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.