Did you miss The Scientifically Proven Best Video Games of All Time’s Introduction? Catch up on how we decided to sort the games and the rest of the Top 100.
In 1989, most mothers believed that video games were a childhood distraction that eventually would be brushed aside as their offspring grew into responsible adults. But something happened along the way that prevented this. Perhaps the Nintendo Entertainment System, the most popular console of its day, was just that much better than previous attempts to bring video games into the living room. But I have a different theory. I believe it was Tetris.
Tetris brought mothers and their children together to play video games for the first time. And then something magical happened. Instead of jerkily moonwalking Mario into a pit or being the most unrad racer on the planet, the mothers were good at Tetris. They were so good that brother and sister soon had to compete with mom for control of the television. And mom wasn’t going to be finished until she made the castle take off into the stratosphere.
My own mother and I took part in cutthroat Tetris competitions, which we referred to as “Tetris Challenges,” that would last until one or two in the morning some nights (but never on a school night). That’s right. My first video game all-nighters were attended by myself, my mother, my little sister, and reruns of American Gladiators in between bouts of Tetris. We didn’t have the unlicensed (and harder to find) Tengen Tetris, so this competition didn’t take the form of head-to-head matches. Instead, my family kept a little notebook by the television, and the official “Tetris Champion” for the household was the person who was able to clear the most lines in a single game. The crown passed back and forth constantly in the early days and my mom was often the first to reach milestone numbers like 100 lines, 140 lines, and 180 lines.
This back and forth continued until we both started regularly clearing 190 lines and up. Level 20 began to take on mythic proportions as, like the 100 meter dash, the household record would be incremented by the smallest amount possible. The Tetris pieces moved so fast in Level 19 that the competition had reached a standstill. Neither one of us ever expected to cross the 200 barrier, and a chickenscratch rendering of “Johnny – 194” adorned the final page of the notebook for months. But somehow, my mom managed to raise the bar to 197 lines and announced, much like Bart Simpson in the fantastic “Video Boxing” episode of The Simpsons, that she would retire if either of us reached 200 lines.
Tetris Challenges became rarer as I drifted towards newer games like Super Mario Bros. 3, Mega Man III, and Battletoads in 1990 and 1991. We didn’t play together much anymore, but Tetris changed the way my mom looked at video games. My parents never disapproved of gaming (in fact, I always had a sneaking suspicion the NES my parents bought for us in 1988 was for my dad as much as it was for my sister and I), but they stopped thinking I played too much after Tetris was added to our game collection. I even stopped hearing the dreaded “Don’t waste your money” when weeks of allowance would disappear in one massive chunk to purchase a new game.
But that little notebook always nagged at the back of my mind. A part of me couldn’t believe that an adult, my own mom, was better at a video game than I was. Sometime in the mid 90s, I started playing Tetris regularly again. Our NES was still chugging along even though a lot of other families had upgraded to a Super NES by then. You had to blow into the cartridges a little harder to get them to work by that point, but they still did (still do, as far as I know). I fired up Tetris and began practicing before school every day. I started at Level 10 to acclimate myself to the higher speeds. I would purposely pile pieces on top of each other and work myself out of jams in preparation for Level 19. Finally, on a quiet Saturday afternoon, with my mom watching, I overtook 197 lines.
When the line counter turned over to 200, I relaxed a bit. Over the years, Level 20 had become something more than just the level after 19, and I assumed that it would crush me before I collected another line. Like King Koopa or Dr. Wily, “Level 20” was a boss. But with keen concentration I managed to keep the lines coming. Tetris players often lament that the game never serves up a “long one” when you need it, but I think the Tetris gods were with me that day. I climbed to 205 lines and pushed onward to Level 21. My final tally: 214 lines cleared.
My mom kept her word and “retired.” I’ve never seen her play Tetris since. The notebook is gone now too. It disappeared when the NES was replaced with a Nintendo 64. Maybe it’s sitting in one of the recesses of the entertainment center, waiting to be rediscovered.
The story of how Tetris made it to America is even more astounding than its later hold on the hearts of American mothers. The game was created in 1984 by a 28-year old Soviet engineer named Alexey Pajitnov, with the assistance of fellow engineer Dmitry Pavlovsky and 16-year-old high school student Vadim Gerasimov, as part of his job at the Soviet Academy of Sciences. Inspired partly by an obscure board game known as Pentominoes (you’ll find Blokus, a modern variant, on many store shelves today), and designed as a simple puzzle game that tasked players with combining a random sequence of shapes composed of four blocks apiece, Pajitnov’s program quickly became the property of the government-funded institution. Partnering with another Soviet group, Elektronorgtechnica (better known as ELORG), the Tetris concept was licensed to foreign companies like Nintendo and Atari/Tengen.
While the MS-DOS version of Tetris was a smashing success, later editions for the NES and Game Boy would ensure that Tetris haunted the dreams of players for a long time. Due to legal wrangling between Nintendo and Tengen over who owned the “official” copyright license to Tetris in America, the game was not released on the NES until 1989. However, this allowed Nintendo to package the game with their new handheld and sprinkle in the Russian motif that has become synonymous with Tetris (which the developers of the MS-DOS and Atari/Tengen did as well). Some people might have trouble recognizing the Russian folk song “Korobeiniki” or “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” but anyone who played Tetris in 1989 knows them as, respectively, “Music A” from the Game Boy version and “Music 1” from the NES version.
In the years since, a wide range of companies have released a number of sequels and variants to Tetris. It’s hard to get an official count, as there is a ridiculous amount of unlicensed versions out there (including one that runs on the TI-83/86, the graphing calculator of choice of high school students everywhere), but a Wikipedia list includes more than 50 Tetris variants. Even Pajitnov himself has tried his hand at recreating the magic of Tetris with several subsequent puzzle games (AKA the “Tris” series): Welltris (the game’s first official “sequel”), Hatris, Faces: Tris III, and Wordtris. In 2005, he was even recruited by Microsoft to create the pack-in game for the Xbox 360, Hexic.
But while Faces and Hexic were excellent games, you can’t create a puzzle game phenomenon out of thin air. Does anyone else remember the huge marketing push behind Zoop? Perhaps the better question is, “Does anyone else even remember Zoop?” Only Tetris was able to bleed into the real world and prompt multiple studies about the human body’s biochemical need to continue mentally rearranging shapes after a particularly intense round (the “Tetris Effect”). Speaking of intense, the debate over “infinite spin” (a feature in newer Tetris games that allows players to dance a piece across the bottom of the stack and sometimes around other pieces) will make non-Tetris players shake their heads in disbelief.
And this is where the moms come in. Tetris helped moms sit down with their kids and realize that this whole video game thing wasn’t as weird and scary as they had originally thought. That’s what the gaming community needed in 1989, and it’s what propelled gaming to where it is today.
The Tetris Company licenses a new version of Tetris every few years, and the most recent game bearing the name is Tetris Ultimate, which was released in 2014. Used copies of Tetris (and its many variants and sequels) can easily be found at most video game retailers.
The original MS-DOS version of Tetris designed by Pajitnov and Gerasimov (popularly known as Version 3.12) is available as a free download from Gerasimov’s website.
Publisher: The Tetris Company
Developer: Alexey Pajitnov and Vadim Gerasimov (Original Prototype/MS-DOS)
Release Date: June 6, 1984 (Original Prototype), 1986 (MS-DOS), July 31, 1989 (Game Boy), November 1989 (NES)
Average Ranking: 15.70
Selection Percentage: 93.18% (41/44)
Scientifically Proven Score: 22.52
|Publication Rankings For Tetris|
Next Gen (1996)
Next Gen (1999)
The Age (2005)
Yahoo! Games UK (2005)
|IGN HoF (2007)||1*||
Stuff UK (2008)
The Phoenix (2010)
Stuff UK (2011)
Gaming Bolt (2013)
PC & Tech Authority (2013)
|Popular Mechanics (2014)||33||
Slant Magazine (2014)
Stuff UK (2014)
Ackeman, Dan – The Tetris Effect – PublicAffairs – 2016
Gerasimov, Vadim – Tetris Story
Sheff, David – Game Over: How Nintendo Zapped an American Industry, Captured Your Dollars, and Enslaved Your Children – Random House – 1993
Wikipedia – List of Tetris variants