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How Tetris Translates in a Touchscreen World

The issue developers of classic video games have in translating to a touch interface is that, sometimes, the exact things that made the original game…

“...[G]etting into the glazed eye zone where you are almost one with the game is difficult, if not impossible.”  - Noah Davis on One-Touch Tetris

On Tuesday, The Verge published a splendidly-designed feature on the development of Tetris through the ages, and it really made us think about the future of the world’s most popular vintage game.  How do you change a game originally made for a seven-button system to be compatible with new platforms? Say, Facebook, or even more mind-bogglingly, a touchscreen device?

The issue developers of classic video games have in translating to a touch interface is that, sometimes, the exact things that made the original game so addicting are absent. Just ask Atari founder and creator of Pong, Nolan Bushnell, who explained in an interview with TUAW: “It turns out that Pong is massively fun if you have basically instantaneous response to a knob. A knob specifically. And the reason for it is that small muscle coordination is much better than large muscle coordination. And it turns out when you're on an iPad, it's not the same doing this [swiping across the screen] as doing this [turning a knob]. You get a much finer level of precision and play.”

So how do you adapt a game whose basic appeal lies in the hard plastic of knobs and buttons? The key lies in distilling the essence of what makes the game click and translating it for a different interface. But is that possible for a game like Tetris? In its classic version, Tetris is a game of both genius simplicity and a nearly endless spectrum of difficulty. That is, it’s well-suited for both the casual player who obtains pleasure from clearing a line or two as well as the hardcore gamer (Grand Master, if you will) who focuses on strategy and dexterity.

In its touchscreen reincarnation, though, certain critical features are lost. EA has released Tetris for both iOS and Android, but so far the reviews have been mixed. Users say the one-touch doesn’t have the same challenge level that the original did, due to the fact that the touchscreen version’s AI basically maps out the possible placements for you, taking strategy almost entirely out of the game and basically leaving speed as the only distinguishing factor. Davis holds that “while one-touch Tetris shares some DNA with the original, it’s an entirely different species.” He may be right.

Do you adapt and change with the times, or do you stick with the formula and get overlooked in an increasingly mobile-driven gaming world? The thing is, it’s inevitable that key features can get lost in the overhaul, but it’s also true that some games are actually better suited for a touchscreen than their original interface, like point-and-click Grim Fandango or first-person shooter Metroid Prime. The possibilities are almost endless, which is either liberating or overwhelming depending on how you look at it.

In my opinion, the key lies in keeping it simple and staying true to the original game. Yeah, it’s nice that you can pinch and rotate the screen on an iPhone, but sometimes we just want to play a simple game of Tetris.

(Image Sources: Tetris, Electronic Arts, The Daily)

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