As video games go, it’s difficult to find something as classic as Tetris. This was one of the original internationally successful video games. The puzzle game continues to be popular throughout the world and is available on pretty much every computer console or device on the market. The game is thought to have sold around 170 million copies worldwide, over 100 million of these for cell phones alone! The story of behind the game is almost as extraordinary as the success the game achieved. The story of how the game hit screens everywhere, even amid Cold War tensions, is pretty unique.
First off, we’ll talk a little bit about what the Tetris game actually is. It’s greatest strength lies in the fact that it is so incredibly simple. The graphics are minimal, there are no characters of any kind, and no story as such. But it works. The crux of Tetris is that players must rotate falling puzzle pieces on the screen to make them fit together and create solids, and then they disappear. The catch being that the pieces start to fall faster and faster as you build a higher score, making it increasingly more difficult.
The inventor of the game was Russian computer engineer Alexey Pajitnov who, at the time, was a 29-year-old working at the Soviet Academy of Sciences. While working as a coder, he was also developing a prototype for the game that would go on to become Tetris. The name was coined by joining together the word tetromino, with the word tennis, Pajitnov’s favorite sport. After developing the game for fun in 1984, it was an unexpected success and resulted in one of the weirdest stories in the history of video games.
Private business was illegal in the Soviet Union during the mid-’80s. So, after developing the game a little further with colleagues, and porting it onto a PC format, Pajitnov and co began to share the game, and it grew in popularity. The game was eventually smuggled into Hungary and moved across Europe. Eventually, British tycoon Robert Maxwell and his company Mirrorsoft published the first commercial versions of the game in around 1987 – however, the legitimacy of Mirrorsoft’s rights to the game was questionable.
Because Pajitnov had developed the game while working at the Soviet Academy of Sciences, this effectively meant Tetris belonged to the Soviets. As a result, everybody who currently had bought or owned rights to the game was in danger of losing them unless it negotiated with Soviet company Elorg. Around this time a Dutch computer programmer called Henk Rogers brokered a deal with Elorg for a handheld version of Tetris, which he then took to Nintendo for release with their Game Boy. But, Maxwell and Robert Stein of Andromeda were also trying to secure the rights, with Maxwell even trying to get Mikhail Gorbachev involved! But it was no good, Rogers won the day and secured the rights.
Tetris was released on the Game Boy but was also licensed for release on other consoles too. The Game Boy version is pretty common and easy to come by, as is the PC version, but there was also a version developed for the NES by Atari. The problem here was that Atari hadn’t actually acquired the rights to make the game, so had to withdraw it from sale – there are thought to be as little as 100,000 copies in existence. An even rarer version, though, is the Sega Mega Drive version, developed but scrapped by the company over the licensing furor. There are but a handful of these somewhere out in the wilds, and they are incredibly rare.
Storming the charts
Incredibly, Tetris seemed to be a hit all across the world, and not just in the world of video games. The iconic music, created by Hirokazu Tanaka is instantly recognizable and was one of the defining video game themes of the ‘80s and ‘90s. So much so that Andrew Lloyd Webber – theater composer famous for Cats – released a remixed version of the song in 1992, which made Number 2 in the UK singles charts!