Even the mention of the name Tetris automatically creates imaginary colored blocks falling down an imaginary screen. Everyone knows that if a person plays Tetris long enough you start to dream about it as if were seared into your subconscious. How many Tetris dreams have you had? This visual creates a tone. The world then becomes a series of abstract shapes. It compels you to try to get rid of all the empty spaces in life. Tetris brings out the O.C.D out of everyone. This would be a horrible psychological nightmare if it weren’t so damed fun and addicting. Tetris is the most ported game ever, existing on almost every platform possible, selling millions of disk, cartridges, and tapes across the globe. Chances are you have it on your mobile phone right now. In 2007, Tetris made it on IGN’s Top 100 Games of All Time list coming in only second to Super Mario Bros because of Mario’s uncanny ability to shoot fireballs from his penis. Tetris has truly made it into the lexicon of modern pop culture but few are aware that it was a product of the Cold War.
Back in the U.S.S.R., back when there was a U.S.S.R., in 1985 the Iron Curtain was closed tighter than a nun’s thighs. The Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse due to military build up of the Cold War and it’s troubled fight with Afghanistan. This time period wasn’t all that bad – I mean, at the very least the Soviet Union served as a really great non-Nazi, but Nazi-like, villain for our movie industry. I’m pretty sure that made them feel much better. Even in Communist Russia there were pockets of creative thinking and individuality. The Soviet Academy of Science’s Computer Center was one of those pockets.
In the Academy there was a kind-faced computer programmer named Alexey Pazhitnov. He looks somewhat like a reddish-brown haired Yakov Smirnoff. All Russians tend to look like either hot, porno, young things that will do anything for an American dollar, an ex-KGB agent who will kill you if you look at him the wrong way, or Yakov Smirnoff (this might just be me, though). Alexy was your general nerdy computer science guy who was just bored at work. He had a love for puzzle games especially a game named Pentominoes. Pentominoes is a game with different shaped peaces you put down like a jigsaw puzzle, the last person the put a tile down wins. Russia then was a world with very little T.V. and Radio so this was as exciting as it got. Inspired by the very boring sounding Pentominoes Alexy set out to create a computer version to “test out the system”. He named it Tetris after the Greek numerical prefix for four, tetra, and tennis even though it looked or played nothing like tennis.
At the Academy of Science, Alexy’s predecessors plotted the trajectory of Sputnik and calculated Soviet superpower; while his contribution to the state would be a way for its citizens to look like they were working to their bosses while totally screwing off. Sound familiar?
Even without color or sound the prototype halted work in the Computer Center as all of his comrades were one by one hypnotized by falling blocks. They all just sat around smoking tons of cigarettes and played Tetris like zombies enslaved to the computer screen. Tetris was copied on to disks and spread through Moscow, then through all of Russia, then through the entire Eastern Block like some kind of lazy virus. The game could have remained behind the Iron Curtain as just a small way of wasting time if it hadn’t made its way to Budapest, Hungary.
Robert Stein was your typical mustache-twirling businessman. He was the president of Andromeda, a British software house that mostly made its money by buying Hungarian software for cheap and selling it to the west for a mint as its own. On one of his visits to Hungary he noticed all the programmers huddled around a single screen. This was how Tetris caught his eye and how he got a blinding gold fever. Stein sold all the rights (that he didn’t own) to Mirrorsoft UK and its USA affiliate, Spectrum Holobyte, owned by Robert Maxwell’s Pergamon Foundation before he even had talks with the Russians. This “mistake” would lead to a clusterfuck of legal battles for the next decade. Stein did try to get the rights from Moscow but returned empty handed. With no firm deal in place he had a stroke of brilliance. Why not just steal Tetris and claim it was made by Hungarian programmers? What could possibly go wrong with screwing a Communist Superpower that had lots and lots of guns?
In 1988 Tetris was released for all computers. The marketing played on the fears and fascination the western world had with Russia. People just wanted a piece of what was behind the Communist wall. The game sold insanely well and was received with much fanfare. So much noise was created about Tetris it even reached the ears the Soviet government. The state formed a new company to deal the with the Tetris issue. This company was called Electronorgtechinca, which sounded like a gay European disco band. Thankfully they had a shorter, scarier, more commie name – Elorg. They wanted to know who the fuck was selling their property and why haven’t they received any money for it.
The people of Elorg, though new to the game of capitalism, proved to be quick learners. They realized the person responsible for the theft of their product was Robert Stein. They threatened to cut bring any deal involving him to a screeching hault. Stein, being the ballsy asshole that he was, threatened the Russians back, saying that he would start an international incident. He pressed on, bickering and pestering the Elorg, soliciting a contract for months. Surprisingly, the Russians didn’t kill him; instead they drew up a contract. Stein eagerly signed the contract and didn’t realize that the contract deemed that he only had the rights to Tetris on a computer platform. This contract expressly forbids rights to arcade and handheld versions, and any other mediums “which we did not dream about yet”. This F’d Stein in the A.
Tetris sold like gangbusters to PC users, but how many people had a PC in the eighties? Matthew Broderick in War Games, Matthew Broderick in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Matthew Broderick in Project X – and that was it. There was a whole other market that was called the Nintendo Entertainment System or NES or Childhood Zombie Creator. Robert Maxwell of Mirrorsoft, who still believed that they had the rights to Tetris on all formats, granted Atari (The mortal enemy of Nintendo) the rights to create Arcade and NES versions of the game under the name Tengen.
Nintendo was developing the Game Boy handheld gaming system and wanted to package Tetris with it. They also wanted to give Atari a little payback. So, they enlisted Henk Rodgers, president of Bullet-Proof Software (Bullet-Proof managed to get the rights to Tetris from Tengen for the NES Japanese version, “The Super Famicon”, earlier that year), to get the rights to the handheld version of Tetris. Henk contacted Stein about the rights, but quickly smelled the steaming batch of backstabbing Stein was brewing. Henk decided to go rouge and headed to Moscow. Stein, sensing why Henk was asking about the rights, also decided the to fly to Russia. Robert Maxwell’s son, Kevin, also flew to Moscow to straighten out the mass scale licensing mess that was Tetris. This all happened at the exact same time forming a three-way orgy of Eighties-style, coke-induced greed.
Henk Rodgers was a friendly and smart businessman, but he arrived in Moscow without any contacts or even an address for ELORG. He had made a very smart move, though, that the others did not. He befriended the creator of Tetris himself, Alexey Pazhitnov. This was how he got to meet with ELORG’s representative, Evgeni Belikov, first. Henk showed Evgeni a cartridge of the Famicon version of Tetris. Belikov was shocked and said that ELORG never gave Henk the right to produce such a thing. This was, of course, not the reaction Henk was looking for. Henk explained that he got the rights from Tengen. Belikov said he never even heard of Tengen. Henk figuratively pissed his pants. Henk began to tell Belikov the whole story that Stein never opted to tell. He then in a show of good faith wrote a check for the million cartridges he had already sold and promised more checks to come.
Stein met with Belikov later that day not knowing he was going to get screwed. Belikov made Stein sign an alteration to his original contract defining computers as “PC computers, which consisted of a processor, a monitor, disk drive(s), a keyboard and an operation system”. Stein did make out with Arcade rights, which would later be worthless. He was lucky to just get out of Russia with his life anyway.
Kevin Maxwell would be grilled like hotdogs in a backyard barbeque about the Tengen cartridge. He had no knowledge that his company sold the rights to Tetris so he told Belikov that it had to be a pirated copy. Kevin Maxwell would leave the office stripped of any rights to Tetris and was only allowed to bid on any remaining rights left after the smoke had cleared.
Ultimately, Henk Rodgers was rewarded for his honesty by receiving not only the handheld rights, but the total console rights for Nintendo. Nintendo would put the screws to Atari by forcing them to stop all sales of Tetris and made them pull all unsold copies from store shelves. Atari had already spent millions on producing and advertising Tetris. Several hundred thousand copies of Tengen’s Tetris sat in a warehouse forgotten like the Arc of the Covenant in Indiana Jones. This was a blow that nearly destroyed Atari. In the midst of the legal struggle to follow, Robert Maxwell’s entire media organization collapsed. Robert Maxwell then died suspiciously “off the side of his boat” when questions arose about his dirty business practices.
Everyone had their pockets lined with gold when the dust finally settled; everyone except the creator of Tetris himself. Alexy Pajitnov continued to work at the Science Academy as just another salaried worker, never receiving even a bonus from his employers. He was given a nicer apartment, though, because that’s just as good as millions and millions of dollars. The Iron curtain eventually fell and Alexy was given an invitation to leave the country by an old friend, Henk Rodgers, in 1991. In 1996 the licenses were renewed and Alexy finally started to receive royalties for his creation over a decade later from the start of his story. He worked for Microsoft from 1996 to 2005; Bill Gates rubbed his hands together and drooled from the mouth the entire time.
Tetris started as a project created out of boredom and became a way to stave off boredom. The name Tetris is as easily recognizable as the names Superman and Batman. It is so ingrained in our pop culture that scientists had to come up with a term for when someone plays so much Tetris that it overshadows their thoughts, mental images and dreams. The term is The Tetris Effect. Tetris is now, and will be forever be, a classic until the end of time, endlessly playing on loop in our hearts and minds.
Tune in next week for another great moment in nerd history!