Top 100 NES/Famicom Games List: #7
Arguably the most beloved console of all time, the Nintendo Entertainment System, commonly abbreviated as NES, is now well over 25 years old. With over two thousand games produced worldwide for the legendary hardware, the NES, despite it’s age, has an eternal staying power. As retro gaming continues to grow in popularity, more and more gamers flock to Nintendo’s first home console to get their gaming fix.
Welcome to the final top 10 countdown for my personal picks of the greatest games to grace the NES and Famicom. I will be posting one update per day on my march towards the number one position. This has been a long time coming, and I want to thank you, my readers, for all of your support.
Now then, as before, I am ranking every game on its overall difficulty using a simple scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is brain dead easy and 10 is….well, Battletoads. A 5 on this scale means it’s average difficulty with perhaps some challenging elements, but nothing the average gamer should get stuck on for too long.
I’m also including many links to videos and other online information sources. Links are indicated by orange words. Please open these links in a new tab/window so you don’t have to navigate away from this article.
So without further ado, here is entry #7!
From behind the iron curtain comes TETЯIS – a dynamic puzzle that seems easy enough: Rotate and flip moving geometric blocks into unbroken rows. When you completely fill up the bottom row, it disappears from the screen and your score rises. When enough rows vanish, the blocks descend faster and faster. Nothing to it, right? Wrong! When you can’t find the way to make the pieces fit together and more blocks tumble down to clog your screen, you’ll wish you had ten hands – and ten brains.
That’s right – an unlicensed game among the top 10 NES and Famicom games of all time. We all know Tetris, so I won’t spend any time explaining its concept. Instead, let me go over why this version of Tetris is not only superior to Nintendo’s own version of Tetris, but also why Tengen Tetris is quite arguably the definitive version of Tetris even to this day.
As with other releases of Tetris, there is a standard endless mode where the player can choose the starting speed and garbage handicaps. In this mode, every 25 lines you clear ups the difficulty. This mode allows the player to play the game at their own pace; at the highest difficulty with the most amount of garbage blocks, even seasoned Tetris masters will find a challenge.
More importantly though, are the other modes Tengen Tetris offers that other versions do not – multiplayer modes. First is a two-player competitive mode where players race to complete each level. This is similar to the GameBoy version, but you don’t need any special cable.
There is also a completely original co-operative mode. Here, both players drop pieces onto the same enlarged playfield the same time. This mode really changes things up, and makes for some of the most fun you’ll ever have with Tetris. What’s more, this mode can even be played with the computer. The A.I is surprisingly good and understands Tetris quite well. The only problem with this mode is that the two falling peices can’t intersect with each other, and from time to time, you’ll be in the computer’s way or vise-versa, causing mistakes. Even so, this mode is extremely fun and innovative. I can’t honestly think of any other puzzle games that try something like this.
Visually, Tengen Tetris is rather sparse, but this is Tetris – you don’t play it for the visuals. For what it’s worth, the pieces are textured to give them a bit of depth typically missing from other builds. The game doesn’t make much use of color, but again as the GameBoy would prove, you don’t need color to make a fantastic version of Tetris.
The audio in the Tengen version of Tetris was composed by Brad Fuller, who included four Russian folk songs: Loginska, Bradinsky, Karinka, and Troika. Each track is vastly different and will appeal to different moods when playing Tetris. The slow, soothing Loginska is best played after a long day at the office, and Bradinsky is best for when you only have a few minutes to play. The musical selection really accomplishes a lot considering how few tracks there are.
There are also two other, completely different builds of Tetris for the Famicom and NES. To the left is the Famicom version released by Bulletproof Software in 1987. This version predates the others, lacks multiplayer and has a very awkward control scheme. Nintendo’s build of Tetris (below) is easily the most common, but it too lacks multiplayer and many of the interesting modes that makes Tengen’s version so great.
Unfortunately, due to its troubled history (which I’ll explain below) the Tengen version of Tetris commands a hefty price and is actively sought out on the collector’s market. It’s unlicensed nature also means it will never be released on the Wii Virtual Console.
Nevertheless, if you happen across a copy, strongly consider picking it up. This is one of the best iterations of the soviet mind game ever produced.
First, special thanks to Frank Cifaldi for clearing up some misconceptions and fully flushing out the background information on Tetris. If you love retro gaming, be sure to visit his site lostlevels.org for tons of great exclusive and interesting gaming articles.
In 1984, Russian Soviet Academy of Sciences researcher Alexey Pajitnov began to design a PC puzzle game based on his favorite board game called Pentominos. Not wanting an exact copy, Pajitnov simplified Pentominos from five pieces to four, using geometric shapes composed of four squares connected at right angles called tetrominos. The object of his game was to contrast as many horizontal lines as possible. Pajitnov named his creation Tetris, a combination of the words tetrominos and tetra, the Greek word for four.
Over the next few years, the game was ported to many Russian computers and arcades and towards the end of the decade, it was one of the most sought after licenses on the Nintendo Famicom.
Robert Stein, representing Andromeda Software, approached ELORG, the Russian government established department to deal with the foreign sales of software. There he secured what he believed to be the worldwide rights of Tetris for all systems, but unbeknownst to him, he had acquired the legal rights for computer software distribution of Tetris only.
While Tetris was successful in PC markets, Stein wanted to tap into the growing home console market, and first sold the rights to Henk Rogers at Bullet Proof Software in Japan, and soon after to Atari Games’s Tengen division in the United States. BPS quickly released it’s version of Tetris in Japan where it became an overnight success thanks to how faithful it was to the PC version, despite extremely awkward controls. Meanwhile, Tengen were forced to delay their version when lead programmer Ed Logg left to work on other projects. An early prototype version of Tengen’s Tetris was shown at CES in 1988, where Nintendo also had a booth. As a result, Nintendo became aware of Tengen’s build of Tetris well before they began to program their own version of Pajitnov’s little game.
In the early phases of Game Boy development, BPS’s Henk Rogers, representing Nintendo, attempted to contact Robert Stein again to secure possible handheld rights from him. When Stein was unreachable, Rogers decided to fly to Moscow and speak to ELORG directly. When presented with the Famciom version of Tetris, ELORG was shocked to see a console version of Tetris existed, as they are under the impression those rights had never been sold. According to them, Robert Stein never had the legal rights to sell Tetris to BPS in the first place, meaning their Famicom version was illegal.
Wanting to get on the Russians’ good side, Rogers quickly cut them a check to apologize before proceeding to negotiate a deal for the handheld rights. It’s likely that this check is what saved the Famicom version from being pulled from shelves, though it likely also halted future Japanese production runs. Impressed by Rogers, ELORG offered to sign a deal for the console rights to Nintendo, since Tengen, just like Bulletproof Software, did not have the legal rights to the license. Nintendo knew if they could obtain the sole console rights, it would mean the version Tengen were hard at work developing would become instantly worthless. Since Nintendo already hated Tengen for circumventing their lockout chip, the temptation to thwart them was all too enticing.
The race was on. Henk Rogers arranged for Nintendo’s senior lawyer Howard Lincoln and then-Nintendo president Minoru Arakawa to fly directly to Moscow to get the console rights ASAP. A few days later, Nintendo were the sole rightful, legal holders to both console and handheld rights of Tetris.
Just as Tengen had finished production and were getting ready to release their build of Tetris to stores, Nintendo sent them a fax informing Tengen of their acquisition of all legal rights, and demanding a cease and desist of Tengen’s version of Tetris. For Tengen, this was nothing short of a declaration of war. There was no way Tengen would take this insult from their mortal enemy.
Ignoring Nintendo’s demands, Tengen released their version of Tetris in May of 1989 and quickly sold tens of thousands of copies. A mere four weeks later, Nintendo released their own build for the NES and took Tengen to court over the legality of their version. Within weeks, the U.S. District Court sided with Nintendo and issued an injunction barring Tengen from further distributing their game, and further ordered all existing copies of the game be destroyed. In all, 268,000 Tengen Tetris cartridges were seized and later destroyed.
As a result of the fiasco, Tengen’s Tetris is one of the NES’s holy grails, and usually fetches a premium price. Even so, sales records indicate that before the recall, Tengen had sold some 100,000 copies, making Tengen Tetris one of the more common holy grails of the NES.
For more on the legal history of Tetris, check out the excellent BBC documentary called Tetris: From Russia with Love. There is also an abridged documentary of Tetris in G4’s Icons series.
In 1987, Japanese composer working for Bulletproof Software Hiroshi Suzuki sampled the public domain Russian folk song Korobeiniki for the titlescreen music of the MSX and Famicom versions of Tetris. Two years later, Nintendo’s famous Hirokazu “Hip” Tanaka rearranged the entire version of Korobeiniki for the Type A” music in the GameBoy pack-in version of Tetris. It is this version that has become so widely known and associated with Tetris. Strangely, Hip Tanaka choose not to use Korobeiniki at all for the Nintendo NES release.
An orchestrated version of the original Russian folk song, Korobeiniki. Definitely worth a listen.
Co-op Gameplay video of Tengen’s Tetris
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