If a title really deserves to be called a cult game, then Tetris should be pointed out without hesitation. Together with dozens of official versions, hundreds of ports and – without exaggeration – thousands of more or less successful copies, it is one of the most popular games in the history of the electronic entertainment industry.
And although the fashion for Tetris returns, this production is still waiting for its “Queen’s Gambit”, which brought chess back into the mainstream. We have already devoted a whole large article to the phenomenon of Tetris, and I encourage you to read it. Meanwhile, Time announced the title as the most important game of all time.
Screen of death and out of memory
The Tetris community continues to develop and still breaks new records, and people with ever better reflexes and – which is very important in the case of this title – repeatability of amazing results appear at the world championships. Many people know how to play Tetris, even more simply know it, but not that many people ask themselves – does Tetris have an end at all.
Mario Bros. game over
Classic productions, especially those whose entire volume had to fit on not very capacious floppy disks, had to have a limited number of levels. Some games, such as Mario or Tetris, can be simply completed, whether by ending the story, killing the last boss, or simply by defeating the complete fan of boards prepared by the developers.
However, there are productions where the end is not foreseen as such, and the next boards are generated until the memory limit is reached. Even if they would loop over time, the total number of levels in some games is limited to values written in 8 bits (from 0 to 255).
The screen of death from Pac-Man
This is e.g. in the case of Pac-Man where level 256 only starts halfway due to lack of memory. And although reaching this level is an extremely difficult and arduous challenge, it is physically possible and some players saw the 256th level of Pac-Man.
Tetris is too fast
The issue of games is a bit different, as they also have – theoretically – unlimited and circularly generated boards, but their level of difficulty increases, for example, by changing the pace of the game. This is the case with Tetris, where the tetronimo blocks fall down the board with increasing speed while playing. Until their laying becomes practically impossible.
For the first time, the “screen of death” in Tetris was considered to be level 29. The reason was simple and mathematically explainable. Each subsequent element starts at the top of the board in the center of the screen. To move it to the left or right edge, you need to make the appropriate number of moves. The problem on the 29th level is that even while holding down the directional button, it will still fall faster to the bottom of the board than it will touch either side of the board. This means that by playing this way, we will not fill the entire line with blocks, because the extreme fragments will remain empty.
Tetris level selection screen
However, there is a way to press buttons faster than the game does. By holding the button constantly, the controller sends regular signals to the console at a specified interval. However, if we manage to press, release and press the button faster than that – the console will make two movements in a shorter time. One such technique is “hyper-taping” (translates to “hyper-tapping”). In practice, we have to make the controller vibrate so that it hits our finger or any part of the hand as quickly as possible.
In this way, some players managed to get through the “screen of death” on level 29 and move on.
How far? A few levels and then the problem returns – a human being unable to press buttons that fast.
The machine “goes through” Tetris
Wherever a man cannot, there he will send a machine. For years, speedrunners, i.e. players competing in the fastest way to play games, create programs and machines whose goal is to perform programmed movements in the most optimal time. Not to replace a human, or to cheat, but to see what paths are possible in a given game and where the real limit is – not the human, but the software itself.
This type of gameplay with the use of external software is called “tool-assisted runs”, so “tool-assisted runs”. Thanks to this, players can see how far in a given game you can go, if a button were pressed hundreds of times per second. Such an attempt was made in 2021 by Greg Cannon, who programmed an artificial intelligence algorithm to perfectly play the NES version of Tetris.
The program called StackRabbit easily dealt with both levels 29 and 30, 31, 32, 33 … up to the level of 237, or more precisely – because this is the limit – to the limit of 102 million points, much further than you can imagine with human skills. A recording of this test can be seen below:
Let’s explain what you can see on it. First, you can see unprecedented color variants of the next boards. Tetris generates new colors for the next speed levels according to the programmed key. However, from level 139 onwards, this key instructs you to read data outside of the intended color values. Therefore, the game misinterprets other values as colors and on their basis generates colors that the creators did not anticipate. This leads to a situation where on the 148th level of the above gameplay we observe almost completely black and blending with the background of the tetronym, and on the 171st we experience the unusual, completely green color of the blocks.
Where is all this leading? I mentioned earlier that the limit is 237, but this is not the limit here. It’s all about the score counter. From 20 mins and 40 secs of Greg Cannon’s material, in the lower right corner you can see the memory resource from which the characters for determining the size of the result are retrieved by Tetris. As the dot display has only seven characters, the value 9999999 cannot be followed by 10,000,000, because there is no room for the next symbol in front.
So Tetris decides to read the next character he sees “higher” than “9”. In this case, it is the letter “A”, followed by subsequent letters of the alphabet, then special characters, and then fragments of graphics that make up the board and the blocks themselves. At the moment when there is nothing to read – the game freezes after breaking the border of 102 million points.
At the same time, we would like to remind you that the Tech Awards 2021 plebiscite is underway, in which you choose the best smartphones, TVs, games and other new technologies. There are special prizes for voting!