Behind the Story

:: ぷよぷよテトリス
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  • kazu
  • I don’t want it to have been for nothing. If I don’t do something with this, I don’t think I’ll ever be content.
  • // Chapter 1
  • Heading to school with a group of peers, kazu overheard an older student talking excitedly about something. It seemed to be a video game called Puyo Puyo. kazu, a second grader, became curious to try it out for himself. This was his first encounter with Puyo Puyo.

    “I was obsessed with it for about two years before trying Tetris.” kazu may be one of the most skilled competitive Tetris players around, but he started with Puyo Puyo. He enjoyed spending time each day coming up with his own ways of setting up chains against the CPU. Later he learned about a method called “frog stacking,” and although it was just a luck-based beginner’s technique, “it just felt good to wipe out the pieces in a chain.” Simple beginnings.

    After some time, he tried out the challenges in the game’s “Lesson Mode” and discovered that there were a variety of ways one could build a chain. The methodology in Puyo Puyo is based on logical reasoning. “Falling tile” puzzle games immediately became more interesting to kazu once he got to know their basic underlying logic. He taught himself the basics and added his own twist to the game every day. It was a natural progression, then, for kazu to start playing competitive matches online.

    “I’d gotten to a point where I could at least hold my own in a versus match,” says kazu. Online matches had a refreshing mind-game element not present in CPU battles. “There are mind games, since your opponent is another person.” He found it thrilling.

    “I loved thinking about things like, ‘The opponent’s gonna make a chain, so I should do such-and-such.’ I guess that's the fun (of versus matches).”

    He had learned the basic methodology of the game in solitude, but the point and rationale behind it became clearer as he played against other people.
  • // Chapter 2
  • “If I’m honest, I was at a huge disadvantage in Puyo Puyo. I had no choice but to use Tetris. And that’s when I discovered how fun Tetris could be.”

    Puyo Puyo Tetris (nicknamed PuyoTeto in Japan) released for the Nintendo 3DS when kazu was in the fourth grade. Puyo Puyo and Tetris are the two biggest titles in the falling tile puzzle genre. This game pits players of both titles against each other, in what one could call a sort of “mixed martial arts” match.

    Naturally, kazu started with Puyo Puyo since he was so familiar with it, but he couldn’t hold his own against Tetris opponents, and this left him discontent. “I knew of the game but I’d never wanted to play it before.” kazu’s feelings toward Tetris were lukewarm, but above all else, he couldn’t stand to lose. “I guess I got a little ticked off, you know (laughs)?”

    “I’d already been playing against Tetris opponents, so I knew the basics. I just started imitating what I’d seen them do. Then I’d watch my replays and try to figure out what I should have done differently. So I was able to get comfortable with the game pretty quickly.”

    Using the replay function, he taught himself to examine his own gameplay as well as his opponent's. “I didn't feel any barrier due to lack of experience.” There was a fun and a joy to figuring out how to overcome challenges for himself, and this was a skill kazu had already acquired; the two years of trial and error he’d put into Puyo Puyo transferred over to Tetris.

    “I spent so much time playing, whenever I could. I think some of my longer sessions went eight straight hours.”

    When school was out, he would start up Puyo Puyo Tetris as soon as he got home. After dinner and homework, he played nonstop until bedtime.

    “When there were strong players around I’d just keep playing. There were a lot of people I couldn’t beat, and I remembered all their names. If I knew someone was online, I’d keep playing.”

    Whenever he spotted an opponent he couldn’t beat, he would ask them to play, and would keep playing for as long as they were willing. This was how he built the foundation in Tetris that got him where he is today.
  • // Chapter 3
  • There was a period during which kazu stopped playing Puyo Puyo Tetris, a game he had been so engrossed with he used to play it in his sleep. His interest had shifted to a different game: Splatoon. He fell in love with its highly strategic gameplay and fresh visual style. The game systems were well thought out, and there were plenty of opponents to be found, twenty-four hours a day. The fact that the game was team-based, unlike Tetris and Puyo Puyo, was also new to him. With the help of his passionate nature, he shifted the vast quantity of resources he had been pouring into Puyo Puyo Tetris directly to Splatoon. He kept this going strong for about two years.

    What brought him back to the world of Tetris was the release of Puyo Puyo Tetris S on Switch. “It was so different. They’d gotten rid of the lag. It had been tightened up a lot. That made it fun, so I started playing all the time again.”

    The previous version of Puyo Puyo Tetris he’d been playing on the 3DS had latency issues in the online VS mode caused by connection lag. To be clear, it wasn’t the actual content of the Switch version that had changed. But to kazu, the sensation was so fresh that it was as if he was playing a different game. Improved responsiveness allowed him to do exactly what he wanted. It was as if he’d removed a weight attached to his body.

    “To be honest, I used to get pissed off about it,” kazu says of the times he lost due to lag in the 3DS version. Sometimes the lag in online play led to unfair outcomes. He says it’s something “more or less all” Puyo Puyo Tetris players have experienced.

    “This was completely different. I was able to beat people I couldn’t beat before, so I was really having fun.” The satisfaction of winning and losing was incomparable to before. He abruptly stopped playing Splatoon, despite how obsessed he had been. Team battles were fun, but he realized he was better suited to solo play. “I used to get annoyed whenever my teammates messed up in Splatoon (laughs).”

    The showdown set to take place at Kemonomichi 4 will be an offline match, no internet connection involved. Although kazu returned to Puyo Puyo Tetris because the lag issue had been alleviated, he has almost never played an offline match, where lag is a complete nonissue. This is because he has very little experience with offline tournaments. Does this worry him?

    “Well, to be honest, just because we’ll be playing offline doesn’t mean I’ll be any worse at the game. If anything, I think it’ll make me better.” kazu says this unhesitatingly. A lightning-fast match of wits is exactly what he wants.
  • // Chapter 4
  • Until recently, the uncontested reigning king of the Switch version of Puyo Puyo Tetris S had been Taiyo Amemiya. “I was probably in my second year of middle school the first time I got matched with Amemiya-san in the wild.” After being matched against Taiyo Amemiya by random chance, kazu beat him in a “rated” match. “You have something like a rank, and I caused Amemiya-san’s to drop. At the time, I felt like a real hotshot (laughs).”

    Winning against Taiyo, who was the best in terms of both ability and name recognition, gave kazu confidence, but there was still an overwhelming gap between their skill levels. “I think maybe I was just on a roll that day. I got lucky.”

    The true measure of ability between two players in Puyo Puyo Tetris is to have a long set of matches called a rensen (series of battles). Many people in the know consider the standard litmus test to be a set of “somewhere between thirty and fifty wins,” while a few errant wins in rated matches isn’t enough to discern true ability. Even kazu knew that, despite feeing like a “hotshot” in the moment.

    “But the thing is, that’s what led to me getting to play a long set against Amemiya-san.” It caused Amemiya to remember the name of this previously unknown player. It was a turning point.

    “I always lost. Every set.” kazu says he kept challenging Taiyo Amemiya to first-to-fifty sets, but lost constantly. “Amemiya-san would win fifty matches and I’d always be somewhere in the high thirties. It wasn’t even close. I think I lost around fifty of them.” Although this proved the vast skill gap between them, kazu says he had fun. “My skill level back then was said to be second best (in the country). Amemiya-san was first. He was uncontested. No one could beat him. I kept playing in hopes of one day being able to.” Indeed, Amemiya is known as a “Tetris god.” He was still miles ahead.

    “I was in my third year of middle school when I finally beat him. I was so happy. Amemiya-san had been undefeated for years. I was so happy to be the one to break his streak.”

    Amemiya had never lost a long set, which is essentially what competitive players consider a "formal match." kazu was the one to finally take him down. His ability to do so can be credited to the fact that he had taken a break. In part due to his studies, there was a period during which he couldn’t spend much time playing competitive matches.

    “There was a pretty long stretch where I didn’t play Amemiya-san. After training without playing him, I found myself able to beat him.”

    So he sorted things out by distancing himself from the unbeatable opponent? “I think that was the case. I think that was the turning point where it became a normal occurrence for me to beat him. It’s like I’d leveled up. I guess that’s how I was able to win.”

    Taking time off led to him to success. What happened to kazu is a phenomenon Umehara says is not uncommon in the fighting game scene.

    Umehara: “I’ve seen that kind of thing a million times. It’s happened for me and against me. My experience clearly dictates that even if my odds are fifty-fifty at first, if I keep repeating the matchup I’ll start winning. I keep winning against the same opponent for a week, a month, a year. That's what happened to me with fighting games. Mahjong was the opposite. When I played my mentor, I could never beat him. He had me in his grasp, knew my habits by feel. ‘When I do this, he moves like this,’ and so forth. The same thing happens to me when I play an opponent weaker than me. I knew it from my own experience, but didn’t know it could happen in mahjong, a game where luck is such a factor.”

    This phenomenon occurs at all skill levels, as long as the relative skill gap is the same.

    Umehara: “I suspect everyone can relate to this, regardless of their level. This is just my own pet theory, but I think that eventually, an opponent who’s even a little stronger than you will eventually overtake you. Whichever player’s better will catch onto the opponent’s habits and such. The more kazu played Amemiya, who was the stronger player, the more Amemiya took control, so kazu started losing disproportionately to his skill level.”

    Once a player’s entire personality has been deduced by way of their temperament and psychological tendencies, it’s only natural that they won’t be able to win. Indeed, until Amemiya was finally taken down, he says he’d “spent my entire life winning.” What’s a player to do against such an opponent?

    Umehara: “The best thing is to stop playing that person for awhile. That’s the simplest solution (laughs).” If you can’t overcome something no matter how hard you try, one approach is to take a break. If pushing doesn’t work, pull back. Perhaps this is one secret to Umehara’s longevity as one of the top pro players.
  • // Chapter 5
  • “Amemiya-san is the type who wins through a strong neutral game. I think his raw skill level is beneath mine. But it’s like, he knows just how to get under the opponent’s skin. He’ll find that one opening and unload all the firepower he’s been saving up all at once. That kind of thing. There’s a concept called ana-bara [“random holes”](1) that’s really annoying for the opponent to deal with. He’s highly conscious of how to send those to the opponent in an efficient way. So yeah, I do feel he’s a difficult opponent to deal with.”

    Taiyo Amemiya fights with a style both defensive and responsive, carefully guarding without missing an opening. In contrast, kazu says he plays an offensive style.

    “I’m the type who pushes ahead with brute force, regardless of how the opponent plays. I guess it’s just a simple matter of strength. Send over a crazy amount of firepower and put the opponent in a tight spot, then just finish him off. I think it’s a type of strength that’s easy to see. I do try to be creative as well, but that stuff is less obvious so it might be hard to understand.”

    1 Ana-bara - A method of sending tetriminoes (blocks) to the opponent in a randomly dispersed state, making things more difficult for the opponent.

    Even among advanced players, the correct answer differs from person to person. It depends on that person’s strengths as well as their personality. Going solely by online records of their recent performance, kazu is the stronger player. But a match is a match. There’s always the possibility that they’ll change their tactics on the day of the showdown. “You never know until you try,” says kazu. “Sometimes I’ll play an opponent I thought I could take, only to find out I was wrong. The opposite also happens. It’s a thing in Tetris. You never know until you try. Amemiya-san’s strong suit is comboing, but he’s gotten better in other areas as well.” Nevertheless, kazu’s true feeling is that he’s the better player. There’s no hint of false posturing here, and that makes his confidence all the more apparent.

    kazu and Amemiya. In recent years, circumstance has prevented them from engaging in rensen. And there’s no guarantee that kazu, who was able to start winning in the past by taking a break, will not be in the opposite position this time. After all, he's up against a battle-hardened “Tetris god.” As we round the hump of December, I asked him again how confident he feels.

    “I’m confident I’m in pretty good shape for this event. So much so that I feel like there’s no more I could have done.”

    I wondered if he was feeling any pressure or anxiety as the event approached. My uncharitable expectations were not met. “…I'm probably the strongest Puyo Puyo Tetris player there is right now.”

    Although kazu has acknowledged his top-tier ability in the past, never in our prior interviews has he stated explicitly that he was “the strongest.” If anything, he seemed to be avoiding the phrase. The meaning behind this declaration can’t be taken lightly. The battlefield known as Kemonomichi may have removed his filter.

    On the other hand, Amemiya is a “Tetris god” with a long track record of achievements at major events, and he, too, claims he is “getting in serious shape,” showing his own high confidence. He has an overwhelming amount of experience in one-shot face-off events, which unquestionably give him an advantage here. We can expect big things when we see these two beasts collide head-on.
  • // Chapter 6
  • When he received the invitation to Kemonomichi 4, kazu accepted without hesitation. “I’d like to be active in this sort of scene,” the teenager says. Is it that he wants to become famous, gain renown? “No, that’s not it. I just want to win (in competitive events).” I asked if he wanted to prove his strength by winning tournaments. His response? “I just want to show myself it was all worth it. By winning, I want to be able to think, ‘I’m glad I play Tetris.’”

    It’s not about going pro or earning money or fame. He wouldn’t deny those things, but to him, none of them are quite the point. “…I guess it’s that I want to get something out of all the time I’ve invested in Tetris. I don’t want it to have been for nothing. If I don’t do something with this, I don’t think I’ll ever be content. I’d be wondering why I bothered with all this… So I guess I’m trying to find a way to mitigate that.”

    So it’s like you’ve got some kind of score to settle?
    “Yeah, it’s like that. I’ve sacrificed a lot (laughs).”

    “Sacrificed”? Like what?
    “I would have liked to live more…normally (laughs). I’m pretty sure I’m not normal. So sometimes I wish I could have lived a more normal life. I guess I want to justify the time I’ve put into playing all this Tetris.”

    You want to give it meaning?
    “Yes. It’s not a very innocent reason.”

    And you don’t know what to do about it?
    “I guess not, maybe. I’ve spent so much time on this (laughs). I mean Tetris is fun, so it’s hard to blame myself, but still…”

    But look how much you’ve done, right?
    “Well, no, this is all I’ve done, so…”

    Do you think you might ever get this into anything besides Tetris?
    “I don’t think so, nothing will ever top Tetris.”

    Leaving aside the question of what "normal" is, how can someone make up for the way they’ve come to feel not normal? It was no coincidence that I’ve sensed the same frustration in another teenagers I was fortunate enough to talk to through Kemonomichi. There is something inexplicable, something different from so-called success or fame. At first glance, the desire for such things may seem unremarkable. However, depending on how you look at it, these are decadent things to seek. I suddenly felt that way as I watched kazu try to put everything into words.

    The first time Umehara played Street Fighter IV at the arcade, he had already turned his back on fighting games once. When he came in contact with them again, he says he truly felt it was a blessing to be good at something. Although I knew kazu hadn’t asked, I couldn’t help but tell him this.

    “That’s how I want to feel,” he said brightly but a bit bashfully. “It’s going to happen, I can sense it.”

    Umehara’s subsequent success was dramatic, but surely what he valued most of all were these realizations and thoughts. The amount of time and emotion spent. If it can be retuned and rebalanced, then even an unbalanced past is no waste. “This is all I’ve done.” We look forward to seeing this young fighter reach his full potential.
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  • // Other Story
  • ・SUPER STREET FIGHTER 2X :: Kotaka Shoten.


    ・DODONPACHI DAI-OU-JOU :: fufufu


    ・PUYO PUYO TETRIS :: kazu

    ・PUYO PUYO TETRIS :: Amemiya Taiyou

    ・STREET FIGHTER 5 :: Kawano

    ・STREET FIGHTER 5 :: Tokido