Firebird's Elite, released in 1984 for British computers and quickly ported to the major platforms of the day--is the greatest videogame ever made. It is to videogames what the movie Citizen Kane is to film--a Mozart standing boldly against the Saliere's of his day. It was one of those rare games that was able to accomplish two feats simultaneously: One, introducing a new kind of game that would last, and two, doing so well enough to itself remain a classic of that genre. Whenever we get frustrated with game shelves laden with "me-too" games and sequels of sequels, it's useful to go back to such games as Elite and ponder what made them so great. For Elite, that greatness stems from its staggering vision; an arrogance matched only by the genius of its coders, who were able to deliver where lesser developers cried "impossible."
Most games that establish a new genre are themselves quickly supplanted by derivative games from other companies. A groundbreaking title may be celebrated, but it's really more of interest to developers rather than mainstream gamers. These other developers see the potential of the new genre and are quickly able to bring it to fruition. How many times have we seen the cycle? A small company releases a "concept" game; it gets glowing reviews from critics; it doesn't sell. Meanwhile, bigger developers take the idea and run with it, turning it into a multi-million dollar juggernaut.
What was the first platform game? That's an interesting historical question. The game everyone knows about is Super Mario Bros., the game that really demonstrated the possibilities of the genre. Yet, when it comes to the space trading sim, the name "Elite" is never far from the discussion. After Elite, the only thing left for other companies (and sequels) was to improve the graphics and other frills. The core of the game was perfect; a brilliant diamond now passed from jeweler to jeweler, who dares not cut it--laboring only to forge a more dazzling band to bring out the beauty of that stone. Who plays Space Invaders? It's Galaga that has remained viable, still selling in big numbers despite its "obsolescence."
Yet, when it comes down to listing the greatest games ever made--those masterpieces of the genre that will outlive us--a seasoned critic must ignore such questionable evidence as sales figures and advertising budgets. She must also adopt a more mature attitude towards graphics and technological "limitations," seeing older games not in terms of "obsolete" but rather as part of a different "era" or "style" of computer game aesthetics, much like an art critic doesn't judge every piece based on its adherence to the principles of realism. No, a good game critic will judge great works from some plateau far above the millings and mewings of the marketplace, as well as the cooings of nostalgic-ridden curmudgeons who refuse to acknowledge the promise of contemporary works.
First, though, for those totally unfamiliar with the game, let me try to sum it up briefly. You start the game as a humble merchant trader, somewhat in the position of a 15th century sea trader--there are fortunes to be made, distant civilizations to encounter, and sums of unimaginable wealth to procure. However, the stakes are high. Pirates wait to destroy your ship and steal its cargo. Just docking your ship can be an extreme challenge; you'll need skills at the helm even in "safe" territories. But you'll also need a head for business--and a willingess to take risks. In short, you will be making thousands of decisions, including how you want to play the game. Do you want to become a pirate yourself, preying upon ships and trading only with pirate stations? Or would you mine the asteroids for untold mineral wealth? Perhaps you style yourself a bounty hunter? Or a glorious merchant marine? Elite doesn't tell you how to play. It just gives you the toys. The rest is up to you.
Let's look then at what makes Elite such a masterpiece.
If there's one thing you can say about Elite, it's that its designers were thinking big. Very big.
If you were lucky enough to play Elite back in the mid 80s, you'll probably remember just how big this game felt. You literally had whole galaxies on a floppy disk, just waiting for your Cobra to make that hyperjump to them. There were suns and planets and moons, and an almost infinite expanse of unexplored territory.
Of course, to some extent, all this size is merely an illusion. It's becomes pretty obvious that the near infinite number of planets is achieved by algorithms. Planet names might be randomly generated, as are their types of governments, populations, and exports. It's a pattern familiar to folks who grew up playing games like ROGUE and HACK, "role-playing games" that traded linear storylines for replayability.
Nevertheless, Elite was able to convey a sense of traveling great distances better than any other game. I can't imagine how the first sailors must have felt when they drifted so far out to sea that they lost sight of land. David Bowie and Elton John have explored the sort of soul-destroying effect that deep space exploration might have on the human psyche; the utter loneliness that is always coupled with that unpleasant realization that Earth is actually a very very small (and ultimately insignificant) place. Elite does more than tell you about this experience; it puts you in that pilot's chair and blasts you into hyperspace. You become Major Tom or a dashing Rocketman; take your pick. Either way, it's nihilism of the best sort.
And isn't there something dire about being 13, just on the brink of grasping the full terror waiting for you at childhood's end? What a relief to find another universe on your 1541, a ship there waiting to take you out so far beyond girls who laugh and fathers who would be proud, would they knew the glory of their sons, the Elite.
Although ignorant critics unaware of our past may hail such games as Grand Theft Auto as some kind of revolution in open-ended gameplay, it is Elite, not GTA, that took gamers on that magic carpet ride. It's hard for most modern gamers and game developers to accept the simple fact that enjoying games asks of much of a player as it does the game. The best games are able to reach out to the player, helping her identify her dreams--then enabling her to reach them. The "open ended" game is one of the hardest to get right. If the game is "too open," it just seems directionless; empty and utterly pointless. A blank canvas is not a painting. No, a better game would not be "open" in the sense of pointless, but rather "open" in the sense of an open door--through which players walk to find the places they never knew they wanted to visit so badly.
A good example of what I'm talking about can be seen in J.R.R. Tolkein's Lord of the Rings trilogy. On the one hand, these are books with coherent characters, plot lines, and definite closure. However, only very boring people experience the books like that. No, the best readers will discover that their love of Tolkein only begins with the story Tolkein tells in those books; the true adventure begins when the reader puts himself in that world, imagining all the possibilities and living out his own dreams there. One of my friends once confided to me that, should he die and go to heaven, that heaven should be Middle Earth. In that world, he'd be able to realize the dreams and ambitions that were denied him on this Earth.
It's difficult, if not impossible, for the limited gamer to fully appreciate a game that enables, rather than provides, those dreams for the player. For these withered souls, a game is about accumulating points; mere numbers and statistics on some scoreboard in the sky. These are the type always looking for the "quick fix," the latest graphical infusion that might stun their dulled senses long enough to pulse their lumbering heart. They know nothing of glory. To enjoy a game like Elite, you must know something of what that word means, and how good it feels to achieve it.
Challenges and Ambitions
There are essentially two types of challenges in videogames: The kind that you care about overcoming, and the ones that serve merely to prolong a game or increase your sense of frustration. The challenges of Elite are fixedly in the first category.
Let's take the station docking procedure. For the Elite novice, it seems impossible. You must somehow guide your ship length-wise into the station's rectangular docking bay. Sound easy? Not so when you consider that the station is "spinning," or rather, you are, and everything is orbiting a planet. It's like trying to park a car in moving traffic. Undoubtedly, many gamers gave up right away, convinced (and they were right) that they simply lacked the intelligence to ever become an Elite.
Welcome to Newtonian Physics. It's A+ or die trying.
Yet, there were others who recognized in this docking procedure that the game was taking a chance on them. It was saying, "You can do this. Now go do it." That's a strange message to hear in an age where games say, "If you can't do this--here, let me do it for you." No, Elite would never do that. It's not the kind of game it was. It was the game that pushed you out of the nest, and, if you fell, you fell.
But if you flew, you soared.
The "trick," by the way, was to head away from the station and towards the planet. Then you could spin around, and with the right tilt, angle, and velocity, you could dock just perfectly. And, of course, after you'd managed to do it right several times (enough times to know you've got it), you could buy a docking computer could do it for you. But first, you had to prove yourself.
Likewise, the battles with pirates seemed hopeless at first. Your ship, a humble Cobra, was outgunned and outmanned in every sense. You begin the game with a "pulse laser," a slowly-firing weapon that does little damage against your enemies. It's not until much later in the game that you are finally able to afford the weaponry and defensive systems to survive these attacks--much less initiate them. Yet, even with the best equipment in the game, these battles do not suffer fools.
In many ways, Elite can be compared to the computer role playing game, particularly if we define them in terms of a leveling-up system. Elite's system is called "Rank," beginning with the Douglas-Adams inspired "Harmless" and "Mostly Harmless" and winding up to Elite. Though the game doesn't officially end when you reach "Elite," it's at that point when you begin to realize that you've won. You've picked yourself up from a barely noticeable (and likely to die) neophyte into a legendary space trader; the best of the best. You've reached a point when even those who most bedgrudge you must, at their pain, acknowledge your greatness.
And, as Sinatra sang it so well, you did it your way.
If you've never played Elite, I would like to see you try it. Perhaps my lofty rhetoric here has given you some desire to at least see the game. My advice would be to avoid the many sequels and contemporary versions and seek out one of the classic releases. I would recommend the version I grew up with: Elite for the Commodore 64. This version is also recommended (alongside the original BBC Elite) by David Braben, who co-wrote the game. Although it's technically illegal to download the game and play it on your C-64 emulator--don't feel bad about grabbing it from here if you so desire. You can thank our corrupt senators, representatives, and supreme court justices for making you into a criminal so you can enjoy this historically-vital game--but that's another story.
There have been countless sequels to Elite, and I'd be foolish to discredit all of them. The original version featured Wire-Frame graphics, which might strike some players as hopelessly inferior to modern fully-rendred and textured polygons. Whatever. If you simply must have a more photorealistic experience to enjoy the game, I would recommend Vega Strike. It's a free download (both in the sense of money and copyright), and it looks fantastic.
However, I argue that you lose a little something in the process. One of the advantages of the wire-frame version is that it allows you to do more of the "graphical" work yourself; what's seen on the screen is just the basic idea. It's up to you to fill in those polygons. While this might be taxing for some players, trust me--you'll get more out of the game if you'll exercise your brain a bit more and actually use your head for something other than a dandruff deposit.
In short, Elite was and remains a masterpiece because of its grand vision, bold ambitions, and utterly uncompromising emphasis on building the player's own competence. When you become an "Elite," you are, in fact, an Elite. There's no hand-holding here, no "training mode," no "EASY" difficulty slider to let you take that title without working and sweating for it. Likewise, there's no real story or characters grafted on to make you feel more like you're watching a movie or reading a story. When you play Elite, you are the story. I hate to be the one to tell you this, but if that story is boring, that says more about you than it does about the game.
If there's a lesson in Elite for modern developers, it's this--don't baby the player. A babied player doesn't grow up. A "challenge" fails to interest him; it becomes just an annoyance to be bypassed by a cheat-code. Make the player work to overcome a challenge from the get-go, and it's an investment. Make the player realize, "Uh oh, this isn't going to be easy." Of course, and I know, there are players who will immediately stop playing at that point. I say, have the integrity to let them go. Catering to this type of person will only ruin your game, and, in all sincerity, reduce the value your original game had to offer.
As a professor teaching 18-19 year olds, it depresses me to see how many of them have been conditioned by the baby-stepping games of the last five years. I only wish that more of them could be challenged as thoroughly and rewarded as graciously as I was, weaned on games like Elite and Pool of Radiance. Those games taught the lesson--great rewards for great efforts. Modern games are all too willing to offer even greater rewards, but for little to no effort. The idea is that they'll offer so many rewards and incentives that the player will be reduced to a sort of sensation-seeking monkey, pushing a button that briefly flares some pleasure region of his spinal cortex. Bah. Leave such games to the plebs.
For the Elite, I have another.
Sure, Elite gets credit for being the first, but I think Wing Commander: Privateer took the Elite concept and took it to new heights. I have tried on many ocassions to play Elite. It's just one of those games that sadly hasn't aged well. The 3D wireframe graphics are primitive and boring. I realize it was made at a time when 3D games weren't viable, but for me the graphics make the game unplayable. Taking your Space Invaders to Galaga comparison, I think Elite is Space Invaders and Galaga is Privateer. Privateer gave us rich, colorful graphics based on an updated Wing Commander 2 engine. It still wasn't real 3D polygons, but sprites look a hell of a lot better than wireframes. And unlike Elite, the game had personality and flair. To this day I remember the memorable things bartenders would say and the ship salesman's long winded speech when you couldn't afford a new ship. This game came out at the height of the CD-ROM craze, when all games had to have voiceover. With the CD-ROM version, you had voices for every character in the game, an unprecedented acheivement at the time.
The thing I liked most about Privateer is that it put a heavy emphasis on combat. We all played Wing Commander and were amazed at how intense the dogfighting was. Well, this put that great combat in with all the economy elements of Elite. You could still be a Merchant, Pirate or Smuggler, but you had to prepare to defend your cargo in intense battles. Modern Elite clones like X2 bore me because they don't really let you get into serious dogfighting.
Also great was the the way your ship took damage. To date I have not played a space sim that has even come close to this game's damage system (not even in other Wing Commander games). Get banged up too much in battle and they might hit your manuvering jets, crippling your ability to turn in a specific direction. Try dogfighting when you can't steer to the left. If they hit your afterburners, it would slow down your ship significantly. Each of your ship's systems could get damaged and provide limited or no functionality, including communications, armor, and navigational systems.
The mission variety was also nice. There were the standard patrol, defend, bounty hunting, and cargo missions but there were also special missions that you got from fixers you met in the bar. These were the game's main storyline, but you were not required to follow them. One of my favorite fixer missions is when you are contracted for the Exploratory Service and are required to chart out unexplored star systems. This one is a dangerous one because you go so far out that you only have JUST enough jump fuel to make it back to the base. Take an extra jump and you're stranded in the void of space. This is also the mission where you land on a derelict ancient base left by a highly evolved race of aliens. You take a powerful cannon off a crashed alien ship and mount it on your ship, not only getting the most powerful gun in the game, but attracting the attention of a mysterious ship from said alien race which pops up now and then to try to kill you. Of course, you can't destroy it with normal weapons, but you are helped at the end of the game (I won't spoil it).
Getting back to Elite, even if you thought it was the best game in the genre, it's still not the best game of all time. While great for hardcore gamers, Elite's learning curve is much higher than say, Tetris. I STILL think Tetris is the best game of all time because it meets all the criteria: enjoyable for gamers and non-gamers alike, easy to learn, hard to master, addictive, and endlessly replayable.
I have to agree that Tetris is probably the easiest to classify as the greatest game of all time for all the reason's David mentioned. I would rather say Elite is one of the great game programming achievments of all time. One of. It has no right to be as immense and all encompassing as it is on "just" 8-bit platforms, but the code is nevertheless there for us to marvel at in the form of the finished game. One day we have to come up with a real best games of all time list around here. Elite and Tetris certainly have to be on there...
It's funny, but I was thinking earlier that somebody would probably argue for Tetris. I actually initially started this post as "Elite: One of the Greatest Games" but then thought, nah, it is THE greatest. Still, I recognize David's points and agree about Privateer. Even though I haven't played Privateer myself, I've heard enough about it to see how it takes the concepts laid down in Elite and arguably enhances them.
Again, not having played the game, it's a bit silly for me to generalize about it, but if it does indeed stress characters, then it's striving for something different than Elite. The only characters in Elite are the ones you imagine for yourself.
I'd be curious what the ratio of people was who still play Privateer vs. those who play Elite. If we had some data, we might be able to see if it's truly fair to use the Space Invaders/Galaga comparison. Obviously, there are thousands (hundreds of thousands?) of people who've played Galaga and continue to play the game that have never even seen Space Invaders. Is that true for Privateer and Elite? I really don't know.
Anyway, as far as Tetris is concerned, it's one of those unfortunate situations where you're trying to compare apples and oranges. Depending on how you define the term "videogame," and what criteria you use to evaluate them, then, sure, Tetris could very well be the greatest. Nevertheless, it lacks most of the qualities I value, such as imaginative potential. When you get right down to it, there's nothing dramatic, creative, or imaginative about playing Tetris. It's just simple strategy and reflex.
It's rather like trying to compare, say, a novel to a crossword puzzle. Yes, they both occur on paper, but they've so vastly different that it's hard to really talk about which one is better.
I think by definition "The Greatest Game" has to appeal to the widest range of people. In that regard, I'd say "Tetris" is pretty hard to beat simply because it IS just strategy and reflex and you can learn how to play in less than a minute. Something with more complex mechanics like Elite naturally lends itself to a more specific type of player. Still, I think no one can argue the incredible technological achievement.
As for Space Invaders, I think everyone is more or less familiar with it since it's a cultural icon, but it perhaps embodies too simple of a concept and too much difficulty to transcend what the slight gameplay upgrade and audio-visual polish of a game like "Galaga" emodies. In that regard, it's hard to argue that the successor does not beat the originator in all ways, unlike Privateer versus Elite, where it can be argued there are greater implementation differences (as you say, with "characters" and what-not).
I think I also agree that in terms of "fondness", "nostalgia" and yes, continuing to play, Elite probably edges out Privateer. Sadly, the next time we'll likely see something like an Elite or Privateer in the mainstream is as an MMOG since it naturally lends itself to that format, but you never know! (At the same time, I'd love for some brave sole to give a really good history, review and comparison of all the Elite games and one-offs (including sequels, official and unoffocial), all the clones and all "inspired-by's". I think it would be terribly fascinating to expand upon what you touched on with the idea of building on Elite's base. I know I have several knock-offs even just on the C-64...)
Excellent points, Bill. Obviously, with something like this, I knew there would be a great diversity of opinions--indeed, my motive was to hopefully spark some good discussion! :-)
However, in continuing the Tetris debate, I'd like to separate the "Greatest Game" definition from the "Most Popular" or even "Most Successful" definition. No one would argue that Tetris isn't a tremendously popular and successful game, probably edging out even greats like Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Galaga, or even Super Mario Bros. for sheer numbers of people who have enjoyed and continue to enjoy them. Game developers like to hold it up (almost a knee-jerk reaction) when discussing innovation and simple games that are nevertheless fun and engaging.
Still, there are lots of very popular movies that no serious critic really calls "great." I'm sure Louis Lamour or Danielle Steele novels have probably sold more copies than someone like Norman Mailer or possibly even classics like the Iliad and the Odyssey, but, really, no one can seriously hold them up as great works. Tic-Tac-Toe (or naughts and crosses) is a very popular game that almost everyone has enjoyed at some point, but to call it great?
As I indicated in my review, for a game to be "great," it must inspire the player far beyond just the simple desire to accumulate points. The game should actually change the player into something better than he was when before he played the game. In other words, the game is not just a distraction or a pastime, but really, a life-changing event. I can think of only a very few games that have even come close to this for me. Since so many game developers are only interested in "wide appeal," as you say, they tend to neglect or ignore the greater possibilities of the genre and just go for volume. One thing about Elite was that the developers specifically did NOT cater to the lowest common denominator--one fact that undoubtedly adds to its greatness.
Those are interesting points, Matt. Certainly some of the earliest computer games made during the initial personal computer era (mid 1970's through early 1980's), besides the usual "Star Trek" and "Adventure" knock-offs and games like "Checkers", "Chess" and "Blackjack", you saw a predominance of number-crunching strategy games. Many of these strategy games featured no graphics and relied on the entering of coordinates or other relatively arcane commands to interact with the program. This was often off-set by the inclusion of a real-world map or some other physical material the user would interact with to complete the experience and render the game more playable. In no way did the designers of these games have anyone in mind as a player except the early computer adopters, the "geeks" and "nerds" for lack of better wording who would appreciate such contests, such hardcore battles of wits. They were extending activities that were normally played with hardcore paper games to the computer. However great some of those games may have been, however, and even in successfully targeting their intended audiences, it would be impossible to call them "greatest" because of their arcane interfaces and required commitment just to make them even reasonably playable. In other words, design and accessibility do factor into it. I have several of those games as part of my collection and while I anticipate playing them in my quest for continuing my historical education, I'm not exactly looking forward to the learning curves.
My point is, perhaps we DO have to look at the degree by which a game is playable by the maximum number of people. In the case of Elite, perhaps a space setting is as unappealing to someone as anime' sometimes is to me? Perhaps someone doesn't like all that flying about in Elite (I know I am VERY particularly about my flying games)? Perhaps there are too many possible commands in Elite for someone to wrap their mind around? Is that the flaw of the potential gamer or the game? In other words, perhaps a definition of "greatest" is the fact that 98% of the population can play the game and can get enjoyment out of it, rather than 20%. Certainly something like a Tetris embodies action, movement, strategy and abstraction, all to varying degrees. Yet the proverbial 80-year-old grandmother can probably enjoy it. "Tetris" is pure game, while "Elite" is an epic achievment. Entirely different experiences.
PC Gamer had something in their ratings system year ago when I still read the magazine along the lines of (extreme paraphrasing) "it may be the greatest Civil War simulation of the second regiment at Appotomatix, but not everyone will be able to get into such a game, therefore it's difficult to award it a final score above a certain threshold". While such a philosophy is debatable - it's almost like a penalty for being a niche product - there's something to be said for "generic appeal". It may not be the perfect game for YOU since you may only like games based around the Civil War or something rather than puzzle games, let's say, but the fact that 90% of people would rather play the puzzle game than the civil war game has to account for something. It has to mean "success" by some definition. Certainly the design of something like a Tetris was a once-in-a-lifetime type of thing. Pac-Man probably qualifies for that as well, as does Super Mario Bros. There's just something about certain games that get it "all right". Just like with popular music or popular books or popular movies. There's that certain something that's appealing to the most number of people. That has to count. At the same time, though, there are often BETTER works that do get overlooked. The "Elite's" of the other media. They get critical acclaim, they get success, they become cult classics, but it's not something that transcends to popular culture, capturing the popular imagination. I think perhaps that's the best distinction we can make.
With all that in mind, perhaps there really are two "best of" lists. One list with "Tetris", "Pac-Man" and "Super Mario Bros." for games that appeal to EVERYONE, and one list with "Elite", "Ultima IV" and "Tecmo Cup Soccer" for games that are high points of their genres. Who knows? It's good food for thought in any case...
Ha, great post, Bill. I read Steve Johnson's book "Everything Bad is Good For You" last year and highly recommend it--for many reasons--but one thing that sticks out in my mind is the author's tale about how he grew up playing a type of virtual baseball. It was a complicated, esoteric game that involved lots of dice, decisions, calculations, and statistics. Definitely not for all of us! Yet, there is a type of person who lives for such activities.
Again, though, I highly agree with the idea that we must keep the world's most financially successful (or popular) games distinct from the greatest. There is the same split in most other art forms. No one I know would seriously claim that Pirates of the Caribbean II is a great work. It's a fun work, it's a widely appealing work, and it's been highly successful. But great? No, way. That title is reserved for films that have more of an impact; that do much more than just entertain you for awhile. It also identifies films that show a mastery of direction and cinematography that is simply lacking in most films. Even though I didn't like the film Titanic, I don't deny that it is technically great, if for no other reason than the stunning attention to detail and the realism of the ship (for similar reasons, I'd award King Kong similar accolades).
However, it always comes back to films like Citizen Kane. After you've watched that film (with a critical, well-informed eye), you find yourself gasping at the greatness. Yet, do most people like Citizen Kane? No. Most people today wouldn't even bother to go see it, and would almost certainly argue that a film like Pirates of the Carribean II or the like is a better film. You know the type--they can't name a single work by Mozart, Bach, or Beethoven, yet claim they know great music (Tupac, Snoop Dogg, Brittany Spears, of course). Indeed, try showing even an accessible masterpiece like The Seven Samarai or Patton to a mixed audience. They lack the taste and sophistication to appreciate it.
Tetris seems to represent more or less the "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" of games. It's almost universally appealing. Still, even though we could talk all day about how charming, original, and technically inventive it was, I'd step back from calling it a great work.
The truth is, there is only one type of person who can really identify a great game. That's a person who has played and understood what was good and bad about countless other games, and has developed a very critical eye. Furthmore, such a person must be fiercely independent from all prejudices and must consider each work solely on its own merits, without feeling the need to consult sales figures and the like. Finally, he must be able to present clear and cogent arguments that support his opinion. Perhaps it's on this last matter that I've fallen short, so I see another post in the near future. :-)
Interesting going back to "Tetris" for a moment. I like where we are with the distinction "best of" types of games, but am not sure I agree with the reasoning just yet for not calling "Tetris" a great work. It certainly lacks substance in the classic sense - it has no depth, the game just gets faster instead of different or evolving - but wouldn't one almost - just almost - have to compare "Tetris" to a classic board game such as "Chess", or, better yet, "Checkers"? It's our videogame equivalent of those games, a game only possible in electronic form. Are we to then say that something like a "Checkers" is not great, while "Chess" is? "Tetris" to me is a great achievment simply for the fact that it's an "everyman" game that young and old, male and female like. The game doesn't seem to pander in any way to achieve this. It just happened to be a lucky configuration of events that made it a "perfect" pure videogame.
Is "Tetris" art? While there is some beauty to its abstraction and elegance to the simplicity of the overall design, I'd fall short of calling it art. Is "Elite" "art"? Probably.
So I agree with our first major accomplishment in distinguishing between two distinct categories of "best of" types of games, but not really the second, unless perhaps we were to base it more on the fuzzy concept of "art".
Ah, I see what you mean now about Tetris's status as a great work. It's interesting, too, to bring up games like chess and checkers and compare them to Tetris. Clearly, this is one of those problems we've always had with videogame criticism--will we treat videogames more like traditional games, or look more into aspects that some critics (Espen Aarseth, for instance), would deem irrelevant--namely, things like story, plot, characters, themes, and so on. I suppose if we look strictly at what Aarseth calls the "ergodicity" of games, then Tetris clearly emerges as a great work. It's one of those simple concepts that just wouldn't work well without a computer (indeed, I'm not sure anyone has attemped an electro-mechanical model).
Still, I suppose I'm one of those folks who just want more out of games than hand-eye coordination and the thrills of punching a score up a chart. I've often used the analogy of comparing a crossword puzzle or tic-tac-toe to Hamlet just because they both exist on paper. Obviously, a game like Elite and one like Tetris are far different than they are alike; the fact that they've both only playable on a computer seems almost besides the point.
I also have to wonder if Tetris's isn't a bit hyped as a game. I've played mini-games within some GAGs (7th Guest, for instance, or Missing Since January) that actually seemed to rival Tetris in terms of originality, innovation, and addictiveness. I'm certain that the only reason these mini-games haven't received more attention is that they exist in the confines of a bigger game. Several of the games in Missing Since January would make excellent stand-alone releases, perhaps as casual games. I'm sure there must be dozens of Tetrises hidden in those hundreds of GAGs, though few will ever play them since they're deeply buried there. Her Interactive (Nancy Drew series) almost seems to spin them out as after-thoughts. It'd be a great exercise for someone (Mat and I, perhaps?) to ferret out the best of these mini-games and compare them to stand-alone classics like Tetris and Bejewled.
What I can't help but wonder is if the main reason we appeal so often to Tetris dosen't have more to do with Nintendo and Atari's clever marketing, and the simple coincidence of the time of having a first-generation portable (the GameBoy) capable of running it. It was such a simple game that it could run even on something as limited as a Gameboy, and thus really helped spur the portable game market. Meanwhile, Atari and Nintendo's war definitely hyped up the publicity and made it seem like this game must be somehow miraculous; if two major game companies are fighting tooth-and-nail over it, it MUST be incredible. Finally, there was the whole aura of a "game from the Soviets" smack in the Cold War. It seemed hopelessly charming that some programmer like Pazhitnov was able, in the midst of starvation and deprivation in a communist country, to produce something like Tetris. No doubt the cult of "genius" and the like surrounding the game, enhanced by the overweening hype of its originality and infinite replayability (please), plus its appearance in thousands of clones (to the point where it's now a customary and obligatory exercise in most computer programming courses) all did more to establish it as a great work than the game itself.
The reason I don't like the game is simple: You could play it everyday for eight hours and not be one whit a better person for it. Indeed, you'd really just be depriving your brain of any nutrition whatsoever. Tetris is, at best, a sort of tiddlywinks of a game, whose purpose is merely to kill time as opposed to providing anything remotely edifying. It's really that reason, I think that it emerged from a communist country--what else could you do that was safe? Damn, think about anything, explore any area of art whatever, and you might be killed for vying against the regime. Play Tetris and shut up. I don't find that appealing.
If we're going to trump Tetris as a great work, then I think we must also trump Windows Solitaire and Hearts along with it. These games seem to fit together quite nicely, and I'm frankly shocked to the quick that Microsoft hasn't added Tetris to its included games on the Windows CD.