Fiendish Soviet Puzzle Game Tetris Turn 30 This Week


Tetris_5Soviet Academy of Sciences computer programmer Alexey Pajitnov created Tetris using an Electronika 60 terminal computer on June 6, 1984. Pajitnov’s game proved to be a hit in Moscow – so much so that Pajitnov’s boss banned it from their work space – and soon it was spreading across Eastern Europe. The game reached American gamers a few years later when Spectrum Holobyte released an unofficial port for the IBM PC. The cost was $34.95, or about $70 in today’s money.

Computer users were utterly enthralled by the game. They were challenged by the mix of strategy and hand-eye coordination required to play it, and found it addictive. Productivity probably took a header in more than a few offices throughout the United States as workers stopped filing papers and entering data for “just one more game” of Tetris.

The game escaped the work place when it was ported to Commodore 64, Apple IIe and other home computers, and in 1988, Sega introduced an arcade version of Tetris. The game then moved from the arcade to the palms of gamers’ hands after Nintendo ensured the rights to have it bundled with the Nintendo Game Boy in 1989. It proved to be a major selling point for the system. Around the same time, the Soviet government decided to step in and claim licensing rights for Tetris, as it had been invented in their academy. It seemed everyone was making money from Tetris but Pajitnov: He wouldn’t until 1996 when he won back the rights to the game and started The Tetris Company.

Just about every video game system, computer, or portable digital device that has been released since 1987 has offered some version of Tetris, and sometimes more than one: The game had evolved into several different variations, many of them offering a surprisingly baroque level of complexity for a puzzle game. The classic edition of the game remains an all-time favorite, and remains popular to this day. There’s even a Classic Tetris World Championship at which the best players of the game meet to test their skills. It was recently the subject of a documentary: Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters.

Very few video games enjoy the longevity of Tetris (other titles released in 1984), and while electronic gaming is still in its infancy, I have to wonder if Tetris will be the first true classic of the medium: A game that might be heralded in the same way as chess, presuming we don’t use all of this great technology to blow ourselves up or poison  the Earth in the next few centuries. Provided humanity survives, will our great, great grandchildren one day play some far-future version of Tetris?

Don’t be so certain that they won’t: I doubt that the ancients ever imagined that we’d play chess on iPhones, either.

Interested in more video game history? I suggest David Shiff’s Game Over: How Nintendo Conquered the World.

More American children recognize Super Mario, the hero of one of Nintendo’s video games, than Mickey Mouse. The Japanese company has come to earn more money than the big three computer giants or all Hollywood movie studios combined. Now Sheff tells of the Nintendo invasion–a tale of innovation and cutthroat tactics.