Saturday, 7 June 2014

Tetris is 30 years old today: The history of the world’s most successful game

Tetris on the Game BoyTetris, the world’s most successful game, is 30 years old today. Thanks to its simple and addictive gameplay, the massive popularity of the original Game Boy and mobile phones, an estimated 170 million copies of Tetris have been sold since its debut in 1984. Not bad for a game that was originally written at the height of the Cold War in the USSR on an Electronica 60 — a rack-mounted computer that lacked the ability to output graphics (the blocks were instead formed out of the Russian equivalent of ASCII).

Tetris was created by Alexey Pajitnov in 1984 while he worked at the Soviet Academy of Sciences. Considering it was created on an Electronica 60 — a clone of the DEC LSI-11 — very few people could actually play it. Pajitnov would soon give the Tetris code to Vadim Gerasimov, however, who qucikly ported it to the IBM PC. The original version of Tetris was much simpler than even the Game Boy version, without scoring or levels — the blocks, fashioned out of characters, just kept on falling at the same pace. “The program wasn’t complicated,” Pajitnov would later say. “There was no scoring, no levels. But I started playing and I couldn’t stop.” I like to think that Pajitnov was meant to be working on ways to blow up the USA with thermonuclear ICBMs, but got bored and wrote Tetris instead.
The name Tetris, incidentally, is a contraction of tetromino (each block is made of four squares) and tennis.
The very first version of Tetris, running in an emulator
The very first version of Tetris, running in an emulator
Obviously, once the IBM PC version of Tetris was created, the cat was out of the bag, with Commodore 64 and Apple II versions quickly emerging. It was soon discovered by the British company Andromeda, which, despite not owning the rights to the game, sold the rights to Spectrum HoloByte, which then sold the first commercialized version of Tetris, with Russian background images, in 1987. Despite the rather shaky licensing foundation, rights to Tetris continued to be passed around like candy. At this point, no versions of Tetris had actually gained the official rights from Pajitnov or the USSR. (Fun fact: “The Tetris Song” — yes, that song that gets stuck in your head — is actually a 19th-century Russian folk song called Korobeiniki.)
The Spectrum HoloByte version of Tetris, running on an Amiga
The Spectrum HoloByte version of Tetris, running on an Amiga
In 1988, the USSR eventually created an organization called Elektronorgtechnica that marketed and licensed Tetris. In 1989,Nintendo obtained a legitimate license and bundled Tetris with its new portable Game Boy. This resulted in the distribution of 35 million copies of Tetris — a single-platform record only beaten by Super Mario Bros on the NES and Wii Sports. (Interms of combined sales, though, Tetris is by far and away the leader.)
The rest of the story, as they say, is history. Pajitnov would eventually co-found The Tetris Company in 1996 and go on to obtain the worldwide rights for the game that he created 12 years earlier. Before 1996, due to all of the licensing shenanigans, Pajitnov’s earnings from Tetris had been pitiful. Now, presumably, he makes a buttload of cash. He also joined Microsoft in 1996, where he worked until 2005, but he has never again experienced the same runaway success as Tetris. You could almost call him gaming’s biggest one-hit wonder.
So, there you have it: From its genesis on a text-only computer terminal behind the Iron Curtain, to the most successful game of all time, by way of a skeevy British game publisher and Nintendo’s monumentally massive success in the ’90s. To celebrate, here’s one of my favorite videos of all time. Make sure you watch it through to the end, where the master/lunatic plays invisible Tetris.


comments powered by Disqus