Over three decades have passed since Tetris made its debut on the NES in 1989. Since then, a holy grail has lied just out of reach—the “true killscreen”. Now, a young prodigy has managed to reach it: after 34 entire years, a flesh-and-blood person has finally beaten Tetris.
Some explanations are in order: a killscreen is a term used in the retro game community. It’s different to an endscreen in that it crashes the game, creating a state where it’s impossible to get further. This is only usually possible in arcade games that are designed to be played endlessly—in an excellent explanation, YouTube channel aGameScout uses the example of PacMan, which breaks down at around level 256.
In Tetris, this word is informally applied to level 29—except it’s not actually a killscreen in the classical sense. Level 29 is the fastest NES Tetris gets, making a “true killscreen” possible for a human to reach. In 2011, a player managed to get past this killscreen by “hypertapping”, an injury-inducing tactic where you vibrate your fingers to achieve rapid-fire inputs.
In 2020, Hypertapping was replaced by “rolling”. Rolling is done by applying pressure to the controller while drumming your fingers along the back of it, essentially making the button come to you. This allowed a competitive player Cheez_Fish to move blocks faster than any player had before, and it soon became standard practice. It also isn’t murder on your hands, which is a big plus.
(Image credit: aGameScout on YouTube.)
Since the game speed doesn’t increase past level 29, one would think that means reaching a true killscreen on Tetris is only a matter of time—well, not necessarily. Not only does the game start to throw glitched-out colours at you, but the requirements to trigger a crash are hyper-specific.
Initially, it was thought that the game’s true killscreen kicks in at level 237, discovered by an AI playing the game. However, that AI was using a slightly modified version of the game’s code. Luckily, Tetris boffin Hydrant created a spreadsheet to suss out the earliest possible killscreen—triggered by clearing a single line of blocks in the transition to level 155.
As for the colours, aGameScout explains: “The line of code that’s supposed to determine the level colour glitches out starting at level 138 and starts pulling data from outside the colour table,” which results in some unintended but super cool challenge levels. Pieces that are dim, pieces that are nearly pitch-black—while the speed doesn’t increase, it definitely gets a hell of a lot harder. These levels gained fan-assigned names, like Dusk and Charcoal.
(Image credit: aGameScout / Blue Scuti)
That’s about 40 minutes of high-stakes Tetris where a player has to be laser-focused, employ physically demanding techniques with pinpoint accuracy, get past levels with nigh-invisible blocks, then clear only one single line at a specific moment.
Enter Willis Gibson, A.K.A blue scuti, a 13-year old prodigy from the United States who had come out of nowhere, kicking blocks and taking names in professional tournaments. On December 19, 2023, Scuti set a new world record by making it to level 153. Just 18 cleared lines of blocks from the vaunted True Killscreen. He was close.
December 21 2023, the final attempt. Scuti misses his first opportunity, clearing several lines instead of just the one he needed—the next trigger point was on level 157, which has around a 70% chance of causing a crash on single-line clears. He presses on, nearly fumbling it, but then: he clears a single line, and he rolls the dice. The game crashes, and Scuti makes tetris history. You can watch the whole thing below.
In an interview with ITZsharky1, Scuti says: “My biggest struggle was when the nerves started kicking in after like 30 minutes of play … you miss one five-tap, and the run can end.” When asked if he had anything to say to his fellow young players, Scuti replies: “If you set your mind to something and you put work to it, most likely you will get it.”
In a touching moment, Scuti is also asked whether he wants to dedicate his historic run to anybody, and replies: “My dad, I’d like to dedicate it to him.” Scuti’s father had died in the same month, December 2023. Towards the tail-end of the interview, he proudly announces: “My grandparents made this”, holding up a hoodie with the words ‘Blue Scuti’ emblazoned across the top, a freeze-frame of his crash printed in the middle, and a “It never ends” below.
When asked what his plans were for the future, he replies with a faint, determined grin: “If somebody takes my record, I want to go after it and take it back.”