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Tetris is considered by many one of the greatest games of all time. But Tetris: The Grand Master 3 isn’t your grandpappy’s game. It’s a challenge in timing, precision, and skill. It’s a professional’s Tetris. Anyone can play it, but it was created as a game to challenge the best players in the world. And it’s totally insane.
It has the same basic gameplay: there are still only seven pieces, you still have to keep them from stacking up to the top by rotating them around and dropping them to form lines. But the rules are subtly different, enough so that it lets the best players shine. Watching people play Tetris: The Grand Master 3 (TGM3) is like watching a professional cook. Everyone might have the stuff in their pantry, but only someone who knows how to use the pieces is capable of bringing out the best.
“I’ve always enjoyed playing Tetris,” said Alex Kerr, one of the professionals who showcased the TGM3 at one of Awesome Games Done Quick’s speedruning charity marathons last year. “I’ve been playing various versions off-and-on ever since I received a GameBoy for Christmas when I was 3 years old.”
Zachary Amador, one of the other people showcasing TGM3, also had a similar introduction to Tetris, except his was with the 2006 game Tetris DS. After that came Tetris Plus for the original Game Boy, “a much older and simpler game which shares its roots with the Tetris: The Grand Master series,” Amador said.
The difference between standard Tetris and Tetris: The Grand Master boil down to a few things. The first is how TGM handles rotation of the pieces, which are known as “tetrominoes.” The Tetris Company’s Tetris games use a standard rotation system called the Super Rotation System (SRS), a system in which some blocks “wobble,” making them harder to line up. But Tetris: The Grand Master 3 doesn’t use the Super Rotation System in its more popular modes. The TGM series rotates the pieces in such a way as to avoid wobble and make them easier to line up at fast speeds. This may not seem like a big deal, but it helps with consistent gameplay.
“Something that really drew me to [TGM] is that the rules are actually very simple and easy to predict, but out of those simple rules emerge many interesting tricks and strategies,” Amador said. “This is in stark contrast with the rotation system that all modern ‘guideline’ games use, which has such complicated rules that it’s nearly impossible to remember what will happen in every situation.”
This rotation scheme is one of the things that helps players play as quickly as possible—which is something you must do to get the best grade in the game.
“I don’t know what I’d say the hardest part of learning to play TGM quickly is,” said Kerr. “The same methods that help you place pieces quickly and efficiently at low speeds also end up being the ones that let you handle the mid/high gravity sections safely.”
After a certain threshold in the game, the pieces begin dropping to the bottom of the board instantaneously. In TGM lingo this is called 20G, where G is gravity. 1G means the piece moves downward at a speed of one line per frame, while at 20G they drop too quickly for most people to even keep track of.
“The hardest part about learning to play competitively was consciously focusing on improvement,” Amador said. “High-level TGM play requires you to make placement decisions very quickly, and the impact of those decisions on your survival and score are often subtle. It took years of experience to be able to make good stacking decisions while playing as quickly as possible.”
It’s pretty easy to see why it would be hard to practice a game that expects you to make near-instant decisions, yet some people can do that and excel.
"Learning how to handle [maximum gravity] at all is half of the challenge in and of itself. You need to understand the restrictions it imposes on mobility so you can keep your options open.” said Kerr. “In that sense, I suppose most of the challenge comes from learning how to play the game at all. It requires you to be able to handle the restrictions of instant drop speeds in order to complete the game, and you’re inherently expected to…moderately push the pace to get the [best rank in the game]. Beyond that, it’s optimization: push yourself to make good decisions faster, use the fewest inputs possible to move each piece, make those inputs as quickly and cleanly as possible, etc.”
ONE STEP AT A TIME
TGM3 ranks your gameplay based on how fast you are progressing, making sure you are clearing lines quickly enough, and making sure you’re improving over yourself. The best rank in the game is called Grand Master, and the qualifications to get it are menacing. Each game in TGM3 is broken down into sections, and each section into 100 individual “levels.” The level counter goes up by one every time you place a piece on the board or clear a line. When you clear a line at the very end of a section, you advance to the next, more difficult section. Players aim for “Tetrises,” which is where you clear four lines at a time. The game is also timing you—at first you have about 50 seconds to reach level 70, and less time with each passing section. You also have six minutes to drop the first 500 pieces, and maximum nine and a half total minutes to drop all 999 pieces.
Then the credits start to roll, but they’re not mere credits: they’re the hardest level. The credit roll is undoubtedly one of the most impressive feats to watch a player succeed at, because the tetrominoes that fall become invisible after they’re placed on the game board.
“For me,” said Amador, “practicing the invisible credits mostly came down to trying it a lot. I would regularly practice it for about 30 minutes a day (about 30-35 attempts) until it started to click.”
According to Amador, it isn’t really that hard, just visually disruptive. “Playing quickly requires you to keep an image in your head of the general shape of the stack already, so invisible just involves taking away the visual reinforcement,” he said. “Most players, myself included, only remember the shape of the top surface of the stack, so really you’re only recalling the relative height of 10 columns, which isn’t so bad.”
Yeah, not so bad.
During the invisible credit roll, you are also being graded. To get the Grand Master rating, you have to clear a certain number of lines while the pieces are invisible. Then after that, you have to do all of the above in four out of seven consecutive games. Fail to do any of the above, and becoming a Grand Master is unachievable. Yes, becoming a Grand Master is hard (there are only a handful in the world after all).
ONE LAST TRICK
These Tetris players have a few other tricks up their sleeve as well, if all that wasn’t enough. In older versions of Tetris, players eventually took the game to its score limit. After that, the hardcore Tetris community agreed on a different set of rules. One of these makes an appearance in TGM3 as a Secret Grade, something you can only achieve if you already know what to do.
The task is to create various zig-zag patterns from the bottom of the game board to the top. “It’s the same as how you see shoot ‘em up players or speed-runners doing one-handed challenges or playing without this mechanic or that,” said Kerr, who showcased the zig-zag pattern at AGDQ.
“Getting started on it doesn’t take too long, but optimizing enough to finish the whole thing is another story,” said Kerr. “The ending is particularly brutal because of how little space and thinking time you have to work with at the top; unlike other recent Tetris games, the pieces appear in the top two visible rows of the playfield instead of above it, so everything has to work out perfectly for you to have a shot. For me, it took about nine months to first achieve a proper completion.”
So you could say completion is based on the luck of what pieces fall. Or you could say it’s skill on knowing what pieces to use where and when.
To watch all of these accomplishments at 2015’s AGDQ, watch here:
Skip to 1:03 to watch Kevin Birrell (who goes by kevinddr) accomplish one of the few games to get a GM rank. He’s just the sixth person in the world to accomplish this, and the first person outside Japan. This is also nine years after the game’s release. This is truly some of the highest level Tetris play a person is capable of. For the initiated, skip ahead to 1:17 to watch kevinddr attempt Shirase Mode, which is even faster than Master Mode.
To watch Alex Kerr attempt the zig-zag pattern, skip to 59:30.
Marcus Moritz lives in Colorado writing about video games and drinking beer. Follow him on twitter at @pralitemonks for more of both.
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This article was edited to correct several factual errors and typos.