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9 Features

History Lesson: Tetris

By Matthew Castle on Sunday 27th Oct 2013 at 9:00 AM UTC

The Tetris tale is an extraordinary one, the kind of stuff you'd expect from the story in a videogame, not about one.

It stars fibbing businessmen, unflinching Soviet negotiators and reaches as high as world leaders. And it all stems from seven groups of four blocks.

Created in June 1985 by Russian programmer Alexey Pajitnov, Tetris had been gestating for years. Inspired by Pentominoes - a geometric puzzle that required groups of five blocks to be slotted into a rectangle - Pajitnov had been toying with four-block 'tetrads' for a while.

Genetic Engineering was his first attempt, a shape-making game a colleague described as "dull". Shifting his focus to the idea of a jar filling with shapes, his second effort hit the nail on the head.

Of course, what could Pajitnov do with software that belonged, as did all his work, to the Soviet state? With no money to be made, success was gauged by the popularity of the game as it spread beyond the Academy of Science of the USSR where Pajitnov worked. One anecdote tells of a Moscow official having to secretly destroy his office's stash of Tetris floppy disks in order to get the staff to work again.

The very first computer version of Tetris created by Alexey Pajitnov

The game soon made its way further afield, to a Moscow contact in Hungary. There, it continued to ensnare minds, enticing local programmers to port it from PC to other formats. Time to get your concentration hat on: from here things get tricky.

Spotted by a visiting UK publisher, Robert Stein, Tetris seemed to him to be his ticket to the big time. Problem was, he didn't have the licence, nobody did: it was a freebie doing the rounds. What did he do? Erm, he sold the rights anyway.

So begins a farcical corporate mess-up. Stein sold the rights (not actually the rights) to UK and US developers. With these deals in the bag, he contacted Pajitnov to finalise the deal. Language barriers and Pajitnov's business inexperience meant negotiations didn't go well and the rights remained non-rights. But that didn't stop Tetris from landing on shop shelves and becoming a monster hit.

Incidentally, the PC version came with a 'boss button' for people who wanted to play at work. Press the key and the game would switch to an accountancy screen, disguising your naughty slacking.

Zoom

In 1988, authorities in Moscow decided enough was enough - they owned Tetris, so why was everyone but them selling it? Using the newly formed trading body Elektronorgtechnica (Elorg for short) they began proper contract talks with those responsible for commercial Tetris. A good thing too, as by now the UK and US devs had sold the (still fake) Japanese rights to two different companies. To recap: multiple companies in multiple countries, all selling ripped-off Tetris.

In June 1988 Nintendo joined the fun, having seen Tetris at a trade show and pegged it as the game to help shift the Game Boy. By this point, Tetris had done well on the Famicom from one of the bogus Japanese deals, a point that shocked Elorg - it claimed to never have heard of the Famicom, let alone to have licensed Tetris to it.

To smooth things over, Nintendo offered a canny deal: massive bucks for the home console rights and the promise to take legal flak from whoever the deal upset. Upset it did.

Media mogul Robert Maxwell (owner of the UK and US publishers) went to Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev with his complaints, leading to infighting between Communist leaders and Elorg. In June 1989 Atari (who had made the unlicensed Famicom Tetris) took legal action against Nintendo. Beaten down by Nintendo's airtight contract with Elorg, the case fell apart and Nintendo was free to begin world domination with a July release for the Game Boy and Tetris.

Ironically, through all of this Pajitnov maintained that Tetris was intended to unite people with its simple addictive quality. Despite the game's turbulent past, we can at least agree on that.

As for Pajitnov? Since his work belonged to the state, and there were no copyright laws to cover individuals' ideas, Pajitnov did not initially profit financially from Tetris' huge success. He continued to develop other games in Moscow (such as Biographer, a sort of computer psychologist) until moving to the US in 1991. The Tetris licence was renewed in 1996 and this time he was included in proceedings. Royalties GET!

Back with another one of those block droppin' feats

While the word 'Tetris' is immediately associated with the tradition block-dropping gameplay everyone's familiar with, there have been numerous variants and sequels over the years. There have been roughly 50 official games released with the Tetris name and countless other clones and imitations.

Rather than cover them all and bore you with the miniscule changes made to some games ("this one added a new speed setting"), we've put together a timeline of the major Tetris sequels, the ones that did something different to the traditional formula and offered a fresh take on things.

Some were successful, others not so much, but they're all part of Tetris history.

Additional reporting by Chris Scullion