The first playable version was completed on June 6, 1984, while he was working for the Dorodnitsyn Computing Centre of the Academy of Science of the Soviet Union in Moscow. He derived its name from the Greek numerical prefix tetra- (all of the game’s pieces contain four segments) and tennis, Pajitnov’s favorite sport.
Tetris was the first entertainment software to be exported from the Soviet Union to the United States, where it was published by Spectrum HoloByte for the Commodore 64 and the IBM PC. Tetris is a popular use of tetrominoes, the four-element special case of polyominoes. Polyominoes have been used in popular puzzles since at least 1907, and the name was given by the mathematician Solomon W. Golomb in 1953.
The game, or one of its many variants, is available for nearly every video game console and computer operating system, as well as on devices such as graphing calculators, mobile phones, portable media players, PDAs, Network music players and as an Easter egg on non-media products like oscilloscopes. It has inspired Tetris serving dishes and been played on the sides of various buildings.
While versions of Tetris were sold for a range of 1980s home computer platforms as well as arcades, it was the successful handheld version for the Game Boy launched in 1989 that established the game as one of the most popular. Electronic Gaming Monthly‘s 100th issue had Tetris in first place as “Greatest Game of All Time”. In 2007, Tetris came in second place in IGN‘s “100 Greatest Video Games of All Time”. In April 2014, it was announced that the Tetris franchise had sold more than 495 million copies; approximately 70 million physical copies and over 425 million copies for cell phones, making it the best selling paid-downloaded game of all time.
Tetriminos are game pieces shaped like tetrominoes, geometric shapes composed of four square blocks each. A random sequence of Tetriminos fall down the playing field (a rectangular vertical shaft, called the “well” or “matrix”). The objective of the game is to manipulate these Tetriminos, by moving each one sideways (if the player feels the need) and rotating it by 90 degree units, with the aim of creating a horizontal line of ten units without gaps. When such a line is created, it gets cleared and any block above the deleted line will fall. When a certain number of lines are cleared, the game enters a new level. As the game progresses, each level causes the Tetriminos to fall faster, and the game ends when the stack of Tetriminos reaches the top of the playing field and no new Tetriminos are able to enter. Some games also end after a finite number of levels or lines.
All of the Tetriminos are capable of single and double clears. I, J, and L are able to clear triples. Only the I Tetrimino has the capacity to clear four lines simultaneously, and this is referred to as a “tetris”. (This may vary depending on the rotation and compensation rules of each specific Tetris implementation. For instance, in the Super Rotation System used in most recent implementations, certain situations allow T, S, and Z to ‘snap’ into tight spots and clear triples.).
Tetris was created in June 1984 by Alexey Pajitnov, an artificial intelligence researcher working for the Soviet Academy of Sciences at Computer Center in Moscow. Tasked with testing the capabilities of new hardware, Pajitnov would do so by writing simple games for them. He initially considered creating a game around pentominoes, which featured in puzzle games that he had enjoyed as a child, but felt that it might have been too complicated with twelve different shape variations, so the concept switched to tetrominoes, of which there are seven variants. The Electronika 60 on which he was working had only a text-based display, so the tetrominoes were formed of letter characters. Realizing that completed lines resulted in the screen filling up quickly, Pajitnov decided to delete them, creating a key part of Tetris gameplay.
Pajitnov’s game proved popular with his colleagues. Academy of Sciences co-workers Dmitry Pavlovsky and Vadim Gerasimov ported the game to the IBM PC. Gerasimov reports that Pajitnov chose the name Tetris as “a combination of ‘tetromino‘ and ‘tennis'”. From there, the PC game became popular and began spreading around Moscow. Gerasimov removed his 1988 version of the game from his website in October 2003, in response to a demand from counsel for The Tetris Company. He resumed making it available in August 2006.
The PC version made its way to Budapest, Hungary, where it was ported to various platforms and was “discovered” by British software house . They attempted to contact Pajitnov to secure the rights for the PC version, but before the deal was firmly settled, they had already sold the rights to Spectrum HoloByte. After failing to settle the deal with Pajitnov, Andromeda attempted to license it from the Hungarian programmers instead.
Meanwhile, before any legal rights were settled, the Spectrum HoloByte IBM PC version of Tetris, which contained background graphics featuring Russian scenes, was released in the United States in 1987. The game’s popularity was tremendous; Computer Gaming World called the game “deceptively simple and insidiously addictive”.
The details of the licensing issues were uncertain by this point, but in 1987 Andromeda managed to obtain copyright licensing for the IBM PC version and any other home computer system. Their Commodore 64 release in 1988 was notable for having a 26-minute (relatively long for the time) soundtrack composed by game musician .
For Amiga and Atari ST, two different versions by Mirrorsoft (1987) and Spectrum Holobyte (1988) became available. The Microsoft version did not feature any background graphics, while Spectrum Holobyte’s version was similar to their PC version and contained the similar images (it was also distributed by Infogrames in some regions). The games were sold as budget titles due to the game’s simplicity. Spectrum’s Apple II package contained three diskettes with three different versions of the game, for the Apple II+ and Apple IIe on separate DOS 3.3 and ProDOS 5.25 in (133 mm) diskettes, and for the Apple IIgs on a 3.5 in (89 mm) diskette, none of which was copy-protected: the included documentation specifically charged the purchaser on their honor to not give away or copy the extra diskettes.
Unsure of how to publish his game and fearful of the response of the Soviet regime if he did so, Pajitnov took the opportunity offered by Perestroika and gave the rights to the Soviet government for ten years. In 1988, the Soviet government began to market the rights to Tetris, following a promotional trip to the country by Gerald Hicks, the one-time United States champion of the game, through an organization called Elektronorgtechnica, or “Elorg” for short. At this time, Elorg had still not been paid by Andromeda, but Andromeda was licensing and sub-licensing the rights to the game. A different version of Tetris was originally released in late 1988 by Bullet-Proof Software (BPS) for several Japanese home computers as well as the MSX and the Family Computer in Japan, predating Nintendo’s version. An unlicensed arcade version was released in South Korea, as well as an unlicensed Master System (titled Super Tetris).
By 1989, half a dozen different companies claimed rights to create and distribute the Tetris software for home computers, game consoles and handheld systems. Elorg, meanwhile, held that none of the companies was legally entitled to produce an arcade version, and signed those rights over to Atari Games, while it signed non-Japanese console and handheld rights over to Nintendo. Tetris was on show at the January 1988 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where it was picked up by Dutch games publisher Henk Rogers, then based in Japan, which eventually led to an agreement brokered with Nintendo that saw Tetris bundled with every Game Boy.
Rogers later stated, “Tetris made Game Boy and Game Boy made Tetris”.