The Man Who Helped Change Tetris by Playing Track & Field

Jason Bennett,

November 18, 2021 5:25 AM

How veteran gamer Hector 'Fly' Rodriguez shared his arcade "secrets" and inspired a new generation of Tetris players


Over the weekend the Classic Tetris World Championship hosted its final 8 showdown to crown the 2021 CTWC world champion, and there's one man that's helped revolutionize competitive Tetris play in ways not even imagined last year. What's interesting about this turn of events is that the man in question isn't widely known in the community, at least by name. He's not in this year's the tournament. And to top it off, he's not even ranked.

From the very first match of the final 8, his name came up - sort of.

In a rocking opening, new-to-the-finals Richy was creating a lot of buzz in his match against two-time CTWC Champion Joseph Saelee with his play technique. While Joseph employed hypertapping to turn and drop the pieces, Richy used a technique that was only popularized earlier this year called rolling.

"Didn't Cheeze come up with that?" asked Chris Tang. A brief discussion with co-host James Chen ensued, noting that Tetris player aGameScout (David Macdonald) also helped spread the word with a YouTube video demonstrating the technique in April, as well as preliminary discussion with the late Jonas Neubauer who mentioned a new technique involving multiple fingers applied to the NES controller.

"It's also called the 'Track & Field technique' for any old folks in the audience," quipped James.

"Well, I sure ain't young!" replied Mr. Track & Field when he learned of the shout-out.

At least James didn't call him boomer - although he does love a variant as a catch phrase (more on that later).

Joking aside, James wasn't wrong. The technique turning the Tetris world upside down was born 38 years ago on a Track & Field arcade cabinet, possibly on a Saturday afternoon at La Puente Lanes or in a corner store at some other neighboring town during a weekend excursion. And the technique itself became so intertwined with the kid using it that years later mentioning one immediately conjured the other, a kind of symbiosis between the player and the game. And most important of all, the choice to share his performance over the years has helped shape one of the most popular games on the planet.

The kid now sports a beard, and his name is Hector 'Fly' Rodriguez.

And yes, he loves Tetris, too.

COMPETITIVE BEGINNINGS

If you circulate in classic arcade game circles, it will be only a short time before you first encounter Fly.

You'll probably first hear about him any time Track & Field comes up. But then you'll quickly learn that Fly isn't just a "one game" specialist, or even one era specialist. You'll just as soon hear Fly talk about playing Street Fighter V on the Nintendo Switch as you will hear him trade tips on speedrunning Vs. Excitebike. You may also notice him at major arcade tournaments like the Score Wars Galaga World Championship held in April 2018 that brought together the world's best players. Or maybe you'll see him speak up at the Donkey Kong Forum chatbox. Every time Fly drops by, he types out the same word in caps to announce his arrival.

"BOOM!"

You might get the impression that Fly isn't shy about making an impression. And for over 20 years, Fly has been impressing the gaming scene.

"My competitive nature is what attracted me to arcade games," explained Fly. "I was ultra competitive to the point of my competition avoiding me or not even trying against me."

A life long resident of La Puente, a suburb east of Los Angeles, Fly's love of and reputation for competition didn't stop at the entrance of the bowling alley arcade. Throughout middle school and high school, Fly "touched the grass" practically every day by participating in track and field along with that all-American bone-crunching game of football.

Fly (middle, far right) sports long hair on his high school track team [Image Source: Fly]

But like every kid growing up in the 80s, Fly couldn't avoid video games, and they couldn't avoid him. Even if you by-passed the bowling alley arcade, want to visit a corner store? Boom! There's an arcade game. Waiting in the doctor's office? Boom! There's an arcade game. Maybe you're feeling hungry and want to pop into your local pizzeria? Boom! There's an arcade game.

So while Fly and gaming seem fated in retrospect, those closest to him weren't in a hurry to put them together.

"My family wasn't into video games and we didn't have a family console," Fly revealed. "I bought my own Atari 2600 by skipping school lunch to save 75 cents, washing cars, and mowing lawns."

Watching Fly scrape together and save up $149 for his own console along with the growing normalization of video games in society slowly broke down his parent's defences, eventually leading to their purchase of a NES console by 1985.

Like for many NES owners, the console served as the primary introduction to one of the most popular games of all time, Tetris. But unlike for a lot of us, Tetris wasn't just a causal play and then on to the next cartridge.

"I love the game. Always have," he declared. "I still have the [comes in box] NES Tengen version as well as a few other versions across Gameboy, NES, SNES, and arcade. I had to know it fairly well to advance a couple of rounds in the 1990 Nintendo World Championships."

And while Fly's initial foray with Tetris for the Nintendo Championships might be construed as a cosmic foreshadow of sorts, the full Tetris story can't be told without turning our attention back a few years earlier to a game that would be instrumental as a source for further innovation.

LEARNING ON THE TRACK

In 1983, Konami released the sports-themed arcade game Track & Field, which went on to be a huge commercial success. The game cabinets came in either two player or four player configurations, and took the player through a series of track events such as 100 meter dash or the long jump. The controls for the game featured 3 buttons - two buttons that the player tapped to run, and a third button to either jump or throw, depending on the requirements of the event.

A typical Track & Field Control Panel from the arcade game [Image Source: Worthpoint.com]

In many of the events, running was a critical ingredient to create speed and momentum, resulting in hilarious situations of gamers tapping furiously to cross that digital finish line first or to have enough speed to throw the javelin a good distance. Some of the more inventive tried their hand at using pencils or popsicle sticks that they perched like a see-saw between their fingers to amp up the tapping, prompting some arcade owners to replace the standard buttons with "anti-cheat" ones that used a raised ridge along the button ring.

A pencil does the trick: looking for an edge on Track & Field [Image Source: ATARIeric]

Watching other players on the game, Fly experimented with a variant that involved using a comb but he wasn't content to rely on tools alone. Around 1984 or 1985 after much experimentation with finger and then multiple finger tapping, Fly had his pivotal moment in the arcade thanks to a fellow arcade competitor whose name is lost to time.

"I had seen others doing something similar but with only 2 fingers on each hand," Fly shared. "Then I saw someone use all 8 fingers! That's when I realized that I need to learn that. Almost like magic, I did it on my first try with great results. Only thing is that I did it pointer finger first. Backwards from what I saw him do it."

With his new technique, Fly simply blew away the competition at the game and no amount of furious pencil tapping could catch up or best his results. His technique was literally a game changer.

"There were other competitors [on Track & Field]," he noted, "but I always took it to the next level and needed to go against myself."

The computer doesn't stand a chance: Fly using his 8 finger roll during the 100 m dash in February 2018 [Image Source: Fly Youtube]

So while Fly took the opportunity to tag Track & Field machines with his initials wherever he could find them during the game's peak popularity, his interests invariably shifted to new games and new challenges as operators rotated in the latest arcade offerings, to say nothing of the latest game releases on home consoles over the years.

TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE

By the close of the century, widespread access to the world wide web led to the proliferation of on-line communities and it was around this time that Fly started to hang out on some gaming forums like Twin Galaxies. And where there's forums, there's going to be talk.

"There was always chatter about Track & Field," recalled Fly. "I always chimed in and said what I used to get on events and what kind of scores I got."

In late 2005, Fly began to submit tapes to demonstrate his skills with Track & Field ports on the NES and PS1. But what they saw they couldn't believe.

"Previous refs that thought I was cheating when I first submitted a few years before just using direct screen captures [VCR recording]," he said. "They flat out said it was turbo and it was impossible. I still get that from time to time on YouTube."

The solution, which is almost standard practice today, was to re-record his game with an extra camera trained on his hands to confirm that everything was on the up-and-up. The additional proof turned out to be handy (pun intended) when his NES Track & Field scores were officially challenged a couple of years later by other players.

"Seemed like overkill at the time," Fly said, looking back at the additional work to validate his submissions, "but they [TG] had 100% without a doubt the proof they needed to say the score was legit."

While initially content to compete on the console versions of the game, Fly also had his eyes set on acquiring his own Track & Field arcade machine if the conditions were right. In 2009, he finally found a coveted cocktail Track & Field cabinet that was close to home at an appealing price. Fly pulled the trigger although the decision wasn't about nostalgia

"I got the machine with the intent to get the world record and show how good I used to be," he explained. "I didn't want to be all talk like so many others out there."

Fly attends the filming of The Video Craze at the Last Arcade on the Planet with his wife Sylvia Rodriguez [Image Source: Fly]

Setting up the machine in the family room with a tripod and video camera to record the action, Fly immersed himself in practice, stopping and starting over as he honed his technique. Finally, in December 2008 Fly submitted a new Track & Field high score of 95,350 points, beating a fabled record that stretch back to 1984.

"I didn't know a machine could be turned on and off sooo many times without getting fried! But it made it through," Fly wrote on he TG forum at the time.

And although he had a new Twin Galaxies World Record in hand, Fly was known just as much for his technique as he was for the final score on the game. But unlike a contingent of classic arcade gamers that treated their game play as state secrets, hiding it from public view while expecting public praise and accolades as a world record holder, Fly crucially took a different approach. Whether he was at an arcade tournament, the local barcade, or recording for his YouTube (and later Twitch) channel, Fly discussed, demonstrated, and shared unconditionally how he played the game for skeptic and curious alike. And if it wasn't for that generosity and openness, the next part of this story would have taken a very different turn.

TETRIS, MEET TRACK & FIELD

While gamers competed with new techniques to win at Tetris since its debut in 1989, the establishment of the Classic Tetris World Championship in 2010 provided a high profile event for the community to coalesce around. As far as player input in manipulating the falling puzzle pieces, the standard method for decades was to simply hold down the D-pad to move the piece as part of the game's delayed auto-shift (DAS) implementation. However, since 2017 high level Tetris play has been dominated by hypertapping, which is a style where the player rapidly taps the D-pad rather than simply holding it, permiting much faster piece manipulation. While widely adopted, hypertapping does come at a cost in terms of physical strain that can be difficult to sustain tournament after tournament.

aGameScout demonstrates the rolling effect applied to the bottom of the controller [Image Source: aGameScout YouTube]

One player that wrestled with this trade-off in search of a new approach was Cheez_Fish. In what began as a more efficient way to hypertap evolved into full-blown search for a successor technique, one that attained hypertap level results without the strain or barrier to entry. By late 2020, Cheez_Fish reached out to Fly with exciting news - he devised a new way to apply a continuous, smooth motion across the D-pad in a manner reminiscent of Fly's Track & Field technique.

"I saw it well before it was a big thing," Fly said. "I knew he was onto something and I shared his technique on a few forums and on my Twitter."

Rather than applied directly to the buttons, fingers are rolled across the back of the controller. This motion, combined with placement of the other hand over the D-pad, permitted even faster manipulation of the puzzle piece without strain of hypertapping. And more than that, this method permitted players like Cheez to make it deeper into the game when Level 29 was traditionally seen as the "killscreen" due to the speed of the falling pieces.

As the technique became more widely shared, the term "rolling" was commonly applied to describe it. But in a nod to the Track & Field master, the method has also been called "Flyheccing." Whether the use of this term takes a backseat to rolling or not, it's not everyday that a player is acknowledged so directly for their contribution.

NEXT STEPS

Fly has been following the CTWC for years now and has front row seat in the Tetris scene, if a bit inconspicuous.

"I'm in the Classic Tetris Discord," he said. "I don't contribute much but I do chime in sometimes. Mostly about the pointer finger first and them doing it wrong. And the tip I drop most often but it's probably taken as sarcasm - beard oil! Use beard oil to roll faster!"

It's hard to know if his advice for young beardless teenagers to buy beard oil will have lasting influence, but one thing we can be sure of is that Fly has impacted the gaming community in a much more positive way by shunning the worst hoarding instincts that plagued the classic arcade gaming scene in the past. And with every new advancement, with every new Tetris record that the community comes together to celebrate, we're all the richer for it.


To see more about Fly's Track & Field and other world record exploits, you can catch him on YouTube or Twitch



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