In Conversation with the King of Game Boy 'Tetris'
You won't know Uli Horner. He's no eSports star like Faker or xPeke. But he's a world record holder on the world's biggest-selling game, <em>Tetris.</em>
Uli Horner spreads the cream and jam onto his scone, sliced almost too perfectly in half, with the utmost precision. The layers are even, with nary the smallest square millimeter of the scone left untouched by the accompaniments. He takes a sip from a glass of classic Coke, a bite, and lets his modesty unfurl with an endearing sincerity.
"I know that there are people out there who have maxed the game out at 999,999. People claim they've done it—and I believe them. But perhaps they paused, and they've just not bothered to film themselves. You have to film your effort for any record to stand. So I don't actually feel like I'm the best out there, and there are definitely at least two people who could beat my record. They can tap things very quickly."
Horner's game of choice, the game that he is the official world record holder in, is Tetris—specifically 1989's Tetris for the Game Boy, a.k.a. the Tetris, the one version of the game that ever really meant anything to Europeans. The German-born Horner's 441 lines and points tally of 748,757 puts him at the top of the global Twin Galaxies standings. (Twin Galaxies, founded in 1981, being the organization that tracks such achievements.) In 6th place, with 507,110 points, is Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. The guy in second, New York artist Rutherford Chang, is more than 130,000 points behind Horner. And yet, sitting in a small London cafe, just a short walk from both his place of work and the VICE office, the official number one in the world maintains that he's absolutely not the best out there.
"In America, it's the NES version that's really big, and they rather run the whole Tetris scene. Nobody really plays the Game Boy one, so I'm benefitting from not having so much competition. And I'd never tell anyone playing another version of Tetris that I'm better than them. Online, there's Tetris Friends, and I play that with a nice mechanical keyboard. I'm quite OK at that. But if you want to see something amazing, watch some of the Japanese people who play the arcade version of Tetris. That's the proper arcade stuff, made by Arika. Look on YouTube for TGM, Tetris: The Grand Master, and that is incredible. That is beyond what a human being should be able to do. That skill is beyond anything I'm close to."
An advertisement for the Game Boy, and 'Tetris,' from 1989
As amazing as some players' dexterity is, fingers flicking at hyper-speed in comparison to the slower Game Boy version of the world's biggest-selling multi-format game of all time, there's a unique trait to the portable favorite that makes it the hardest to perfect.
"Game Boy Tetris is horrible in a way," Uli says, "because you get genuinely random pieces. It's truly random—it's always a one in seven chance, so you can always end up with horrible combinations that just kill you. All the other versions of Tetris have something readable in there—allegedly, it's easier to consistently play well on other versions. So even I will mess up games on the Game Boy version, which is really frustrating, because you're beating the bell curve—you have to play a thousand times to get a few nice games. Some of the other versions, you can approach them with tactics that will always work."
I read about someone getting 400,000 points, and that was the European record. I could do 500,000 at that point—so that's how I knew I was good.
Like many of us who were into video games in the early 1990s, Uli coveted a Game Boy—but as someone who was in his later teenage years, he actually felt a little embarrassed to be seen with Nintendo's multi-million-selling handheld. "It could be seen as a child's toy," he says. "But I bought one, and didn't tell anyone, when I was just finishing school, during my final year. I spent that year just playing on the Game Boy. For the whole of 1993, I just played Tetris. I bought, probably, almost a hundred other games for it, over the years, but I'm sure that I didn't touch 80 percent of those, even once. Because Tetris is just nicer—I do really, really like it.
"I'd been playing a lot, and it felt like I'd got quite good," he continues. "And for some reason our local newspaper, in a place a bit south of Stuttgart, in Reutlingen, they had an article on a day when there was no news about a guy who'd broken one of the records for Tetris, because he'd gone into the newspaper's offices when his battery was running out. He eventually got 400,000 points, and that was the European record. And I could do 500,000 at that point—so that's how I knew I was good."
Today, elite gamers can earn amazing rewards for their prowess with a mouse and keys—the rise of eSports shows no signs of stalling just yet. Uli's dabbled with competitive gaming from a spectator's perspective before—he used to watch StarCraft, adding, "That was very entertaining with the right guys playing—a lot of the time it's more about them, and their personalities, than the games themselves." He's totally onboard with young players taking advantage of their skills while they can—"if someone is good enough to play video games for five years and then maybe not have to work too much for the rest of their life, why not?"—but there are no comparable perks to being an amazing Tetris player.
"There were always rumors in the 1990s, that there was this magical tournament in Japan, and you get a Game Boy and every single game that's ever been released. But of course it wasn't true.
I've bought a GoPro now—I previously taped an iPhone to a vase to record myself.
"When you tell people that you're the best at a game like this, they assume that must benefit you in some way. But there's no money in this—and you have to buy these things (the Game Boy), although they're quite cheap. There must still be unused ones in cupboards—I have to wait for a mother to clean out her son's old room." He pulls out an original model from his bag: "This one is from a specialist German trader, who rates them according to how good they are, and this is the highest grade. It cost me £80 [about $100]—although I used to buy them for £5 [about $6]. I still have the Game Boy I first broke a record with, but I can't use it anymore.
"The big challenge nowadays," he continues, "is to find a Game Boy with good enough buttons to go for a record. This one is refurbished, I think, and the buttons are quite stiff, but to be honest, I've never found an original Game Boy that's really good enough—I set my record on a Pocket model. The buttons on the first Game Boy are by far the nicest, but they're usually so worn out these days."
Uli Horner, photographed by Giulio Antonutto
Uli might be the world record holder, 100 percent verified, at Tetris where it—let's be honest now—really matters. But his recorded best is far from the most he's ever scored.
"I got 889,000 points at one point, which is the best I've ever been," he tells me. "That was before I knew anything about recording my attempts, to send away to Twin Galaxies. So the Twin Galaxies score, which I set in 2011, is the official record, but it's lower than the best I've got. Filming yourself as you set the score means that you can't cheat. You're not allowed to pause, to take a break—you have to set your score in a single run.
"So, you turn the game up to level nine at the beginning, because points are awarded proportionally to the difficulty—the higher, the more you get. It goes up to level 20, and that's the ceiling, that's from 200 lines. So as soon as you've made 200 lines, you're playing the game at its toughest. And at that stage, any mistake just kills you. At that point, my brain is constantly putting the preview in the field, so I'm not even consciously aware of what's happening on the field. It sounds sophisticated, but if you play 10,000 games of Tetris, you'd be able to do it, too. I had a friend who I quite quickly taught to reach 400,000 points. It's not that hard—it's just seven pieces, to arrange in a field. I could probably sit here and get 500,000 while talking to you. That's about my average."
He doesn't start a game as we chat—although he does constantly fiddle with the Game Boy, prying off the battery cover and replacing it. "They're always so loose," he rightly observes. "I've never lost one, though." The desire to do better, to beat his own high score, still surfaces from time to time—but when Uli decides to go for it, he has a system that he sticks to.
"It's usually when I'm between jobs that I get the urge to go for it. I'll take a week off, and I'll devote some of each day to the record. That's just an hour or two every day—I can't do it any longer. I think the first time I broke the record, I started playing on a Saturday and broke it on the Sunday—but after that it was Tuesday, and the next time it was Wednesday. So it can take a while to get going. I don't actively play every day anymore—I've stopped playing on the bus, because what if I broke the record there? Although, the last time my wife and I took a holiday, to Scotland for a week, I took a Game Boy and didn't play it once—it was just nicer to look out of the window.
I really love that you always lose. The game will only end when you lose. Your best is only ever good enough to lose. How great is that?
"But I will keep trying. I've bought a GoPro now—I previously taped an iPhone to a vase to record myself. My records have always been set in a way that's not comfortable. Not having that 999,999 score does bug me, and I will keep trying for that. But then I sometimes also think, I have the record, I have my name in the gamer's edition of the Guinness World Records, and maybe that's enough.
"I'll tell you what I really love about the game, though—that you always lose. The game will only end when you lose. Your best is only ever good enough to lose. How great is that? In other games, you shoot everyone and you win. Nobody really wins at Tetris, ever."
We leave the cafe and go our separate ways. Nobody will stop Uli on the street to ask for an autograph, a photo, or even a little advice on how to be the best at the most popular version of what is among the most famous video games in the world. But he walks away as an undisputed champion, a button-bashing king of a monochromatic kingdom. And it's likely he'll reign for no little while yet.
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Illustration by Gavin Spence