Video Game Staple “Tetris” Celebrates It’s 30th Anniversary Today, It’s From Russia With Fun!
Everyone out there has a video game genre that they tend to play more than others. Some people like role playing games, others prefer side scrollers. There’s many gamers that enjoy a good old fashioned shoot em up, and then there are those that get very involved in the latest puzzle game. No matter which genre you would classify as your favorite, there is no doubt about it that you have at least at some point in your gaming life, played the classic title “Tetris”. Today, we get out the birthday cake and some candles, because we have something to celebrate, for it was 30 years ago today that the very first version of Tetris was first documented. This afternoon, a little bit of history about our favorite block dropper!
The game of Tetris was originally designed by Russian programmer Alexey Pajitnov. The first version of the game, released on June 6, 1984, was made public while he was working for the Dorodnicyn Computing Centre of the Academy of Science of the USSR. The name “Tetris” was actually a combination of the Greek numerical prefix “tetra”, meaning 4 since all of the games pieces consist of 4 segments, as well as from his favorite sport: Tennis. Because of the location of the developer, it also holds a piece of history as being the first electronic entertainment title to be imported to the United States from the USSR.
The very first version of the game was created on the Elektronika 60, and played on the Soviet DVK-2 computer platform. Since then, the game has been released on practically every possible electronic entertainment platform. It was used as a pack-in title for the Nintendo Game Boy. It was released on nearly every computer system, video game console, and more recently on mobile devices. When I say mobile devices, I don’t just mean cell phones and tablets, but graphing calculators, music players, and PDAs. A version of the game has also been featured as an Easter Egg on oscilloscopes!
Tetris uses a popular form of Tetrominoes, which is the four-element version of polyominoes. (Polyominoes have actually been used in popular puzzles since 1907.) Tetriminos are game pieces shaped like Tetrominoes, geometric shapes composed of four square blocks each. A random sequence of these fall down the playing field, and the object is to manipulate these pieces by moving each one sideways and rotating it, with the goal of creating a complete horizontal line without gaps. When such a line is created, it disappears, and any block above the removed line will fall. Players lose a typical game when they can no longer keep up with the increasing speed, and the Tetriminos stack up to the top of the playing field.
Over the years, Tetris has been involved in many legal battles in regard to rights ownership, which started when Vadim Gerasimov ported it to the IBM PC. This version eventually made its way to Hungary, where it was ported to various electronic platforms, and was later “discovered” by a British software house called Andromeda. They had made attempts to contact Pajitnov to secure the rights for the PC version, but they had already sold the rights to Spectrum HoloByte before the deal was completed. Meanwhile, Spectrum HoloByte’s IBM version, which contained background graphics featuring various Russian scenes, was released in the United States in 1987. The details of the licensing issues were still uncertain by this point, but Andromeda managed to obtain copyright licensing for the IBM version and all other home computer systems.
For the Commodore Amiga and Atari ST platforms, two different versions by Mirrorsoft and Spectrum Holobyte had became available publically. In addition, Spectrum’s version for the Apple II actually offered three different versions on three different disks in the package: One version for the Apple II+ and Apple IIe, which offered the game on both DOS 3.3 and ProDOS editions on 5.25″ diskettes, and the third exclusively for use on the Apple IIGS. On a side note, none of these disks were copy protected, and was distributed with the honor that the buyer would not copy.
By 1988, the Soviet government began to market the rights to the game. This happened after a promotional trip to the country by the US champion of the game, Gerald Hicks. This was done through an organization called Elektronorgtechnica, or “Elorg” for short. By this time, Elorg had still not been paid by Andromeda, and yet Andromeda was still licensing and sub-licensing the rights to Tetris, which was something that even they didn’t legally have. Continuing, an arcade version of the game was released by Sega in Japan for the Sega’s System 16 and System E, meanwhile it was also released for the MSX computer by Bullet Proof Software in Japan. An unlicensed arcade version was also released in Korea.
By 1989, several different companies claimed to have the rights to create and distribute the game for home computers, game consoles, and handheld systems. Elorg, meanwhile, held that none of the companies were legally entitled to produce an arcade version, and signed those rights over to Tengen, while it signed non-Japanese console and handheld rights over to Nintendo. In January of 1988, the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas announced that Tetris had been picked up by Dutch games publisher Henk Rogers, which eventually led to an agreement brokered with Nintendo that saw Tetris bundled with every Game Boy. Needless to say, this agreement helped sell the Game Boy console in it’s earliest days. Tengen also applied for a copyright for their own version of Tetris for the NES, which was based on the arcade version. This “Tengen Tetris” as it was later known as, proceeded to the marketplace, and it was distributed under the name “TETЯIS: The Soviet Mind Game”, completely disregarding Nintendo’s official license. Nintendo contacted Tengen claiming they had stolen the rights to Tetris. It was at this point that Tengen sued, believing they did in fact have the right to create and sell the game. After only about a month on store shelves, the courts ruled that Nintendo was the only company which had the rights to Tetris on home video game systems.
One of the biggest questions when it comes to fans of Tetris, is whether or not it is possible to play the game forever. The earliest documentation of this curiosity was first mentioned in a thesis by John Brzustowski in 1992. The conclusion was reached that the game, no matter how good the player is, will eventually come to an end. The reason behind this has to do with the S and Z Tetriminos specifically. If a player receives a large sequence of alternating S and Z Tetriminos, the gravity used by the standard game will eventually force the player to leave a hole in a corner. Supposing that the player then receives a large sequence of alternating S and Z Tetriminos, they will be forced to leave holes throughout the game board. The holes will necessarily stack to the top and, ultimately, end the game. If the pieces are distributed randomly, this sequence will eventually occur. Thus, if a game with an ideal, uniform, uncorrelated random number generator is played long enough, any player will top out. On an interesting note, official modern versions of Tetris use a bag-style randomizer that guarantees that players will never receive more than two S or Z pieces in a row.
Tetris however, is more than just fun and games, it actually has a lot of positive real life uses! Over the years, there have been many scientific studies done that indicate that playing the game can help with a lot of medical conditions. Everything from overeating and as a smoking cessation aid, to helping treat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It has also been prescribed by doctors as a way of helping those with poor eyesight, as I know firsthand. My mother had been diagnosed with juvenile diabetes, and when she started to lose her eyesight due to it, her doctor told her to cover her good eye and play Tetris with the bad eye. Eventually, the eye strengthen to the point where she was able to drive again!
Yes my friends, “Tetris” has had quite a long ride so far, and it doesn’t look as if it is getting ready to end any time soon! This year alone, the game was announced to have new versions of the game be released for current generation consoles such as the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, and was also used in the closing ceremonies for the 2014 Paralympic Games in Sochi. Not to mention that it was also played on skyscrapers in Philadelphia! It was announced a few years ago that Tetris had sold more than 170 million copies. Of those numbers, about 70 million of them were physical copies for consoles and computers, and over 100 million of them were virtual purchases for mobile devices, making it the highest paid-downloaded game of all time. And that was back in 2010, so the numbers have obviously increased since!
So take a little bit of time out of your busy day today, and celebrate 30 years of fun from Russia! If you have a physical copy of the game for the NES, Game Boy, or any other video game console, pop it in and play a few rounds! If you don’t, nearly everyone has a cell phone or tablet these days. Go to your store of your phone of choice, and download the game and have some fun! Most stores offer a free trial at the very least. Get reunited with an important title in video game history!