Tetris' killer feature

Game: Tetris
Year: 1984
Format: Various

A swift tap, a firm hold – an impatient rat-a-tat – however you use it, there’s always an immediate impact. Sometimes it’s what you want; other times it drags things out of your control and brings about a swift demise. Whatever the case may be, the fact remains: pressing down in Tetris is playing with fire.

Stripped of this particular Killer Feature, Pajitnov’s legendary puzzle game would be a more sedate, less risky game. It would plod along, with tetrominoes dropping as they see fit, simply shunted right or left by the player in the hopes of dropping that straight block in the straight block-shaped hole they’d made.

It would still be good, of course – there’s an absolute purity of design about Tetris that would make it gaming royalty even without one specific mechanic being present. But the fact you can harness the Power Of Down as you see fit lifts the entire game up into the realms of gaming deities.

At first glance it seems to just be a way to speed things up – you’ve got a good thing going, you’re lined up fine, might as well hold down to expedite this whole line-eliminating process. But it’s when the pressure’s on and the temptation to hurry things up rears its head again that the Cult Of Down really has its impact.

You see, it’s easy – some might say intentionally so – to hold down a bit too long in Tetris, causing the next block to fall what can be a key few lines too far. Suddenly it can’t be placed where you wanted it to go, and the pressure ratchets up to as-yet-unseen levels. By hurrying things along, you’ve placed yourself in mortal (well, mortal-Tetris) danger.

And from there the whole thing snowballs. As the shift in mood hits and the veneer of calm blows away, mild panic starts to form. You over-drop one tetromino, then to try and make up for this mistake you take your time lining up the next, before holding down again to drop it in place. But your concentration has taken a hit, and you haven’t quite lined it up properly.

Too late: the Might Of Down has made it so you can’t get those three lines below until you clear out this misplaced couple of lines above. And it just gets worse, all because you wanted to speed up the game of dropping some blocks onto some other blocks to make some lines.

A puzzle game from 1984 made by a Soviet computer engineer, which can be played on a scientific calculator, can make you sweat bullets just by pressing down. Video games are truly special things.

It’s one of those features that feels so utterly natural – so correct and immediately perfect – that you hardly realise it’s even there. At the same time, if you couldn’t alter a tetromino’s speed by pressing (and releasing) down, Tetris wouldn’t be half the game it is. It is pure, mechanical perfection and the absolute gold standard of a Killer Feature.

This feature first appeared in Wireframe magazine Issue 4. Curious to read more 'Killer Feature' stories? Become a Wireframe subscriber.

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