A 13-year-old wunderkind is the first human to ‘beat’ Tetris

Willis ‘blue scuti’ Gibson achieved something previously thought impossible—he reached the classic video game's mythical kill screen.
GIF of Willis Gibson achieving kill screen on classic Tetris
Willis 'blue scuti' Gibson pulled off the achievement on December 21, 2023. YouTube

A casual gamer could reasonably assume that, after nearly 35 years, there aren’t many achievements left to attain in the original Nintendo version of Tetris. Willis “blue scuti” Gibson, however, is not a casual gamer by any stretch of the imagination. And on December 21, the 13-year-old pulled off a seemingly impossible feat—he became the first person to “break” the classic puzzle game.

During a livestream, Gibson shocked viewers (and himself) by encountering a never-before-documented, game-ending glitch while playing Tetris on Level 157. To pull off an achievement many once believed impossible, Gibson relied on hours of training, a dedicated community of like-minded gamers, as well as a decades’ deep history of playing innovation, statistical analysis, and perseverance.

Check out a lengthy rundown of the historic gaming moment from aGameScout below:

A glitch nearly four decades in the making

First designed by Soviet software engineer Alexey Pajitnov in 1984, Tetris eventually made its way to the US in 1988 via a number of ports, including the popular NES cartridge game. You can read the surprisingly intricate history of Tetris development and licensing here.

Tetris has long been a go-to for competitive gamers across the world. For decades, players widely believed the classic game’s Level 29 to be its highest achievable level. At that point, the falling block speed becomes so fast that it’s difficult to consistently move pieces to either side of the playing field using the NES controller, ensuring an eventual loss. This technically wasn’t a “kill screen,” per se, in which a coding error crashes a game. Level 29 doesn’t include a game glitch, but because it wasn’t physically possible to keep up, most everyone accepted Level 29 to ostensibly be the original Tetris kill screen.

After 22 years, however, the world of Tetris was upended thanks to one of video gaming’s very first professional competitive gamers. In 2010, Thor Aackerlund reached Level 30 via “hypertapping,” a speedrun method in which a player vibrates their fingers in such a way as to allow the controller to move faster than the in-game speed. From there, other professional gamers soon surpassed Aackerlund’s record while also adopting new, intricate speedrunning controller techniques. By November 2023, players managed to reach a previously unimaginable Level 148 official top level.

[Related: Only 1 in 10 classic video games are publicly accessible today.]

Meanwhile, Tetris technically met its match in an AI program specifically designed to play until a slightly modified version (to accommodate for higher scores) of the game’s coding and RAM gave out. At the same time, enthusiasts began digging into the mathematics underlying the software code itself to determine statistically derived theories on how a human could “beat” the unmodified game. (Watch aGameScout’s entire YouTube video for a fuller rundown.) By the end of 2024, Tetris veterans determined that a dedicated player could make it happen under a very certain set of conditions.

The teen that bested Tetris

On December 21, 2023, Gibson made it happen, becoming the first documented person to achieve the “true” game crash. Nearly 40 years after its development, a human player legitimately beat what was once considered an unbeatable classic. True to Tetris’ legacy, Gibson’s milestone isn’t the end of the road—players are now attempting new records, such as obtaining even higher point scores, and playing for as long as possible while avoiding the kill screen glitch. 2023 ended on a high note for the competitive gaming world, but like Tetris itself, there is always another level to master.

Update 1/3/24 8:55am: In an email to PopSci, Tetris CEO Maya Rogers provided the following comment: As we celebrate the 40th anniversary of Tetris this year, moments like these truly showcase the passion and dedication of Tetris enthusiasts. Congratulations to ‘blue scuti’ for achieving this extraordinary accomplishment, a feat that defies all preconceived limits of this legendary game. This monumental achievement not only breaks new ground in the realm of Tetris but also ignites our anticipation for its future. Here’s to the incredible journey ahead!