How Tetris Went From Soviet Mind Game to Smash Hit

By: John Donovan  | 

tetris tournament
Tetris fanatics still compete in intense head-to-head competitions with double-elimination tournament formats. Karl Gehring/Denver Post via Getty Images

For almost four decades, through Cold War and detente, through the fall of the U.S.S.R. and the rise of globalism, through diplomatic freezes and thaws and years of touch-and-go Russian-American relations, people all over the world have remained mesmerized by a Soviet invention — a computer game, of all things — that somehow has both persevered and prospered.

By now, the game's ever-quickening trickle-down of four-block shapes is immediately identifiable to just about anyone who has ever signed on to a computer. When it was conceived in 1984 by a puzzle-happy programmer, though, Tetris was little more than an in-house diversion, designed to break up serious-minded,12-hour days at the Russian Academy of Sciences.

From that bit of Soviet-controlled software, Tetris has evolved into maybe the most famous computer game the world has ever seen. It's a seemingly simple electronic escape that is enjoyed in more than 200 countries on more than 50 separate platforms by millions of people playing billions of games every year. Tetris has been downloaded on mobile devices alone — mobile devices mostly didn't exist when creator Alexey Pajitnov unveiled the game to his co-workers in 1984 — more than 500 million times.

"Well," says Pajitnov, 64, who sees his game more along the lines of chess than Minecraft or Grand Theft Auto, "Tetris is a really good game. One of the best. That's not very modest of me. But that's the fact."

Alexey Pajitnov
Alexey Pajitnov (right), Soviet computer engineer and programmer, developed Tetris while working as a programmer for the Russian Academy of Sciences in the 1980s.
Wojtek Laski/Getty Images

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Built in Moscow, Bound for the World

Pajitnov, born in Moscow, was helping to develop early speech-recognition software at the Dorodnitsyn Computing Centre at the Russian Academy of Sciences in 1984 when he began building a computer game in his spare time. The game featured tetrominos — four-block playing pieces (tetra being a prefix for "four") that come in seven different shapes, from straight lines to squares — falling into a playing field. He called it Tetris.

The game was built on, and initially played only on, an early Soviet computer, an Elektronika 60, which had no graphic capabilities. Still, with blocks of flashing lights serving as the tetrominos, it was an instant hit with Pajitnov's colleagues.

Unfortunately for the fledgling worldwide gaming population, the academy's purpose was not to build computer games.

"The Computer Centre was a pretty serious kind of institute," says Pajinov, speaking from his home just outside of Seattle. "Very solid and very serious. Nobody ever thought about creating a computer game. Basically, all this was just an excuse for having fun [among the programmers]."

The game lingered for months inside the cavernous rooms at the center until Pajitnov, pushed by many of his co-workers to make it more accessible, assigned someone to import the game to the much more popular IBM PC.

"On PC, it starts its own life," Pajitnov says. "It was like a forest fire. It went everywhere."

Eventually, the game was saved onto floppy discs and leaked into other countries. What followed were years of legal and sometimes shadowy maneuvering. Those outside the Soviet Union were eager to get their hands on the game to sell it. The Soviet government, which held all rights to Pajitnov's work, resisted.

At one time, a Hungarian software company thought it had secured the rights from Pajitnov to sell the game in the West. But it turned out to be a miscommunication; Pajitnov, a mere programmer in the Soviet bureaucracy, did not have the power to authorize his creation's licensing. And the Soviets declined to give up control.

tetris game boy
Tetris' popularity exploded when it became the free game included with every first generation Game Boy sold in the United States in 1989.
Thomas Eisenhuth/picture alliance via Getty Images

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Nintendo Comes Calling

By 1988, though, the Soviet ministry responsible for the export of computer hardware and software gave its blessing, and Tetris made its way onto PCs in the United Kingdom and the U.S. The real Tetris explosion came a year later, when a new hand-held gaming computer made by the Japanese firm Nintendo — the Game Boy — promised to include a Tetris cartridge with every unit sold in America. If the Soviets agreed.

"I made a handshake deal with Minoru Arakawa, the founder of Nintendo of America, to have Nintendo include Tetris in every Game Boy," Henk Rogers, a Dutch video game producer living in Japan and now president of the Tetris Company, told CNN in 2019. "He said, 'Why should I include Tetris? I have Mario.' And I said, 'If you want little boys to buy your Game Boy, then include Mario. But if you want everyone to buy your Game Boy, then you should include Tetris.'"

The Soviets — again, still in the middle of the Cold War and suspicious of anything to do with the West — were not yet convinced. The KGB supposedly got involved. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev may have had a say. Rogers, with the lucrative deal hanging by a thread, flew to Moscow to try to convince the Soviets to sign on to the agreement. He reportedly spent hours being questioned by Soviet officials. "I thought they were trying to figure out whether they were gonna send me to Siberia or not," he told CNN.

The gambit worked. The Soviets agreed to a deal. Tetris, with its Soviet-themed packaging ("From Russia With Fun!"), became part of the Game Boy launch in 1989. Nintendo sold 35 million Game Boys that year.

And Tetris boomed into a worldwide phenomenon.

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Tetris on the World Stage Today

The goal of conventional Tetris is to control where and how the tetrominos fall so that they fill up entire horizontal lines in the playing field. The completed lines are eliminated from the field, clearing more space to play. The more lines a player can completely fill and eliminate before the tetrominos (Tetris calls its tetrominos "Tetriminos") pile up to the top of the playing field — something gamers call "topping out" — the higher the score.

It sounds simple. And, on the most basic level, it is. But that's part of the beauty of Tetris.

"Tetris is very deceptive. It creates lots of illusions in the players' minds. It seems to be very simple, but it is not," Pajitnov says. "You have an extremely long learning curve. The normal [video game], you have 30-40 hours learning curve. Tetris, to my kind of thinking, is 120 hours."

Add to that, Pajitnov says, is the idea that Tetris is a puzzle. "There is no puzzle," Pajitnov says. "What you see is what you get."

In many ways, the game is so simple that it's nearly mystical; so easy it's seldom mastered.

Tetris is one of the most-awarded games in history and has had numerous spinoffs over the years, all of them now licensed by The Tetris Company. The game, in its various forms, is played on iPhones, Android smartphones, Nintendo systems, XBox, Playstation, on Apple and Windows desktop and laptop computers, on tablets, and on many other devices and platforms, including virtual reality headsets like the Oculus.

An annual tournament that features the 1989 version of Tetris on the Nintendo Entertainment System, the Classic Tetris World Championships, is normally held in Portland every year (it was held virtually in 2020).

Through all those years of push and pull with the game, Pajitnov may have missed out on potentially millions of dollars in royalties. But he is content with what he has created and convinced of its lasting worth.

"At some moment, I had a choice, either start to fight for my rights, and spend the rest of my life fighting ... I decide that if God give me such a gift to create such a game, I will create another game and go about it another way," says Pajitnov, who has developed many other games, including Tetris-type games like Welltris and Hatris. "The most important thing is to give this game to the people."

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