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I Want My Tetris Fix

Like many people my age (I’m almost forty, hard to imagine for someone who didn’t expect to survive the year, and wasn’t planning to reach thirty after leaving the hospital!), I grew up playing Tetris and various variants of it.

Unlike many American (or, I’d guess, Japanese) kids though, I didn’t play it on the Gameboy, since that was way too expensive for my family. I instead played it on those terrible “Brick Game” style handhelds, sold on those order-by-mail catalogue that have been replaced by Amazon and AliExpress nowadays.

To be quite honest, I don’t even know for sure where my mother bought it from, she used to be terrible with those catalogues in the most stereotypical way, or to think of it, maybe it wasn’t even her who got it for me.

I have played a long time with it, or at least, for a time that, for a kid, feels like a long time, though eventually it stopped working even with new batteries. I have memories of opening it up (after it broke, I’m no savage), and finding in there Foone’s worst enemy: a blobbed IC. I believe this was my first encounter with those blobs.

Picture of a retro-style "Brick Game", 9999IN1 game in yellow, with a very bad liquid crystals display.
Image courtesy of a random AliExpress store, plenty of them out there.

When the first of these devices broke, I was quite desperate, as a kid can be. Eventually someone managed to find me a replacement. While my first one only had a basic Tetris and an “extended” edition with different size of blocks, the new one was closer to modern versions with the “20 games in 1” marketing copy suggesting that every time you tweak a setting you get a new game altogether (though I had never seen “9999 in 1” until I just searched for them on AliExpress!) These included a couple of “racing” games and a Frogger clone. I played them a little bit but it was nothing compared to how much I played Tetris.

Of course I have played Tetris and a number of variants on multiple platforms and systems ever since. On PC in particular I remember Blockout, with its 3D view — which I was reminded of a few years ago by Gemini, and for which I ended up spending a couple of weeks deep diving in the Wikidata entries for the developer, tracking down one of the programmers who is now a professor at Warsaw University.

Portable systems though, have mostly disappointed me. On the PSP it was actually quite playable, but Android failed badly at making a usable version available, mostly due to touch controls not leading themselves too well to precise movements.

Tetris99 on the Nintendo Switch is a bit closer to what I remember having fun with, but the forced multiplayer game (unless you pay extra) is quite annoying, and completely stops you from being able to play Tetris on odd moments on say the train or plane. Or when chililng on the sofa of the office with a coffee in-between a wall of meetings.

What I really would like to have is a handheld Tetris game that I can play for hours on end on a single charge, with a form factor suitable at being held in an adult’s hands.

While you can still find the shell of the game I used to play (mine was silver gray though — that appears to be the rarest colour to find), I would be needing quite a lot of physiotherapy to play on them for an extended amount of time. The same holds true for most of the other homebrew or “retro” systems that emulate the GameBoy or other similar pieces of hardware.

My castle in the sky involves a wider shell, with a vertical eInk display, a large cell like the one found on Boox or ReMarkable, and a USB-C port — can you see now the reason why I’m looking into USB-PD?

With such a setup, even on an illuminated screen, of the type Onyx Boox and Kindle Paperwhite use, the battery should last days of play. While eInk displays are still quite slow to be used interactively, both the Boox and the ReMarkable prove to me that they are plenty fast on refresh when compared to those old school liquid crystal displays.

Unfortunately, I totally expect this to stay a castle in the sky I’m never going to hold in my hands. I don’t have anywhere close to the expertise necessary to complete this. Because my training with programming languages and software engineering has been mosty unusual, one of the things that I never really spent time learning is programming games.

Oh, I have definitely tried building a game or two in high school, mostly out of class assignments. But those have mostly been the kind of silly games with very simple rules that our programming teacher would spell out quite clearly for us, such as a Mastermind clone. And for the most part those were built with Turbo C++ using a custom graphic library that my teacher wrote. The one time I tried building something myself (a Battleship clone) in Borland C++ Builder, I crashed onto the wall of not having a clue of what I was doing.

This feels silly, given I was given a Commodore 64 when I was seven, and for a number of years, in-between my sister moving out, and my parents buying me my first modern PC (or, technically, a couple of weeks before that, when my sister lent me her 286 again) it was the only computer I had access to.

But, unlike the rose-tinted memories of the American YouTubers, I didn’t have access to the wealth of information of the original manual, with information of assembly, sprites, and all things like that. The computer was given “for free” with an Encyclopedia (my mother’s other Achilles’s Heel), and while one volume of it was indeed dedicated to programming, with a ton of BASIC listings, they weren’t all compatible with the C64, and none went so far as to provide a description of sprites.

So I have no clue where to start to code a Tetris clone. And that’s before even discussing my ability of driving an eInk display, or charge a lithium cell safely!

On the other hand, I can at least expect myself putting together more knowledge relevant to this wish, so that maybe once I’m old and tired, I can just stay in bed playing Tetris the way I remember doing as a kid. Even those projects that appear almost complete dead ends, such as the acrylic lamps, build up to the knowledge I need: I now know how to handle USB-C power receptacles, and maybe my next step is to build in a battery to operate them unplugged.

Anyway, if this happen to tickle the wish of other millennials missing those kind of simple devices, do let me know. While I might not be able to get a lot of the implementation done myself, I wouldn’t mind contributing (even monetarily) to make this reality!

Comments 1
  1. Do you want a shortcut? Design your circuit using plain AA batteries. Grab a bunch of (modern) rechargeable batteries and you’re good. (The rechargeable batteries from my childhood were terrible. The modern ones are good, like those from IKEA.)

    Just remember that rechargeable batteries are rated for 1.2V instead of 1.5V of alkaline batteries.

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