Sliding Under the Iron Curtain

by Gregory Gay

There’s this great little used book/game/movie/whatever store near the transit hub where I catch a bus to work most mornings, and I tend to spend a few minutes poking through their aisles once a week or so. Their game selection is generally iffy at best, but today there was a huge exception. Somebody had sold off a huge collection of boxed NES games, and among the titles was one that I’ve had my eye on for some time – Tengen’s unlicensed version of Tetris.

My Tetris obsession has been well-documented on the internet, but somehow, I’ve never actually played Tengen Tetris – a version widely regarded as one of the greatest puzzle games of all time. I suppose I could have eBayed the thing at any time, but I guess I was just a bit wary of spending fifty or sixty bucks on yet another copy of Tetris.

A pristine, boxed copy right in front of my face was, however, pretty irresistible. Actually, I’m glad that it wasn’t just the cartridge, because the text on the back of the box is kind of fun.

I just love that blurb of text! It’s so much better than the dry copy plastered on most games these days. That ten hands/ten brains thing is actually pretty clever!

Tetris has always been wrapped in a blanket of Soviet mystique, but this version positively drips with it. The resulting box text is not only fun to read, but it’s actually fairly interesting in a historical sense. I really love the apple pie détente crack. Even for those of us alive back in the late 80′s, it’s easy to forget that the Soviet Union was still a thing at the time.

These days, people speak of the Cold War as though it were ancient history, but 1989 was an exciting time. Tengen’s version of Tetris came out in April of that year, just a few months before the fall of the Berlin Wall. After decades of animosity, the USSR was finally opening up and lifting the iron curtain between their empire and their capitalist neighbors. And, in the middle of it all, was Tetris – the first Soviet-developed video game to make it into the western world.

Tengen’s Tetris actually has a pretty interesting history. Tengen emerged from the split between Atari’s home and arcade divisions in the mid-80′s. The former arcade division of Atari, now known as Atari Games, wanted to get into the lucrative NES business, but they were unable to use their existing name in the console market (the other half of Atari, now styled Atari Corporation, retained the exclusive rights to that name for any home releases). Thus, the publisher took on a new name, Tengen – a name also drawn from the game Go (“tengen” refers to the central point of the Go board, while “atari” is the rough Go equivalent of calling out “check” in a Chess game).

Tengen began to secure publishing deals with companies like Namco and Sunsoft, while porting over their own arcade releases. At the time, Nintendo maintained pretty restrictive controls on cartridge manufacturing, including a limit on the number of games one company could release in a single year (Konami famously worked around this restriction by creating a new subsidiary, doubling their number of allowed releases). After failing to convince Nintendo to relax their terms, Tengen began to work on reverse-engineering the chip that the NES used to block unauthorized games.

This wasn’t exactly an easy task. A few developers managed to work around the copy-protection chip by releasing a voltage surge into the NES, but Nintendo frequently modified their own designs to keep one step ahead of these crude hacks. Instead of relying on potentially unsafe electric shocks, Tengen’s engineers attempted to actually crack the code on the chip itself, but were unable to do so before the scheduled launch date of their first game. At the last minute, Tengen’s lawyers went to the United States copyright office and requested a copy of Nintendo’s security code, under the pretense that they were planning to issue an antitrust lawsuit. Their ruse worked, and Tengen was able to start shipping their unlicensed games (which they put out on black cartridges that looked very different from your standard gray Nintendo brick).

Tengen’s victory was temporary, and their circumvention of Nintendo’s lock-out chip would ultimately result in years of litigation. The legal headaches that resulted from their attempt to get around Nintendo’s licensing terms were probably enough on their own to make a few of their higher-ups despair, but these worries were nothing compared to what would come up with their version of Tetris.

After seeing Alexey Pajitnov and Vadim Gerasimov’s new puzzle game running on an Atari ST computer, Atari Games programmer Ed Logg (co-creator of Asteroids) decided to convince his bosses to license the title. A few months later, Logg and Atari Games released their version of Tetris in an arcade cabinet, and immediately began to port the game to the NES. It turns out that, at the same time, Nintendo was also seeking the rights to release their own versions of Tetris for the Game Boy and the NES.

The chain of legality surrounding the various versions of Tetris is quite convoluted – and quite an interesting topic – but the basic truth of the matter is that Tengen were not in the clear to manufacture an NES version of the game. Tengen’s contract was secured through a company named Mirrorsoft, which had negotiated release rights directly through Pajitnov. What they didn’t quite understand was that Pajitnov actually had no say in the matter. At the time, all of the Tetris creator’s work was the property of the Soviet Union. The USSR’s Ministry of Software and Hardware Export ruled that Atari Games only had the rights to an arcade release of Tetris, and that no company actually had the rights to put out a console version of the game. Tengen missed their 48 hour window to respond to the ruling, and the home console rights were sold to Nintendo.

Tengen sued Nintendo, challenging the company’s rights to the Tetris license. Nintendo counter-sued, citing trademark infringement. After a few months of back-and-forth – and about a month after the release of Tengen’s version of Tetris – the district judge assigned to the case ordered that all unsold units be recalled and destroyed (adding up to nearly 268,000 cartridges). At the time, Tengen had only sold between 50 and 100,000 copies of the game.

So, how is the game itself?

Well, first impressions are pretty good. This actually might live up to the years of hype. For starters, it’s damn hard at the highest speed levels. I don’t mean hard in comparison to modern Tetris, where games can easily be kept going indefinitely. I mean hard in comparison to the king of Tetris – the original Game Boy version.

When I started the game, I went ahead and selected level 9, with no handicap. Almost immediately, I lost. After a couple more rounds, I got the hang of it, but still – Tengen’s version of Tetris can be fantastically tough (though, at the same time, the lower speed levels are actually quite gentle – Logg implemented a logarithmic curve to the speed levels). At the higher levels, the game is absolutely exhilarating, maddening.. and I just need to get in one more round…

Ok, back. Where were we?

Right, Tengen Tetris. So, one of the things that immediately sets this version of Tetris apart from Nintendo’s own release is the sheer number of gameplay modes. This game is, first and foremost, focused on the multiplayer experience. Even when playing in single-player, you only use half of the screen (if there is no second player, the right-half of the screen displays a set of statistics on the blocks you’ve received).

In addition to the standard competitive matches, there is also a cooperative option. In this mode, two blocks fall at once, and each player works to position one of them. I haven’t gotten to try it out yet, but I can see this version of the game being both amazingly fun and frustrating all at once (sort of like that Katamari Damacy mode where each player controls half of the movement).

Oh, and if you don’t have a second controller plugged in, the game still lets you select the co-op option. With one player, the co-op matches are essentially a harder version of the normal Tetris game. Without input from the second player, half of the falling pieces just keep piling up in the middle of the playing field. Playing this way is actually kind of neat if you’re looking for a bit of bonus challenge in the game, even if it’s not quite what the developers envisioned.

Tengen Tetris also includes a fairly unique feature for the series – versions of the competitive and cooperative modes where you face off against a computer-controlled player. The AI isn’t amazingly sophisticated, so while it is kind of fun to play against the computer, you’re pretty likely to win by a large margin (though, if you do lose, the game cruelly forces you to watch while the AI continues to play).

More interesting is the AI-based cooperative mode, which I’m not entirely convinced isn’t a second competitive mode. The computer may be trying to help me, but I just can’t shake the feeling that it’s out to get me. Actually, as a result of the computer’s baffling behavior, this mode ends up being one of the coolest, most challenging variants of Tetris out there. You don’t just maneuver pieces into place, you also have to watch out for the pieces that the CPU is flinging all over the place.

I’ve played a million versions of Tetris, across just about as many devices, and Tengen’s release is absolutely one of the best. I don’t know why I didn’t just grab the thing off of eBay years ago. If you’re as hopelessly addicted to Tetris as I am (and have an NES), this game is pretty essential.

That said, I still have give the nod to the original Game Boy Tetris as my favorite. Playing Tetris on a handheld is really the best way to play, and while the music in Tengen Tetris is acceptable, it just isn’t the same experience without the 8-bit bleeps of Korobeiniki blaring from those tiny speakers.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a few more blocks to wrangle.

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