Published June 04, 2009
NEW YORK – With its scratches and sticky brown beer stains, the "Tetris" arcade machine near the back of a Brooklyn bar called Barcade has seen better days. Which makes sense, given that the machine was made in the 1980s.
Even today, though, it's not hard to find 20- and 30-somethings plucking away at its ancient controls, flipping shapes made up of four connected squares and fitting them into orderly patterns as they descend, faster and faster as the game goes on.
"You could just play infinitely," said Michael Pierce, 28, who was playing against Dan Rothfarb, also 28. Both have been fans since they — and the game — were young. "Tetris" has its 25th birthday this week.
Pierce recalls playing "Tetris" on a Nintendo Game Boy that was on display in a department store when his family couldn't afford the unit. Rothfarb played on his Nintendo until the game wouldn't go any faster.
Completed by a Soviet programmer in 1984, "Tetris" has come a long way from its square roots. It's played by millions, not just on computers and gaming consoles but now on Facebook and the iPhone as well.
"Tetris" stands out as one of the rare cultural products to come West from the Soviet Union during the Cold War. And the addictive rhythm of its task-by-task race against time was an early sign of our inbox-clearing, Twitter-updating, BlackBerry-thumbing world to come.
In her book "Hamlet on the Holodeck," Georgia Tech professor Janet Murray called "Tetris" the "perfect enactment of the overtasked lives of Americans."
The game, she wrote, shows the "constant bombardment of tasks that demand our attention and that we must somehow fit into our overcrowded schedules and clear off our desks in order to make room for the next onslaught."
Many people who grew up with "Tetris" haven't stopped playing.
"I'd stay up, wait for my parents to go to bed, smuggle my Nintendo into my bedroom, hook it up to my television and play this game until all hours of the morning," said John Clemente, another player at Barcade.
"Tetris," he says, was the only game to drive him "to the point of insanity." As a child, he once kicked his Nintendo across the room.
"It was a very love-hate relationship," he said.
"Tetris" is easy to pick up. Rotate the falling shapes so that you form full lines at the bottom of the screen. Fit the shapes so there are as few open spaces left as possible. Aim for a Tetris: four lines completed in one swoop. Repeat. Watch your score zoom.
But Tetris is hard to master. Because the shapes — technically known as tetrominoes — come in a random order, it is hard to predict the best way to organize them so that they can form neat rows.
In fact, in 2002, Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers determined that the potential combinations are so numerous that it would be impossible even for a computer to calculate the best place to put each falling shape.
Erik Demaine, an associate professor of computer science, praised the game's "mathematical elegance," which perhaps stems from the background of its developer.
Alexey Pajitnov was 29 and working for the Moscow Academy of Sciences when he completed "Tetris" on June 6, 1984, for a Soviet computer system called the Elektronika.
A computer programmer by day who researched artificial intelligence and automatic speech recognition, Pajitnov worked on the game in his spare time.
"All my life I liked puzzles, mathematical riddles and diversion," Pajitnov said in a recent interview from Moscow. "Tetris," he said, was just one of the games he made back then. The others are mostly long forgotten.
Pajitnov's creation spread in Moscow through the small community of people who had access to computers. Word filtered through computer circles to the West, where the game drew the interest of entrepreneurs.
A company called Spectrum HoloByte managed to obtain PC rights, but another, Mirrorsoft, also released a version.
Years of legal wrangling followed, with several companies claiming pieces of the "Tetris" pie — for handheld systems, computers and arcades.
Complicating matters, the Soviet Union did not allow privately held businesses. The Soviet state held the "Tetris" licensing rights and Pajitnov had no claim to the profits. He didn't fight it.
"Basically, at the moment I realized I wanted this game to be published, I understood that Soviet power will either help me or never let it happen," he said.
It wasn't until 1996 that Pajitnov got licensing rights. Asked whether he made enough money off the game to live comfortably, he says yes, but offers no more details.
Today, he is part owner of Tetris Co., which manages the game's licenses worldwide.
Nintendo Co. was an early and big beneficiary of the game, which stood out from its mid-'80s peers because it had no characters and no shooting.
When Nintendo was preparing to release its Game Boy device in 1989, the company planned to include with it one of the games that are also classics today: "Super Mario," "Donkey Kong" and "Zelda."
But Nintendo wanted something everyone would play — a "perfect killer game" that would sell the Game Boy, said Minoru Arakawa, the president of Nintendo of America from 1980 to 2002.
The solution was "Tetris" — though Nintendo needed help from Henk Rogers, a U.S. entrepreneur.
Rogers had spotted "Tetris" at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and bought the rights to a PC version of the game in Japan from Spectrum HoloByte.
In February 1989, he went to Moscow on a tourist visa to try to get the rights for Nintendo. He spent his first day in a taxi with a driver who didn't speak English, communicating by gestures and trying in vain to find the ministry of software and hardware export.
The next morning, he hired an interpreter and things went more smoothly, and "Tetris" got bundled into the first Game Boy.
Since then, "Tetris" has expanded to all kinds of devices and inspired a generation of knockoffs. Tetris Co. says 125 million copies have been sold in various incarnations.
Pajitnov says "Tetris" could stick around another quarter-century.
"I hope so, why not?" he said. "Technology changes a lot, but I can't say people change a lot."