Most people know Tetris as the simple-yet-addictive puzzle game for the Game Boy that popularized the Russian folk song “Korobeiniki,” but the history behind the game is not so simple.
The game was designed in the early ’80s by Alexey Pajitnov, an AI researcher at the Soviet Academy of Sciences in Moscow.
He designed simple games to test hardware, and he based Tetris off of puzzles from his childhood. He first envisioned a game using pentominoes (shapes formed from five blocks) but pentominoes have twelve variations, which he considered too many, so he settled for tetrominoes (seven variations).
The hardware Pajitnov used had a text-only display so he formed the shapes out of text-based characters and created a program that required you to stack the shapes neatly as they fell from the top of the screen.
The key mechanic behind the game was that each completed horizontal column would disappear. This forced you to be as neat as possible when stacking the shapes.
Pajitnov’s colleagues became addicted to it, and its popularity increased further when it was ported to the IBM PC.
The game was popular all over Russia and Eastern Europe, and British software developer Andromeda secured the rights to a PC version, but they sold on console and arcade rights without Pajitnov or anyone from Russia’s knowledge, resulting in unlicensed versions of the game being released in Europe and the United States.
Pajitnov ceded the rights to ELORG (the Soviet ministry of software and hardware export) to avoid repercussions from the Soviet Union’s bureaucracy, but Andromeda continued selling rights it didn’t own, resulting in multiple versions of Tetris with multiple publishers. Andromeda even tried negotiating with ELORG as it licensed the game to others.
It was a very messy situation. Atari fought for the rights. Sega had the arcade rights in Japan, but the fight for ownership prevented them from publishing a version for their system the Mega Drive.
Of course, as soon as the almighty Nintendo got involved, the chaos began to die down. Nintendo saw potential in Tetris being a perfect title to go with their Game Boy, and Nintendo initially sold the Game Boy with Tetris as a pack-in title, bringing the game a new level of popularity that has lasted to this day. It was a great game for small sessions because it was easy to pick up and play.
In 1996, Pajitnov founded The Tetris Company with Dutch game designer Henk Rogers (the man who first brought Tetris to the attention of Nintendo) and The Tetris Company had been going after unlicensed copycats ever since.
Tetris has been released on multiple platforms with the core mechanics virtually unchanged. These platforms include the PC, arcade, Game Boy, NES, Super NES, CD-i, N64, PlayStation, Xbox, Wii, Nintendo DS, iPod, mobile phones, and even Facebook.
Variations on the formula have included Welltris, Hatris, Super Tetris, Tetris 2, Tetris Blast, and Tetrisphere. Sometimes versions of the game even feature pre-existing characters from other franchises such as Mario, Pokémon, Disney, and most recently Sonic the Hedgehog.
The Super NES game Tetris Attack starring Yoshi had nothing to do with Pajitnov’s creation. It was actually the North American version of the Japanese puzzle game Puzzle League, which is a whole other series. The person who re-named the game clearly knew the value of the Tetris name.
One of my favorite aspects of these games is the music. The Nintendo version for Game Boy had three different music settings, Music A, Music B and Music C.
Music A is actually an instrumental version of the 19th century Russian folk song “Korobeiniki,” as I mentioned at the top of the article. Thanks to its inclusion in Tetris, the song has been remixed countless times in other video games and by various musicians. Music B is an original track by the Game Boy game’s sound designer Hirokazu Tanaka. Music C is an arrangement of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “French Suite No. 3 in B Minor.” The victory music in the Game Boy version was a sample of “Trepak” from Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker Suite.” The NES version features “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” and other versions include “Kalinka,” “Les Toreadors” and “Song of the Volga Boatsmen.” As a fan of classical music, the inclusions of these songs always delight me, I have to admit.
In conclusion, wrap your mind around this: Recently, Threshold Entertainment has teamed up with The Tetris Company on a film adaptation of the game, planned as an epic sci-fi adventure trilogy currently being shot in China. It will be interesting to see how Hollywood will turn a puzzle game into a film!