From Russia with love.

In 1989, Nintendo obtained the rights to what was to be one of gaming’s finest ever imports. The story of how they did so is, in itself, a truly remarkable tale.

Unlike the majority of titles that were created throughout the eighties and in many respects, the present day, the origins of this particular phenomenon didn’t hail from Japan, or the US. They came from a country that was shrouded in secrecy and was notorious for its strict austerity.

Hidden behind a metaphorical curtain of iron (a self-inflicted consequence created by the state and their political ideology), and under the infamous banner of the Hammer and Sickle, a Russian scientist named Alexey Pajitnov would bestow one of the greatest gifts in video game history, to the rest of the free world. But little did he know it.

The Big Bang Theory

Alexey Pajitnov, a humble computer scientist, was employed by the Russian state to expand the possibilities of computing. His day-to-day activities included working on complex equations and advanced nuclear physics. With nothing but board games to keep himself and his colleagues entertained during their leisure time, Pajitnov understandably found himself bored on more than one occasion; however, he did find himself particularly attracted to a puzzle game called Pentomino.

The aim of Pentomino was simple: put different shaped pieces in the correct arrangement inside a box. Inspired by the rudimentary puzzles, Pajitnov had an idea. He was going to make a similar game… but he would play it on his personal computer – the one that the state provided him to work on, no less.

Alexey made a number of simple changes. He changed the five square pieces found in the pentomino puzzles into four square pieces. He included the same box grid, but this time the pieces fell from the top of the screen towards the bottom. The player was tasked with rotating the shapes to make them fit, with players earning points for creating complete, horizontal lines. These lines would subsequently vanish, cleverly undoing your good work, and in turn, continually highlighting your misgivings.

Whilst your success disappeared into thin air, the gaping holes caused by one misplaced shape remained, instilling a constant pressure to correct your errors.

The player’s overall goal was to stop the blocks reaching the top of the screen while trying to amass as high a score as possible; a feat that was easier said than done.

You should worship this man.

Alexey named his game Tetris: derived from the Greek numerical prefix tetra- (which means four) and tennis, Pajitnov’s favorite sport. Soon, every scientist in the computer centre was queuing up to play Pajitnov’s game (often to the detriment of their work).

It was clear that Alexey had managed to create something that was dangerously addictive and wholly unique. Though the concept was an adaptation of an existing idea, Tetris engaged another side of the human psyche that other video games had seemingly overlooked. The pleasure in construction as opposed to destruction. As each block fell into place, a structure began to take form. There was something deceptively satisfying about seeing your creation gain in stature, amending it and ensuring above else, you kept it under control.

Breaching The Curtain

Pajitnov’s game spread across his homeland like wildfire.

Pajitnov’s game spread across his homeland like wildfire. With no intellectual property laws to safeguard or restrict the availability of software (every individual’s idea was owned by the state and therefore shared amongst everyone equally), blocks were soon falling from the top of nearly every PC screen in the Soviet Union. But it didn’t stop there…

Tetris managed to escape the cold embrace of its mother Russia and into the view of potential video game publishers. Unsurprisingly, those who were fortunate enough to spot the mysterious looking title instantly knew that they were witnessing something special. And they all wanted a piece of the lucrative pie.

Tetris had already made its way to arcades and personal computers in the US, with over 100,000 copies sold – an extremely impressive figure considering just how many people owned PCs – but the publishers knew that the home console market was where the money was to be made.

To the eyes of the publishers, every coloured block was gold.

Fight For Your Right

Eventually, a bitter standoff between two of the biggest publishers in the US ensued; a bloody war between Atari and Nintendo.

What ensued from this point on was an extraordinary battle between the Russian state and a whole host of parties vying for the exclusive licensing rights to Tetris. Contracts were drawn up and then breached. Legal loopholes were created and exploited. In short, the process of securing the rights to Tetris – and whom it was who actually owned these rights – was a confusing mess.

Eventually, a bitter standoff between two of the biggest publishers in the US ensued; a bloody war between Atari and Nintendo.

Initially, it was Atari who thought that they had struck video game gold. Duped into believing that they owned the rights to produce the home console version of Tetris exclusively, the company set out on a massive production and marketing campaign as they prepped the game which they were convinced they owned.

At the final hour, with the game ready to launch, a crushing blow arrived in the form of an unexpected fax. The fax was from Nintendo’s legal representatives claiming it was they who owned the rights to Tetris, and that Atari’s perceived agreement was null and void. Outraged, Atari took Nintendo to court… And lost.

Unbeknownst to Atari, Nintendo had reached an agreement with the Russian state to obtain the actual licensing rights to Tetris. And it was all thanks to the hard work of a young game publisher named Henk Rodgers. Henk had brokered a deal with the lawyer responsible for dealing with the long-running Tetris dispute. He even managed to swoop the licensing rights for the handheld version, a huge coup for Nintendo’s upcoming Game Boy.

Hands up if you’ve played Tetris? Or better yet, hands up if you haven’t? None. Just as I thought.

The Sweetest Victory (For Nintendo)

Dejected, confused, and angry, Atari were forced to swallow the bitter pill of defeat and to face the devastating financial consequences. With Nintendo already owning 70% of the market share in 1989, the loss of Tetris was a cross too great to bear. A few months later, Atari went out of business.

But for the victor, business was booming. Tetris was a monumental success shifting over eight million units on the NES. The Game Boy version propelled the handheld into every child and adults’ hands. To date, the block-positioning, line-vanishing, shape-rotating wonder has amassed an astonishing feat of over 70 million copies sold since its staggered release back in 1986. The Korobeiniki theme alone (a nineteenth-century Russian folk song cleverly used by Nintendo) is recognised the world over.

After all, it was the state’s creation at the time, and not his.

While Nintendo celebrated the windfall of their most-prized winning capture, a certain individual carried on his work at the Computer Centre. Alexey Pajitnov wouldn’t receive a penny of royalties for his game. After all, it was the state’s creation at the time, and not his. Admirably, Pajitnov wasn’t bitter or wallowing in self pity. This humble scientist was just happy to see so many people enjoying his game. That being said, thankfully after 1996 – when Nintendo’s licensing agreement came to an end – Pajitnov has finally seen some financial fruits of his labour. He even grabbed himself a job for none other than… Microsoft.

The Building Blocks Of Fun

Today, Tetris is readily available on almost every platform imaginable. From mobile phones, to iPods and the home consoles we know and love today, Tetris is still entertaining millions of people around the world, spanning all ages and ethnicities. The colours may be more vibrant, the difficulty and amount of modes increased, but underneath all the new glitz and gloss, this is still the same game that one academic genius decided to create on a whim, one cold rainy day in Moscow.

Alexey Pajitnov, the world of video games can’t thank you enough.

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