 2 Euros per game).

Appendix : Henk and Ichiro

Since the expiration of the original Tetris contracts in 1996, The Tetris Company (TTC), founded by Henk Rogers, has since aquired complete rights to the game. Every game bearing the Tetris name must be approved by the company. Everything is standardized in a confidential document (revised periodically) which is called the Tetris Guidelines.

TTC's vision of Tetris is quite a bit different than that of Mihara's. Whereas Mihara approached the game methodically and polished the gameplay to satisfy hardcore gamers, TTC likes to keep things aimed squarely at casual players, with "cool" features of dubious lasting appeal.

To illustrate things more clearly, I will take the most striking difference from TGM: le feature of Infinity. Recall above the dilemma of high speed play: if there isn't a brief delay before locking when a piece is placed, high speed play becomes impossible. Well. In TGM, this "locking delay" resets every time the piece drops lower. In games strictly following TTC's rules, this delay is reset by any movement or rotation. Combined with different wallkick rules that allow rotation in almost any circumstance, you can effectively place pieces as slowly as you want at all times, regardless of the gravity.

Comportement de verrouillage TGM Comportement de verrouillage SRS

Rogers defends himself by saying that abusing this feature will simply waste time that a skillful player could put to better use. And in multiplayer games, this is absolutely true: Tetris DS's online mode is a killer experience (to be avoided during exam time). The problem is that the single player modes aren't penalizing the player for wasting time, which in turn makes them a waste of time. To take another example from Tetris DS, any player can reach 99,999,999 if they have the patience. No talent is required.
99'999'999

So. Mihara and TTC have very different visions of Tetris. The frustrating thing is this: as time goes on the Tetris Guidelines are becoming more restrictive. The early rules were no doubt more reasonable (stuff like "the game area must be 10 by 20 blocks, plus 2 invisible spaces where the pieces spawn"), but the rules have gradually expanded to the point where they are chocking the TGM series to death. The current rules make TTC's rotation rules and infinity feature mandatory (the official name for that is SRS, or Super Rotation System... oh the irony). It has neutered TGM's high speed challenge. TGM has lost its balls.

For a little more history, the guidelines first started affecting the series with TGM3 (2005). But at that time it was only mandatory for games to include SRS, not focus on it. TGM3 worked around this by letting the player choose between TGM and SRS rotation systems, the latter of which is much less popular among players. In contrast, by the time TGM ACE was released, Mihara was forced to only include TGM rotation later with a Xbox Live update, and even then it was missing many of the features players had come to expect from the classic rotation system. As a result of this, player largely kept to TGM3 and even made their own game. Which brings me to my next appendix.

Appendix : Sega's influence

Shortly before the release of this article, colour_thief made me notice that Sega had a great influence on TGM's development. Here's what he wrote.

[...]

My only major criticism is that Sega Tetris gets only mentioned in passing. It's a Tetris (predating GB Tetris) that introduced lock time and ARE [ARE is the period of time between the lockdown of one tetromino and the appearance of the next one]. This allowed the gravity to get really fast and the pieces to scrape the bottom just like TGM. More than that, it also featured a slow-fast-slow-fast gravity curve that is similar to Master Mode [in Master Mode, the gravity resets at level 200] and unlike other games. Arcade players were hooked to this flavour of Tetris, continuing to prefer the Sega style even after the release of the Game Boy and other versions.

They'd play to max out the score... the lines... everything. And when they had completely conquered the game like this, they started making unofficial challenges. The '>' secret grade challenge from TGM [see that video] actually comes from this Sega Tetris culture: Players tried to build that shape as a training challenge. Is that not awesome? The game failed to measure their skill improvement (max score/lines is always just max score/lines) and yet they continued on, addicted and devoted to improving their tetris skills. Shimizu Tetris is a clone for X68000 that was released around that time period and culture of players. It's customizability made it possible to take the tetris concept to unexplored extremes. Popular settings were 20G, and also a screen width of 4. Reducing the screen width to 4 gives you a game very similar to Big Mode in TGM. Mihara has explicitly stated he took 20G from Shimizu Tetris, so it's likely that it inspired Big Mode as well. TGM VS, even if is was originally developed for a game show, uses mechanics that were established in Bloxeed. The PSX Sakura game and Sakura mode in TGM3 are modern takes of the Flashpoint concept. Truly, the debt to Sega Tetris games and culture is huge.

Appendix : fan games

Heboris

One must never underestimate the internet, especially the super-active 2ch community, one of the most popular Japanese forums. The most pimped up clone is Heboris. It started as a solo project to clone TGM2. It is written in YGS2000 (YaneuraoGameScript 2000), an easily moddable environment (you could load the script up in Notepad, if you liked). So over time the 2ch community shared modifications adding new features to the game. Currently, it is possible to simulate TGM2, TGM3, TGM ACE, DTET (another unofficial, but popular Tetris game), and Tetris DS with a high degree of accuracy, and more features are always being added. The only problem with this game is that it's a little tricky to set up. You must first download the old official Heboris, and then apply the latest unofficial patch on it.

Heboris

Lockjaw

Lockjaw is developped by Damian « tepples » Yerrick, another member of TetrisConcept and a longtime participant in the homebrew scene. Whereas Heboris aims to clone popular games, Lockjaw's apeal comes from it's unique game modes and especially its ridiculous customizability. It is, in fact, an excellent tool for training under a diverse range of conditions. Though, without a nice skin, it's quite... austere. If Lockjaw would be an audio player, it would surely be foobar2000...

Conclusion

Here we are at the end of the article. I will conclude with these words: More than a "simple Tetris", the TGM series is a brilliant example of the importance of gameplay in a videogame. Even if a game's basic concept is good, adding new elements can either make it boring (the infinity behaviour) or, on the other hand, raise it to new heights (20G gameplay). It is surprising that TTC hasn't yet developed a serious, competitive Tetris, because the concept has huge potential. Granted, there's TGM for single player competition and Tetris DS for multiplayer competition. But the first one is distributed only in Japan while the second one lacks a proper infrastructure. My dream: that Tetris becomes an electronic sport, commanding the same respect as Street Fighter, Starcraft or Counter-Strike ! :)

The series developed a devoted following in Japan. Just look at all the players who bore a "TGM-" tag in their name after Tetris DS was released or, more simply, how precise and thorough the Heboris Unofficial Expansion is now. For the Western world, the gathering point is Tetrisconcept (you don't mind if I make a little plug, do you ? :D) which was created by caffeine et kept alive by a bunch of heavily intoxicated tetriholic (myself included, hehe :) ). Do not hesitate to ask them any questions that come to mind !

I hope my little presentation helped you discover a new side of Tetris (a little more than "that game with blocks that fall") and, perhaps, even gave you an urge to try a competitive Tetris game. Or at least, the urge to dust off your old Game Boy ;) .

GM !

PetitPrince

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