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History of Tetris: From Russian Academia to Online Social Gaming

Updated on August 12, 2014

Why "Tetris"?

The word Tetris is a combination of the Greek prefix tetra denoting "4", there bing 4 blocks in each Tetris shape, and tennis

Tetris Origins

Tetris began its life as an academic project, a simple game of interlocking blocks created on a long defunct RussIan computer. Converted to PC format it spread virally, until it gained the attention of the big video game distributors including Atari and Nintendo, who could see potential of the game to sell in the millions.

Thus ensued a various legal battles for ownership of the game, which ultimately resulted in victory for Nintendo and the use of Tetris to launch its most successful console ever, the Nintendo Game Boy. Along the way the game has been converted to arcade and home console formats, and is now playable online against opponents anywhere in the world.

But what of the original author of the game, and the recognition they received for creating not only the worlds most addictive game, but also the genesis of the puzzle game phenomenon that dominates current mobile gaming platforms?

As a collector of handheld video games I have a special affinity for Tetris, and in this article I will be exploring the Tetris story, its origins and the major players, as well as looking at it's impact on the video game industry today.

Alexey Pajitnov
Alexey Pajitnov | Source

Humble origins of Tetris

In 1984, programmer Alexay Pajitnov wrote Tetris while working at the Russian Academy of Science in Moscow. The original Tetris game was written by Alexay on an Electronica 60 computer in the common programming language Pascal, and inspired by his favourite board game Pentominoes.

This original version of Tetris was a monochrome affair, but the shape of the blocks and the general gameplay remain the same, and is unmistakeable even in this most basic format.

The game was converted by friend Vadim Gerasimov into a PC DOS format and distributed around the university campuses for Moscow, and spread virally through internet user group sites until it found its way to Hungary. A group of Hungarian programmers translated Tetris into a number of different computer formats, which prompted interest from British software house Andromeda, as well as Spectrum Holobyte who ultimately secured the rights to the software from Pajitnov.

Original Tetris
Original Tetris | Source

Spectrum Holobyte released the commercial version of Tetris in the US in 1987, for the PC format, to positive reviews from gamers and the gaming press. Andromeda and Mirrorsoft had both by this time managed to secure a licence to produce the game for home computers which included the Commodore 64, Amiga and Atari ST, as well as the Apple II.

Although the game had made the transfer from viral success to mainstream gaming on multiple platforms, Tetris had yet to become a household name in the style of PacMan or Space Invaders had previously. Before I look at the breakthrough release that made Tetris a worldwide success, I'd like to consider what made it so successful in the first place.

Original Tetris Pieces
Original Tetris Pieces

What is Tetris and why is it so Addictive?

The game is based on a very simple concept, that of falling coloured blocks that must be rotated by the player to slot into the wall of blocks at the bottom of the screen. If the blocks completely fill a row across the screen, the row disappears and the wall shifts downwards to fill the space. The object of the game is therefore to prevent the wall reaching the top of the screen by continually fitting the blocks together in the most efficient way to complete the rows.

unlike many video games, Tetris has no natural ending, the objective being to play for as long as you can and gain ever higher and higher scores. The game requires the player to get into "the zone", an almost trance-like state where all of their concentration is focused on the tiny falling blocks, and finding the most effective combination as the game speeds up and the play becomes more frantic.

it is no wonder that the game is so addictive, the desire to gain higher scores and the feeling of being "in the zone" where nothing else matters apart from the falling blocks. It is also gender non-specific, appealing to both sexes as well as to all age groups. Such was its simplicity Tetris was the game that spanned the age divide and played by both children, their parents and even their grandparents.

Nintendo Gameboy version of Tetris
Nintendo Gameboy version of Tetris | Source

Tetris Launched the Nintendo Game Boy

By 1989 a number of licences had been granted to publish the game, but due to confusion around the specific rights granted, a legal battle ensued between Atari and Nintendo for the rights to produce the game on consoles. Nintendo ultimately won, with a licence for Tetris secured from the Soviet Government, and went on to make the most of their new property by bundling a definitive version of the game with its new handheld console, the Nintendo Game Boy. A classic piece of Nintendo technology, the Game Boy focused on gameplay and affordability rather than flashy but expensive colour screens, utilising LCD technology they perfected with the earlier Game & Watch titles. The handheld sold in millions the world over, and most of them were sold with Tetris as the bundled title.

Along with simple but effective graphics, the Nintendo Game Boy version had an incredibly catchy theme tune, based on the 19th century Russian folk tune "Korobeiniki". The tune seems to complement the fast paced gameplay perfectly, and builds the sense of tension as the speed of the game increases and the blocks drop ever faster down the screen.

The Nintendo Game Boy version of Tetris became an instant classic, with the format lending itself to the game being passed from person to person, and entire families becoming addicted to the "just one more go" style of gameplay. I was one of the many millions who bought a Nintendo Game Boy with Tetris included, and everyone I introuduced to the game wanted to play it again, many buying their own copies of the console and game based on the experience. In simple terms, Nitendo had struck gold with the Tetris licence and used it to launch the incredibly successful range of handheld consoles that still exists today in the shape of the Nintendo DS.

MIT Building Hack of Tetris
MIT Building Hack of Tetris | Source

Tetris in Popular Culture

Tetris has found it's way into popular culture in the same way that other video games have before it, although without a popular mascot such as PacMan or Super Mario. The Tetris shapes have however inspired replication in multiple media formats, from T-Shirts to desk lamps, and even its own movie, in 2011 documentary Ecstasy of Order.

The game has also inspired some spectacular recreations, beyond the home computer and console, and onto a much larger format.

In April 2012, following an aborted attempt in 2011, MIT hackers managed to turn a building on the campus into a giant colour Tetris console. The programmers used 153 individual wirelessly controlled color LED lights for the giant game on the building,operated by players using a joystick outside the builiding.

This wasn't however the first attempt, with an earlier effort in 2007 at Browns University being the first recorded Tetris game on a building, albeit a more monochrome affair.

One of the more unusual homages to Tetris was created by musicians Dan Woods and Donald Newholm, more commonly known as the band "Pig with the Face of a Boy", with their song titled "Complete History of The Soviet Union Through the Eyes of a Humble Worker, Arranged to the Melody of Tetris". The video features the song, sung to the theme tune from Tetris, as well as featuring Tetris themed visuals used to tell the history of Soviet Russia.

Playing Tetris Today

Tetris is now playable online via a web browser, or part of social media apps such as Facebook, allowing players to compete online with friends around the world. Console gamers have a number of options, from Nintendo's Tetris DS and Tetris Party games on DS and Wii, and Tetris Axis on the latest handheld the 3DS.

XBOX 360 owners can also download and play the a version of the game titled Tetris: Splash, which allows multiplayer battles played via the XBOX Live network or locally with friends. The very latest console release of Tetris will be entitled "Ultimate" and is due in summer 2014 for the XBOX ONE and PS4 consoles, allowing up to 4 players to compete locally or online, with worldwide leader boards and colourful HD visuals. The game will also be released for 3DS and the Sony PS Vita.

Apple iPhone and iPad owners can also play Tetris using the official app, downloadable from the App Store, so you never need to be far away from a quick hit of Tetris on the move.

Tetris Programmer Alexey Pajitnov
Tetris Programmer Alexey Pajitnov | Source

Tetris Legacy

Pajitnov didn't actually make much money from the original Tetris games, having handed the rights to the Soviet Government, who subsequently sold the rights to various publishers including Nintendo. He finally got the recognition he deserved in 1996 when the Tetris Company was founded following the lapse of the 10 year licence assigned by the Soviet Government, and rights were assigned to him so that he could finally start to enjoy royalties from the game he created back in 1986.

In March 7, 2007 Alexey Pajitnov was awarded the Game Developers Choice "First Penguin" prize, and in 2009 received a German LARA games award.

After almost 30 years after he created the original Tetris, Alexey Pajitnov continues to work in the video games industry. He may not have set out to make a smash hit videogame with Tetris, but in a 2014 interview Alexey spoke of his pride in a game that people around the world love, and still play 3 decades after its almost accidental creation.


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    • RachaelLefler profile image

      Rachael Lefler 3 days ago from Illinois

      Interesting, I wasn't aware that Tetris launched the GameBoy! I thought Zelda, Pokemon, and Mario did but those were all later.

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