Tetris: A Messy Recap of the World’s Biggest Puzzle Game

nes tetris cover 2

With a Tetris movie confirmed to be in the works, Game Rant takes a look at the history of the iconic puzzle game, and the incredible story of its development.

Although the end product is not always up to scratch, there are some video games that fans might expect to transform into acceptable movie adaptations. The Assassin’s Creed movie, which recently received its first trailer, may seem like a good bet, with its narrative focus and an overarching plot full of twists and turns. At the other end of the spectrum, however, is Tetris; after all, the puzzle title seems as far away from the makings of a good film as possible.

In spite of this, just last week it was revealed that a Tetris movie is indeed in the works, and with an $80 million budget to boot. The feature film is allegedly set to be a sci-fi action epic, although exactly how Tetris has managed to inspire such a film is still a mystery. The announcement of the movie was hardly met with excitement, and it’s fair to say that expectations have already been set low by the gaming community.

In spite of this, there is already an intriguing, powerful, and deep story surrounding that of Tetris. It is a tale of technological pioneers working against the strict backdrop of the twilight years of a dictatorial regime, during one of the tensest political eras in history. This is the true story of the making of Tetris itself.

Even though Tetris is one of the most well-known and successful games of all time, with a rightful place in the video game hall of fame, the puzzle title had very humble beginnings. In 1984, Alexey Pajitnov was working at the USSR's Academy of Science, at the Dorodnicyn Computing Centre in Moscow. There, Pajitnov was an artificial intelligence researcher, and was tasked with testing the capabilities of new computing hardware so that their potential for research could be quantified.

To do this, Pajitnov, along with coworker Dmitry Pavlovsky, created small programs to test on any new hardware, and it turned out that video games were a good litmus test. With the researcher given the job of testing out the Electronika 60 desktop computer, Pajitnov looked to his childhood for the seeds of a brand new game. As a child, Pajitnov had loved pentominoes, so he decided to try to create a two-player computer game based around this concept.

alexey pajitnov young

There, a number of important factors in the creation of Tetris took hold. The puzzle game took place in real time, with pieces dropping down the screen, and the player had the ability to rotate pieces in order for them to fit in place. Even though the shapes themselves were made up of alphanumerical symbols due to the limitations of the Electronika 60, the workings of a fun game were already in place.

One problem almost immediately reared its head, however: the game was too complex. Instead of pentominoes, Pajitnov decided to drop the difficulty of fitting these shapes into space, instead making the four-squared shapes that are so recognizable today. Finally, the removal of completed rows, and the awarding of a score for doing so, helped transform this project into an addictive and fun video game.

With a solid prototype completed, Pajitnov decided to unleash this early version of Tetris on his coworkers and any other Elektronica 60 owners in Moscow, receiving almost immediate success. Sensing that the game had great potential, Pajitnov called in Vadim Gerasimov for some vital assistance in porting the game to PC, with Gerasimov transposing 2000 lines of code from Pascal to DOS in order to build the PC version of the game. When it was then released on PC, the result was phenomenal, with Tetris spreading like wildfire across Moscow, then Russia as a whole, and even into other nations. Indeed, Pajitnov even received new hardware to test that coincidentally had Tetris already installed.

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This success led to plenty of external parties being interested in the title, and it wasn't long before a number of different publishers started releasing their own versions of the game. Spectrum HoloByte brought the game to PC and Atari ST, while Mirrorsoft, which was part of Robert Maxwell's media conglomerate, released the title for Amiga. However, Tetris was stuck in a legal quagmire, with several companies claiming to legally hold the rights to publish, develop, or distribute the title.

One name that was not mentioned when it came to ownership, however, was that of Pajitnov himself. The designer, due to his role working for the Soviet state, accepted an offer by Perestroika for the Soviet government to hold the rights to Tetris for ten years. Through an organization known as Elektronogtechnica (or ELORG for short), the government set about officially licensing the game to external parties. Pajitnov saw very little financial success from the game, even though he was the one that created Tetris in the first place.

Instead, various other companies saw profit from the title, through ELORG's distribution across the world, bringing more turmoil with it. Confusion over rights, mixed with an understandable desire to hold on to such a lauded property, meant that the game kept selling, even as companies fought over who truly had the right to sell the game. Amid the chaotic success of Tetris across multiple platforms, however, there was one version that stood out from all the rest: the version for Nintendo's Game Boy.


The Nintendo handheld and Tetris had an almost symbiotic relationship, with the device almost synonymous with the block-based puzzler. The duo was a commercial powerhouse, with over 30 million Tetris/Game Boy bundles sold, and is considered by many to be the best game on the Game Boy. However, the reason that this successful relationship even came to fruition was due to a deal brokered by Dutch game publisher Henk Rogers, who saw the sheer moreish nature of the game first-hand at the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show of 1988.

Rogers managed to get the attention of Nintendo of America head Minoru Arakawa, after the publisher came to the company with the suggestion that Tetris could turn the pioneering handheld into a champion of the industry. After being given the go-ahead to get the rights for the game, Rogers then faced a huge battle to gain ownership of the publishing rights, with numerous other companies aiming to get a solid hand on the title. Astonishingly, Rogers went to the Soviet Union on a tourist visa, and went to meet with ELORG without requesting permission from the state to do so. After an intense debate, including time spent with the KGB, Rogers came away with the rights to Tetris – in spite of Robert Maxwell of Mirrorsoft making a direct request to President Mikhail Gorbochev to overturn the decision.

pajitnov rogers kremlin

The end result was the release of Tetris for the Game Boy in 1988, two months after the console's launch. This further delay was due to yet another legal battle – this time between Nintendo and Tengen, the console wing of Atari. It was far from the only important video game lawsuit between the two sides, but this battle would lead to thousands of Atari Tetris cartridges becoming worthless, and even contributed to the eventual collapse of Robert Maxwell's media empire.

It was on the Game Boy that Tetris truly took a stranglehold on gaming, propelling the handheld to astronomical heights and becoming a huge part of video game culture as a whole, on par with other staples of the industry such as Pac Man and Super Mario. Nintendo further cemented its place in the market, and Henk Rogers had managed to lay claim to an iconic gaming franchise. It would be another seven years, however, before Alexey Pajitnov was able to once more claim ownership of Tetris – years after the fall of the Soviet Union.

In 1996, the rights to the game once more returned to Pajitnov from the Russian state, but by this point the designer had already moved on to other things, having lived in the United States since 1991. The Tetris creator had taken up a role at Microsoft as a game developer, and was responsible for the creation of Windows-based puzzle games. However, he – alongside Henk Rogers – formed The Tetris Company, a publisher focused on the release and control of future Tetris games.

It's here that the legal question marks over Tetris begin to get their answers, as The Tetris Company took down a huge number of legally dubious versions of the game, and the company still holds a firm grip on the rights to the property. It may have taken over a decade from the game's initial inception, but Tetris finally returned to its creator, where it remains to this day.

That brings an end to the history of Tetris, although there are no doubt more chapters of the story to come. With a tale as long and twisting as that, who needs Tetris to be turned into a sci-fi epic?

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