Intro to Tetris: The Grand Master

(If you’re coming here from Coin OP in San Francisco: welcome! This post is aimed at you, and the machine we have available to us, but should be generally useful to anyone.)

This post is intended to be an introduction to the Tetris: The Grand Master series (TGM). TGM is a fast-paced, arcade version of Tetris that exists primarily in Japan, but can be seen in a few American arcades, too. If you want to learn a bit about the history of the game and some of the changes in its various iterations, you can watch one of the GDQ showcases, which have a lot of commentary about many aspects of the game, show off the different modes, and show you what top class players look like in action!

This post is going to be devoted to some of the very basics, though, so you can get comfortable with the game and have some fun without needing to understand it deeply.

Starting a game

First up, the new game screen! In this post, I’m going to talk mostly about TAP (the second TGM game, abbreviated for Tetris: The Absolute – The Grand Master 2 PLUS — whew, what a mouthful!)

Insert a quarter, use the joystick to select a mode, and hit the A button to begin!

The brief summary of these modes is as follows:

  • Normal: The “introductory” mode. It plays to level 300 and gives you an item at every 100 levels.
  • Master: The bread and butter of TGM. No items, plays to 1000, and is pretty much the real “normal” for TGM.
  • TGM+: An alternate mode that features garbage rising from the bottom
  • T.A. Death: An extremely fast and difficult mode. Probably a waste of your coins unless you’re already very familiar with this game!
  • Doubles: Two players, one screen! Plays to 300.


Not featured is VS mode, where two players go head to head. To challenge another player in TGM, one player starts a game in one of the modes above, and the second player starts a game after. The game will ask if you want to challenge them; choose yes to play VS. You can read more about VS mode at For the executive summary, see the section at the bottom of this post.

Note: two players can play single-player games side by side! Just insert a coin, hit start, and choose no at the prompt.

From here out, we’ll assume Master mode.

Manipulating the pieces

If you’re familiar with Tetris Friends or any of the console Tetris games from Tetris DS and onward, you’ll notice pretty quickly this is very different! TGM series games use the “Arika Rotation System”, or ARS (details about ARS). I’ll discuss some of the features of this system in a bit, but let’s start at the very top!

The game is played with a joystick and three buttons, but we currently only have two — which suffices. The leftmost button (A) will rotate a piece counterclockwise, or leftwards; the rightmost button (B) will rotate a piece clockwise, or rightwards. Learning to use both rotation directions will be very helpful, especially when we talk about IRS below!


The joystick is mostly obvious: left moves a piece left, right moves a piece right, and down will make a piece drop faster. Up has a special function: when you press up, the piece will instantly fall as far down as it can go, entering the lock delay state (below). This is key to playing fast at the beginning of a game, or just plain convenient sometimes. The fastest you can place a piece is by pressing up to move the piece all the way to the bottom, then immediately down to lock it in place.

Next up, we have delayed auto-shift, or DAS. You probably know intuitively or by playing that if you want to move a piece to the edge of the screen, you can hold that direction and the piece will move quickly on its own after a brief pause. That pause is the delay part of delayed auto-shift; the auto-shift is the part where, after the delay, the piece moves without needing to keep pressing a direction. The TGM series has very fast DAS, which means that you don’t have to hold a direction for long, and when the piece moves, it moves very quickly. DAS is vital when playing at higher speeds/levels.

One important thing to note about DAS is this: you can “charge” your delay before the piece even spawns/enters the field. At high speeds, this is the only way you will get a piece to the side in time to get over bumps and such! If you plan ahead and hold a direction early, you’ll be much more likely to get the pieces where you want them.

Lock delay

When a piece is touching the surface of your stack (has landed), the lock delay timer starts. (The stack is what we call the accumulation of pieces you’ve already placed into the matrix, the play area). The outline of the piece will gradually fade from bright to dark, and when the delay has expired, the piece will lock into place. Until that time, you can still move and rotate the piece. Pressing down when a piece is in lock delay will lock it immediately (we call this “manual locking”, or manlocking for short). After a piece locks, there will be a delay (called “are”, from the Japanese word あれ for “that”), and the next piece will spawn at the top.

The Arika rotation system uses something called step reset. When a piece has landed, lock delay begins. If it then moves into open space and falls another row or more, the lock delay is reset, and the counter starts over again. This means that, if you move a piece down some “stairs”, you will have much more time to manipulate the piece than moving it across a flat surface. Each time it falls off the edge, the lock delay will start over. This can give you precious frames to get a piece where you want it to be!


You’ll notice that pieces spawn with the jagged/pointy bits facing down, which can be pretty troublesome! Especially when things get fast, your piece can get hung up easily on bumps or holes in the stack. There is a feature called initial rotation system, or IRS, which helps with this. If you hold a rotation button before a piece spawns (and keep holding it until after!), it will spawn in that rotation. For most pieces, one rotation in either direction will present a flat surface that you can slide along your play field much more easily.

There is a lot to talk about here, but just knowing about IRS will get you started. You can read in detail about ARS on the wiki.


Your level is displayed to the bottom right side of your matrix. In the picture below, the current level is 339, and the next level section (displayed underneath) is 400.

The level goes up once every time a new piece spawns, and once for every line clear. The only way you can proceed to the next section is by clearing a line. (Sections are the levels from 0-99, 100-199, and so on). So, if you’re on level 199, you won’t make any progress until you clear a line! Level factors into your game progress and also your grade. We’ll talk about grades a little in the ranking section.


Gravity refers to the speed at which a piece falls from the top of the screen to the bottom. TGM series games feature a speed curve, which refers to the rate at which this speed increases. It usually increases slowly over the first few sections, then resets, speeds up faster, and eventually reaches the highest speed which is called 20g. The unit “g” (for gravity) refers to how many rows a piece falls per frame (TAP runs at 60 frames per second). 20g means that the piece falls 20 rows in one frame — in other words, it instantly moves to the bottom. In TGM Master mode, level 500 and onward are 20g. (More about the speed curve)

20g play is a whole post of its own, but what I’ll mention here is this: the faster the gravity is, the more you will need to shape your stack into a pyramid-shape. This allows you to move pieces as far as you want to without them getting stuck, and  grants you precious time as a result of the step reset discussed above.

Grades and ranking

While “points” are featured prominently on the screen, the leaderboards in TGM are ordered by your rank and your speed. Your rank is the number featured to the right of your matrix at the top. It goes from 9 to 1, S1 to S9, and finally M and GM. GM is a real achievement, and extremely difficult to accomplish! A higher grade will be placed above a lower grade on the leaderboard, and a faster time will come before a slower time when the grades are tied. To achieve a high rank, the simplest advice is “play fast, make Tetrises.”

The ranking system is somewhat nuanced, but it comes down to approximately: clearing lines increases your ability to increase in rank, and time passing reduces your ability to increase in rank. Fast, good, and consistent play is key. (Read the gory details of TAP scoring)

Final thoughts

TGM is a challenging and rewarding game to pick up. The best players in the world have spent years, or decades, mastering the series — but you don’t have to go that far just to have some fun with it. Be curious, try things out, and most of all — enjoy the game. TGM is most rewarding to people who love a challenge and always want to improve.

The wiki is a wealth of information about the nitty gritty details of the games, but can be pretty intimidating. To talk to other TGM fans, you might try Tetris Concept. If you’d like to get ahold of me, drop an e-mail to tetrisguide (at) If you have questions, or things you’d like me to write about, I’d be happy to hear them!

Happy Tetrising!

Addendum: Versus mode

I see a lot of people playing versus, so here’s a little bit about how that all works!

Participants play a best-of-three match head to head. The gravity and gameplay is the same as the single-player mode the challengee was playing when challenged. There is a time limit and a level limit (2:40 and 300 at coin-op). If the time limit is reached, the player with the highest level wins. If a player makes it to the level limit before anyone tops out, that player wins.

Some pieces will spawn with special styling/coloration; these are items, and can be defensive (such as chopping off some of your field, or “shaking” all the blocks to get rid of the holes), or offensive (the opponent’s piece changes randomly when rotating, or their visibility is reduced in some ways). You can activate an item by clearing a line that contains it. Items can be disabled if both players hold their start buttons when a VS match is initiated.

As for the actual gameplay, you can directly push lines to the bottom of your opponent’s matrix by clearing 2 or more lines at once. The number of lines sent is the same as the number cleared, so a double will send 2 lines, a triple will send 3 lines, and a Tetris will send 4 lines. The lines received by the opponent will have holes in the same location as the piece that the attacker cleared with, but with the rows reversed. For example:

The attacker (left) clears two lines with a J piece. The top row is cleared with two blocks (minos) of the J piece, and the bottom row is cleared with one. The defender (right) receives a row with one hole on the left above a row with two holes on the left.

Unlike most Tetris games, there is no efficiency disadvantage for attacking with doubles or triples. In fact, in TGM, these can create garbage that is more difficult to clear and therefore is more advantageous than spamming Tetrises!

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