Happy Birthday, Tetris. 35 Years Later You're As Addictive And Tetromino-y As Ever

Jun 6, 2019
Originally published on June 7, 2019 8:01 am

Thirty-five years ago in Moscow, working on what he says was "an ugly Russian" computer that was frankensteined together with spare parts, Alexey Pajitnov started a side project that has become the second-best-selling video game of all time: Tetris.

At the time, Pajitnov was a young developer and programmer whose other interests included a popular puzzle game consisting of twelve shapes that were made up of five square pieces. The object was to create pictures and images using the pentominoes, he explained. His fascination with it was obvious but inspiration for Pajitnov's own game came when he'd finished playing one day and returned the pieces to their box.

"When you try to put [them] back in the box you're in trouble because it's really hard to do that." And thus, the idea for Tetris was born.

It is simple and yet has proved to be indomitably addictive. Seven brightly colored four-block pieces, tetrominoes, fall from the top of screen. Slowly at first and then faster and faster, as the player rotates the pieces so they create complete lines. When they do, the line vanishes. When they don't, the blocks begin to stack on top of one another until they fill the screen and the game is over.

As soon as Pajitnov had finished the prototype, he knew he had an commercial hit on his hands.

"I couldn't stop playing it," he said, confessing that at work he'd pretend to be busy but really he was in a Tetris trance. "Magic is in it," he said proudly.

Two years later, in 1986, it became the first computer game from the Soviet Union to be released in the West, Engadget reports. Since then it has sold more than 170 million copies around the world, adapting to a vast array of consoles and platforms over the years. In other words, it was and continues to be a commercial juggernaut that has touched lives of hundreds of millions of players.

But Pajitnov didn't get rich off of it. At least not right away.

In 1984 Russia was still a communist republic within the U.S.S.R. and Pajitnov had little choice in relinquishing ownership of the game to what he described as a "shady" government.

"I [granted] the rights for the game for 10 years to my computer center. To my job place," he explained in a thick Russian accent.

Eventually, he regained the rights sometime in 1995 or 1996 after the Cold War had ended, and maintains them still.

Over the intervening years Tetris has evolved. The most recent versions — the Tetris Effect, which on one board allows players to create their own jazz music as pieces fall into place, and Tetris 99, which pits the player against another 98 competitors, Battle Royale-style — debuted last year.

Patijov says the ongoing popularity of the rudimentary game among men and women is hard-wired into humans. "Software and hardware [are] changing dramatically in front of us, but our brains do not," he noted.

It also appeals to humanity's "constructive spirit," he added. "You feel that you can create something rather than destroy."

Happy 35th, Tetris.

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If you had happened to peek into my college dorm room freshman year early '90s, you would have witnessed my roommates and me glued to our computer screens completely obsessed not with overdue term papers and problem sets but with a game called Tetris. Turns out we were not alone. Today Tetris is recognized as one of the most popular video games of all time. Thirty-five years ago, it was a side project for a Russian software developer working in Moscow. That software developer was Alexey Pajitnov, and he is here now. Welcome.


KELLY: Hello. I suppose I should start by saying happy anniversary. Tetris is celebrating its 35th birthday today.

PAJITNOV: Could you believe it? It was like yesterday (laughter).

KELLY: Well, I want to hear the story of how you came up with it, but I guess I should start by explaining for people who, unlike me and my college roommates, were not completely addicted to it at some point in their life that Tetris is - it's a very simple game. There's no, you know, asteroids to dodge or aliens chasing you. It's blocks that fall from the top of the screen, and you manipulate them, spin them around to create lines. And if you do it fast enough, then you clear your screen. And if you don't, then game over. Have I basically explained that accurately?

PAJITNOV: More or less yes.

KELLY: Where were you when you came up with this idea?

PAJITNOV: I was in Moscow. I was young developer, young programmer. It was a very fascinating time for me because I got something which looks like a personal computer now.

KELLY: Yeah. What kind of computer were you working on?

PAJITNOV: It was kind of ugly Russian clone called Electronika 60. So my friends just made it up out of spare parts or something.

KELLY: (Laughter) OK.

PAJITNOV: The prototype of Tetris was the board game called Pentomino.

KELLY: Pentomino - go on.

PAJITNOV: Yeah. I love those puzzle all my life. And once I decide to put on computer some to play our game based on it. And when I start to program it, the idea of real-time game with those pieces came to my mind, and that's how Tetris was born.

KELLY: As I understand it - course you came up with this game. This is 1980s in the Soviet Union. You eventually - you lost the rights for a while and then eventually regained the rights after the Cold War ended. Is that right?

PAJITNOV: Well, I granted my rights for 10 years to the Soviets, to my job place. That's the only way the foreign agreement could be done.

KELLY: I should mention you in the intervening years have left the Soviet Union you live now in the United States. Do you own the rights to Tetris now? Or who does?

PAJITNOV: Yes, I do. It was my partner. Finally in '95, '96, the original right came back to me, and we maintain Tetris brand since.

KELLY: What do you think explains the ongoing popularity of this game given that now people can play games with incredibly complicated, you know, computer-generated graphics and yet people still love just spinning blocks around?

PAJITNOV: The software and hardware are changing dramatically, but our brains do not. So we still love what we used to love many, many centuries ago.

KELLY: We still like playing with blocks as little kids, I suppose. So why not do it on the screen?

PAJITNOV: So Tetris is very attractive because it has a constructed spirit. You feel that you create something rather than destroy, you know?

KELLY: Yeah.


KELLY: Do you still play?

PAJITNOV: Oh, yes, I do.

KELLY: How many hours would you wager you have spent on Tetris?

PAJITNOV: Not that much.


PAJITNOV: I have to catch up with the other games as well.


KELLY: Alexey Pajitnov, thank you so much.

PAJITNOV: Thank you. Have a nice day.

KELLY: He joined us via Skype. He is the creator of Tetris, which, as you heard, turns 35 years old today.

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