Tetris Turns 30: How the Soviet Union Created a World-Class Puzzle Game

Photographer: Karl Gehring/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Tetris fanatics meet every month in Denver for intense head-to-head competititon, in 2008. Close

Tetris fanatics meet every month in Denver for intense head-to-head competititon, in 2008.

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Photographer: Karl Gehring/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Tetris fanatics meet every month in Denver for intense head-to-head competititon, in 2008.

Thirty years ago at the Soviet Union's Academy of Sciences, Alexey Pajitnov was supposed to be testing a foreign computer to see if it could help Russia further its research efforts. After spending about three weeks writing a program to test the machine's capabilities, he completed what would become one of the Soviet Union's most beloved and longest-lasting global exports: Tetris.

How did a Russian man living in a society that bred conformity through isolation create one of the world's most accessible and original games? The computer lab where Pajitnov worked was one of the few places that could communicate with the outside world, the programmer wrote this week in the Guardian. The Academy of Sciences served as a sort of testbed for Pajitnov's creation.

"I pretended I was debugging my program, but in truth I just couldn't stop playing it," he wrote. "When other people tried it, they couldn't, either. It was so abstract — that was its great quality. It appealed to everybody."

Tetris survived in spite of its roots. Pajitnov granted publishing rights to the Soviets, which began licensing the game only after a smuggled version appeared in Hungary and spread throughout the West. A U.S. publisher decorated the game with Russian dolls and churches, which Pajitnov considered to be "a bit tacky," he wrote in the U.K. newspaper. In 1989, Nintendo made the game a must-have for millions of gamers who picked up the black-and-white portable Game Boy, and introduced a crude but unforgettable version of Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker" to a new generation.

"It was very embarrassing for me: when kids of the world hear these pieces of music, they start screaming: 'Tetris! Tetris!'" Pajitnov wrote. "That's not very good for Russian culture."

It took more than a decade and the collapse of the Soviet Union for Pajitnov to make any money from Tetris, according to Time. Today, 30 years after Tetris was invented in Moscow, it's among the 100 top-grossing iPhone games in 13 countries, according to research firm App Annie. French game publisher UbiSoft announced this week that it plans to release a version of Tetris on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Pajitnov will get to see the royalties stack up.

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