Today I’ve decided to do something different. And if you read the title, I’m sure you’ve, at least, heard about Tetris. If not, welcome to planet Earth and I apologise for all the craziness, but I’m sure you’ll love to hear about this game. So join us in taking a look at a very popular game (that defined the puzzle genre), its history and its most famous versions and ports.
Tetris was created in June 1984 in Soviet Russia, when Alexey Pajitnov, a 28-year-old computer engineer working for the Soviet Academy of Sciences in Moscow, decided to program a puzzle game to test the capabilities of the Electronika 60 computer. Based on the puzzles he played as a child, Pajitnov programmed shapes formed from combinations of 4 blocks, which he named tetrominoes. And combining that word with tennis, he created Tetris:
The first version of Tetris. (Video courtesy of the Sergei Frolov)
As you can see, the gameplay is extremely easy to understand. You only need to combine all the different shapes as they fall until a horizontal row is filled. Then said row disappears, clearing that particular line, up to a total of 4 consecutive rows. After a certain number of cleared rows, the blocks start to fall faster and faster, increasing the difficulty until the entire playing area is full, prompting a game-over.
Pajitnov showed the game to his colleagues at the Academy, who became easily addicted to it and 2 of them, Dmitry Pavlovsky and Vadim Gerasimov (who was 16-years-old at the time!) helped Pajitnov port the game to DOS and later distribute it through BBS in 1995.
This is the DOS prototype made by Vadim Gerasimov found on the Tetris Gold compilation by Spectrum Holobyte.
After being smuggled to Hungary, it spread across Europe like a virus until it fell to the hands of British software publisher Andromeda, who after failing to secure the rights from Pajitnov due to the Cold War politics at the time, decided to illegally sell its rights to Mirrorsoft and Spectrum Holobyte, who then released the first commercial versions of the game for several computers, featuring Russian imagery and music.
This is the first commercial Tetris game for DOS by Spectrum Holobyte.
But back in Russia, following the initial success of the game, Pajitnov was forced to give the rights of Tetris to Elektronorgtechnica (Elorg), a state-run organization, for 10 years. But Elorg’s director at the time, Alexander Alexinko, found out that Andromeda and Mirrorsoft were selling Tetris rights (which they had no legal claim to) to almost everybody, including Atari, Sega and a certain Dutch publisher called Henk Rogers.
Tetris arcade version by Atari. (Video courtesy of 90’s Arcade Games)
Henk Rogers’ participation was key in finally securing the game’s rights. After watching a version of the game in the Las Vegas’ Computer Electronic Show in 1988, Rogers saw its commercial potential and broke a deal with Nintendo, but unfortunately, Tengen (a subsidiary of Atari) already made a version of Tetris for the NES:
Tetris for the NES by Tengen (Video courtesy of EMN Company)
Rogers then travelled to Russia to properly secure the rights from Elorg and Pajitnov. But he wasn’t alone. Robert Stein from Andromeda and Kevin Maxwell from Mirrorsoft also travelled to Russia for the rights to Tetris.
What happened later was the stuff of legends (so much so, that Hollywood wants to make a movie trilogy based on it), from the fact that Rogers travelled with a tourist visa instead of a business visa (which could have put him in a very tight legal spot!) to even an appeal from Mirrorsoft to Mikhail Gorbachev to mediate all the legal chaos. But Rogers, using his charm and with Pajitnov’s help, finally secured the rights for Nintendo. Although the battle for rights would continue to rage on throughout the following years.
Nintendo then, with the rights properly secured, mass-produced Tetris for their new portable console, the Game Boy. And they had the masterstroke to bundle Tetris with each copy of the Game Boy, insuring Tetris’ place in videogame history.
Tetris for Game Boy (Video courtesy of 316whatupz)
And after releasing their own version for the NES, Nintendo then forced Atari and Sega to recall their own copies from the market, claiming sole ownership of Tetris for consoles, which made the Tengen NES and the Sega Mega Drive versions of Tetris so rare in later years, that they’re considered extremely valuable among collectors nowadays.
Tetris for the Sega Mega Drive (Video courtesy of Oberon Gaming)
But it was the Game Boy version released in 1989 that became the most famous version of Tetris, due to its portability combined with its addictive nature and simplicity, that even people that never thought about playing videogames could easily play and enjoy it anywhere.
Also, an arrangement of a Russian traditional song, Korobeiniki, became so popular and associated with Tetris, that people started calling it the “Tetris theme”. In fact, it became so insanely popular that Andrew Lloyd Webber (you know, the guy behind the Cats and The Phantom of the Opera musicals) even recorded a dance remix with Nigel Wright under the name of Doctor Spin:
Yes, this is your brain on Tetris.
But our story doesn’t end here. In 1996, the rights of Tetris reverted back to Pajitnov, who then with Rogers, funded the Tetris Company and trademark not only the name but every aspect of the game, regulating every license and prosecuting every unlicensed version and clone. Pajitnov and Rogers also created other puzzle games, but never recreated the success they had with Tetris. But they still license new versions with new features up to this day.
Tetris basically reshaped all the puzzle genre and even the videogame industry itself. Its gameplay is extremely simplistic and addictive. Its accessibility however is what makes Tetris so enjoyable. Seeing someone with disabilities that can’t play typical videogames, enjoying a simple game like Tetris, is a sight to behold. And it opened the Western world a bit more towards Russian culture, so I think I’m not exaggerating when I say Tetris is a true icon of Humanity.
- The Gaming Historian’s video about the history of Tetris, which I recommend watching.
So, what did you think of my retrospective of Tetris? I hope I made it proper justice. If there’s anything you’d like to add, please leave it in the comments below. Next time, is back to basics. Till then, keep on stacking those blocks.