Want to feel old?
“Tetris,” the game where you have to manipulate falling blocks to create lines that are then cleared from the screen, is celebrating its 30th anniversary today. That’s 30 years of yelling at the screen when the blocks speed up at an almost unmanageable rate. That’s 30 years of getting the theme music stuck in your head.
The game is simple. But its story is anything but. Let’s go back in time and check out the history of those falling blocks — called “tetrominoes” — and how they came to be synonymous with Nintendo’s Game Boy handheld gaming system.
It all started in Russia
In 1984 in Moscow, Russian scientist Alexey Pajitnov developed the first version of Tetris on an Electronika 60 terminal computer while working at the Soviet Academy of Sciences.
“I’ve always loved puzzles, so I think it started when I tried to make a 2-player computer game based on Pentomino, a popular puzzle game that I really liked and still play to this day,” Pajitnov tells Business Insider. “What I ended up creating was unique, but at the time, I thought it was just a good game — not any worse or any better than other popular games out at that time. I had no idea it would turn out to be such a global success.”
The following year, it was ported to an IBM PC and it quickly spread all over the Soviet Union. And two years later, the game was distributed to PCs in North America and Europe.
But in 1988, everything changed. That’s when Dutch video game designer and publisher Henk Rogers discovered “Tetris” at that year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, and became instantly hooked on the game.
“My first impression was that this game was too simple, that there was nothing to it,” Henk told The Guardian in an interview in correlation with the game’s 25th anniversary. “Then I came back and played it again. And again. Soon I realised there was something going on — no game had grabbed me at a show just like that.”
But that’s just the beginning of “Tetris'” success. As with any great origin story, there first was some drama to sort through.
The legal history of “Tetris” remains a little unclear to this day.
At the time, “Tetris” was being distributed under a master licence agreement. And the details of the licensing were still uncertain.
In fact, by 1989, several different companies claimed the rights to create and distribute “Tetris” software for computers, consoles, and handheld systems. Companies were licensing and sublicensing rights to the game that they didn’t even hold to begin with.
Some companies were distributing the game on consoles, some on computers. But none of them was sanctioned by the Soviet government, which actually held the rights to the game.
Finally, the Soviet government had had enough.
It began to market rights to “Tetris” through an organisation called Elorg. It decided that Atari Games would have rights to the arcade version, and Nintendo would have rights to the console and handheld versions of “Tetris.”
Atari’s subsidiary, Tengen (which was in charge of consoles), however, disregarded the licensing agreements and started distributing the game for consoles.
Nintendo sent a cease and desist, and Atari sued.
And after only a few weeks on store shelves, the courts ruled that Nintendo was the only company allowed to distribute the game on home consoles. The lawsuits between the two companies continued for years.
Rogers’ company, Bullet-Proof Software, developed the game for Nintendo. During Rogers’ trip to Moscow to help secure rights to the game, he and Pajitnov quickly became friends.
And that’s also when “Tetris” found its big break.
Taking the world by storm
In 1988, Nintendo was working on its Game Boy handheld gaming system.
When Rogers flew to Moscow to get the rights to “Tetris,” he struck a deal that would change history forever: exclusive pack-in rights for the game to be bundled with the Game Boy, rather than the company’s own game, “Super Mario Bros.”
“I convinced the CEO of Nintendo of America, Minoru Arakawa, to include ‘Tetris’ rather than ‘Mario’ by saying to him, ‘If you want little boys to buy your machine include ‘Mario,’ but if you want everyone to buy your machine, include ‘Tetris,'” Rogers tells Business Insider. “I guess it worked. People say ‘Tetris’ made Game Boy and Game Boy made ‘Tetris.’ Both statements are true.”
It would go on to make the handheld platform the most popular portable game system of its time, and in the process, sell more than 35 million copies.
“Tetris is a simple geometric game. There is no such thing as a person who does not like squares or circles,” Rogers says. “On the other hand there are people who are not into Mickey Mouse or Mario. The basic pleasure of putting blocks together to make something is a universal basic pleasure center. ‘Tetris’ hits that pleasure center right in the center.”
Since then, it’s become one of the top-selling video games of all time. It’s been released on more than 50 platforms, translated into more than 50 languages, and played in more than 185 countries. It’s sold more than 170 million copies to date.
Even the game’s creator still loves to play.
“I enjoy all the games I create, and I still play ‘Tetris’ to this day,” Pajitnov says. “Maybe I’m not addicted as much as I used to be, but I do make time to play many of the more recent versions just to keep up on new variants, and to make sure my creative input is still there. I’m glad the rest of the world is still hooked on the game, though.”
And Rogers is just as addicted, and has spent “way, way, way too many” hours playing. “I really don’t want to try counting since I may not want to know the answer to that question,” he says. “It’s like asking someone how many hours they have spent reading or running or watching television or eating ot sleeping. Sometimes it’s better not to know the answer to a question.”
The future looks bright
But that’s just the beginning. In 1996, the Tetris Company was formed. It became the exclusive source of all licenses to Tetris. It also created the Tetris Guidelines to establish consistency and quality standards for the game.
There have been numerous spin-offs and sequels, some official, and some not so official.
And earlier this year, Ubisoft announced a partnership with the Tetris Company to bring the beloved game to the Xbox One and PlayStation 4. The game, “Tetris Ultimate,” will come out this summer.
“I see Tetris becoming a Virtual Sport. There will be leagues and teams from cities or from colleges that compete,” Rogers says. “There will be professional players and it will be a spectator sport.”
But the key to becoming a pro? “Practice, practice, practice,” Rogers says. “There is no way to become a great player without putting in the time.”
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