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An old Game Boy showing a game of Tetris

The history of Tetris: The Soviet mind game


Tetris may be a simple, innocent little puzzle game, but its history reads like a bizarre Cold War thriller – a story of secret deals and corporate intrigue spanning both sides of the Iron Curtain.

The man who made Tetris

It was in the summer of 1984 that Alexey Pajitnov, a young software engineer at the Soviet Academy of Sciences, had a brainwave. While dreaming up puzzle games to test the capabilities of the Soviet Electronika 60 computer, he remembered a childhood pastime involving pentominoes.

These were differently shaped blocks, made up of five squares each, which had to be correctly fitted inside a box. Pajitnov decided to create a computer game variation, simplifying it by reducing the number of squares in each block to four, and ramping up the excitement by having the shapes drop down the screen one at a time.

Pajitnov called the game Tetris, combining ‘tetra’ (meaning four) and his favourite sport, tennis.

Crossing the Iron Curtain

The original Electronika 60 version of Tetris was so rudimentary that it used keyboard characters in place of actual blocks. One of Pajitnov’s colleagues helpfully created an IBM version, which not only utilised real graphics but also made the game accessible to an international audience. Pretty soon it was being copied and played throughout the Academy and beyond.

Two years later, software salesman Robert Stein came across a copy of Tetris while visiting Hungary and saw its commercial potential. The trouble was, there was no way to communicate with its creator in Soviet Russia… except via printed messages sent through telex machines.

Undaunted, Stein sent Pajitnov a message asking to purchase the licensing rights to Tetris. Pajitnov sent a message back saying he was interested in principle. Stein took this very loose "maybe" to be a firm "yes". This was a mistake.

Tetris arrives

Stein wasted no time sub-licensing Tetris to UK software publishing firm Mirrorsoft and their US sister firm, Spectrum HoloByte. The two companies geared up to launch the game for the home computer markets in their respective territories in 1988.

Then, an almighty spanner was thrown into the works by ELORG, the Soviet organisation in charge of exporting software. Having gotten wind of what was happening, they summoned Stein to Moscow. This turned out to be more like a KGB interrogation than a business meeting, with Stein ordered to explain why he was selling Tetris in the West without ELORG’s permission.

A shocked Stein explained he ‘didn’t even know they existed, never mind about their permission’. Still, he managed to persuade them to officially grant him the licensing rights which he’d thought he already had, meaning that Mirrorsoft and Spectrum HoloByte were in the clear.

Tetris sold bucketloads of copies to home computer owners. But the real money lay in a different market: games consoles.

Henk Rogers

In early 1988, Spectrum HoloByte showed off Tetris at a trade show in Las Vegas. In the crowd was young software entrepreneur Henk Rogers, who specialised in securing rights for the Japanese market. Tetris ‘struck some basic chord’ in Rogers, who was determined to purchase the home computer and console rights. The trouble was the console rights for Japan (and North America) had already been sold by Mirrorsoft to Atari Games.

Rogers was rebuffed when he rang up Atari Games to ask about the rights. Unwilling to give up, he flew straight over to Atari Games’ HQ and waited in the car park until he could swoop in on the company president as he left the building. Over a sushi dinner, the president agreed to sell Rogers the Japanese console rights.

Rogers’ audacity had paid off, and he was able to bring Tetris to Japanese home computers and Nintendo NES consoles. But the next challenge was to get the handheld rights so that Nintendo could publish Tetris on its exciting new device, the Game Boy.

Now, Rogers was audacious to the point of foolishness. He flew to Moscow, completely uninvited, to knock on ELORG’s door and do whatever it took to persuade the Russians into handing over the handheld rights to Tetris. This was the kind of meeting that would ordinarily have to be approved by the KGB, but Rogers – aided only by an interpreter – managed to blag his way into a boardroom with ELORG’s fearsome boss, Nikolai Belikov.

The battle for Tetris

The meeting didn’t get off to a great start. Belikov was both baffled and furious to learn that a console version of Tetris even existed. An equally baffled Rogers produced the paperwork showing that the rights had gone from ELORG to Stein’s company, then to Mirrorsoft, then to Atari Games, then to him. Belikov retorted that Stein had only been granted the rights for the home computer version of Tetris, which meant that the Japanese console version in Rogers’ hand was, in fact, illegal.

‘Either I’m going to come out of this with the rights to Tetris or I’m going be in some gulag,’ Rogers thought. Fortunately, Tetris’ creator Alexey Pajitnov was present and took an immediate liking to Rogers. The atmosphere thawed, and Belikov agreed to grant the handheld and, eventually, worldwide console rights to Nintendo.

By amazing coincidence, Stein came to Moscow for a meeting with ELORG on the very day Rogers had turned up out of the blue. Given what he’d learnt from Rogers, Belikov was now deeply suspicious of Stein, accusing him of selling sub-licenses in secret.

But now Belikov was about to play the capitalists at their own game. He presented Stein with a new contract that contained a subtle, additional clause specifying that Stein’s rights were only for computers, not consoles. Belikov also added clauses stipulating high penalties for late royalty payments – but these were simply there to distract Stein from that crucial clause about the console rights.

It worked. Stein went ahead and signed, obliviously blocking himself and his sub-licensees from being able to sell Tetris on consoles. ‘Belikov was a son of a b***h,’ Stein later said.

There were dire consequences for Atari Games, who in 1989 released their North American NES version of Tetris using the non-existent console rights that had come down from Stein through Mirrorsoft. Nintendo sent Atari Games a cease and desist letter, correctly saying only they had the rights. Atari Games, which had invested millions in bringing their game to market, stubbornly claimed they had the rights, and sued Nintendo.

In late 1989, a judge ruled in favour of Nintendo, meaning that Atari Games had to destroy their entire inventory of unsold Tetris games. The copies that had already been sold, and therefore survived the massacre, are now much sought-after collectors’ items.

Everything falls into place

Tetris helped make Game Boy a gigantic global success. Yet, even as companies around the world made a mint from his invention, Alexey Pajitnov himself didn’t receive any royalties because ELORG technically owned Tetris. That changed in the mid-90s when ELORG’s licence expired and the rights to Tetris finally reverted to its creator.

Pajitnov and his old friend Henk Rogers formed the Tetris Company to manage global rights to all things Tetris, and the game continues to go strong online and on smartphones all over the world.