Art and Entertainment

Mark Lennihan/AP

Happy Birthday, Tetris, Addictive Video Game

June 06, 2009
by Amy Goldschlager
Twenty-five years ago, mathematician Alexey Pajitnov introduced the world to that compelling little time-waster, Tetris. The game of tumbling blocks made the Nintendo Game Boy a commercial success and paved the virtual way for other puzzle games like Bejeweled, Snood and Peggle.

Early Days

In June 1984, Pajitnov was working for the Moscow Academy of Sciences when he developed the Tetris program for the Elektronica 60, a personal computer, in his spare time, Kikizo reports. According to GameSpot, Tetris was inspired by a physical puzzle game called Pentomino. The game is deceptively simple but, says The Associated Press, “hard to master”: A series of blocks, or “tetrominoes,” in various shapes fall toward the bottom of your screen. Your task is to fit them together into rows with no spaces. If you complete a row, it vanishes. As you continue, the blocks fall faster and faster; eventually, when you can’t keep up, the blocks will pile up at the top of the screen and the game is over.

Pajitnov shared the code for Tetris with some friends, and the game rapidly spread throughout Moscow and beyond. According to VentureBeat, he and a colleague, Vadim Gerasimov, adapted the game for the PC, and by 1988, several companies were interested in purchasing the rights to the game and distributing it worldwide. The BBC’s 2004 documentary, “Tetris: From Russia With Love,” explores the battle to negotiate the licensing rights for Tetris.

Eventually, after some significant legal wrangling, the rights went to Nintendo, which bundled its new handheld device, Game Boy, with a free copy of the game.

Notable Accomplishments

Many experts in the history of video games argue that the relationship between Tetris and Game Boy was symbiotic: Neither could have reached the level of success that it did without the other. According to Ars Technica, the original Game Boy had a much a longer battery life and lower price than many of its competitors; it achieved this by using a monochrome screen and a low-power 8-bit processor instead of a color LCD screen and a more powerful processor. But that limited the type of game that the device could support. Tetris was a great match for the Game Boy: It had simple graphics, a compelling challenge that appealed to a wide audience, and, as gamer site notes, it could be played for both a short and a long time—ideal for game play on the go. And as consumers responded to the Game Boy’s long battery life and low price by purchasing the device in record numbers, they helped spread the news about Tetris.  

From the Game Boy, Tetris was adapted for a multitude of platforms. VentureBeat reports that to date, the game has sold more than 125 million copies and is available in more than 50 countries.

The Rest of the Story

Pajitnov himself saw none of the initial profits from the incredibly popular game. In an interview with GameSpot, he described how he signed the rights away to his employer for 10 years. The government’s Ministry of Software and Hardware Export, or ELORG, controlled the licensing rights until 1996, when the rights reverted to him.

According to Kikizo, Pajitnov emigrated to the United States in 1991, where he worked as a game designer, both on his own behalf and for Microsoft, developing such games as Pandora’s Box and Hexic. None of his subsequent games have reached the same level of popularity as Tetris. An AP retrospective on Tetris provides several anecdotes demonstrating people’s lasting affection for the game; many who began playing it as kids still enjoy it as adults.

Pajitnov is now a cofounder, part owner and adviser to the Tetris Company; the company sponsors the Tetris Friends site, which offers various versions of the game for free online play.

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