It seems odd that such a simple game held the title of the best-selling video game of all time for thirty years. This simple but addicting puzzler has been hooking people since 1984 and has sold 170,000,000 copies. Yes. Million. Only three games have ever sold more than 100 million copies: Tetris, Grand Theft Auto V, and Minecraft. This might seem strange, but 100 million is an insane amount of copies. Tetris incredibly held the best-selling video game title for 30 years — which is crazy when you think about it. Think about every game released since the mid-eighties. Think about your favorite game of all time — chances are that Tetris made it look laughable when you compare sales. But one game has managed to finally top it.
This year, in May 2019, Minecraft finally beat its high score. It was announced that the (equally blocky) game has sold 176,000,000 copies across all of its platforms — excluding the free to play version.
Despite the square stylings, there is one thing that these games have in common that made them both successful. Tetris and Minecraft both had a wide release on many platforms. Tetris is such a simple (and addictive) game that it released on just about every platform available. Whatever tech you had at the time, you probably could play Tetris in some form or another. And that very same strategy is how Minecraft beat the giant. Minecraft is also simple enough — by modern standards — that it released on every system, from computers to consoles to phones.
But we’re not talking about Minecraft; we’re more interested in what makes Tetris such a great game, and how it came to be. We think it’s fantastic that Minecraft has made it to its 10th anniversary — but Tetris is celebrating its 35th, which is a bit more impressive in our humble opinions. So how did this addictive game come to be? What made it so amazing? And what keeps it going today? Well, we have some thoughts.
The Curious History of Tetris
If we told you that Tetris was invented for the Soviet Union, you might be a little skeptical. But it’s true! Game inventor Alexy Pajitnov created Tetris for the Academy of Science of the Soviet Union. He actually wasn’t a game inventor at the time — or at least his title didn’t say so. Pajitnov was an Artificial Intelligence Researcher and was trying to test the capabilities of new hardware for the Academy of Sciences. Their engineers would design the hardware, and he would see how far he could push it before it crashed.
To achieve that goal, Pajitnov created simple games. Doing so allowed him to push the limits of the hardware — and he got the added bonus of enjoying the work. It was a win-win for everyone involved. He decided he wanted to design a game based on a domino-style game he liked to play. There was a problem with this idea, though. He was working on a system called Electronika 60, which only allowed text characters, not shapes.
Thankfully Pajtnov is not easily dissuaded. He decided to find a way around this problem instead of giving up. Instead of making blocks, he formed his iconic shapes out of brackets. Pajitnov quickly discovered that the lines rapidly filled up the screen (a problem Tetris players have been fighting ever since), and he changed the code so that if a line filled completely, it would delete. With that, he had the basis of Tetris.
Pajitnov found his new game fun and shared it with his co-workers at the Academy of Sciences. And, as you might guess, they all quickly became addicted. So, he enlisted his friend Vadim Gerasimov and ported the game to IBM PC. This made the game accessible to anyone who wanted it. Tetris spread through Moscow and then beyond with speed seldom seen.
To prevent problems with the government, Pajitnov eventually signed away distribution rights for 10 years to the Soviet Union. He was worried that if he tried to do it without giving them a cut, he would get himself into trouble. It was better just to let them handle it.
From there, it exploded. Tetris became available on IBM PC, Apple, Japanese computers, Atari, Nintendo (NES and Game Boy), SEGA, iPods, Smartphones of all types, and most consoles after that. It has literally been everywhere.
Tetris has been so prevalent that in 2019 Nintendo released Tetris 99, a battle royale Tetris game. While the words “Battle Royal Tetris” feel like an oxymoron, it’s been a surprise success. 99 players play the game at the same time, and each time they remove a line, it affects other people playing. Eventually, one person remains as the winner! This revival has had the odd effect of having notable Lets Players crushed by usernames like ILoveMyGrankids and JeanieMarie62. We can only assume these are grandmothers who have been honing their skills for the past 30 years in preparation for this exact moment in time.
What Made Tetris so Addictive?
Well, that’s pretty easy to answer. Tetris was simple.
There have been plenty of simple games since. But Tetris was the sort of game your mom could pick up and instantly get. Each block is constructed of four smaller parts, arranged in a bunch of different ways. There were also only four mechanics in the entire game. Move, rotate, delete rows, and if the blocks hit the top, you lose. That’s it. This concept was so simple that anyone in your entire family could pick it up and get relatively good at it. As you progressed, the game got faster, and it became harder to keep up.
Top that off with an excellent soundtrack (especially for the time), and you have an instant classic. Heck, just mentioning the music has us flashing back to the ’90s and days of our lives lost to that game.
Tetris had a couple other things going for it though. Nintendo did something brilliant. Every single Game Boy sold came with a copy of Tetris. So if you were a kid and saved forever to get yourself that giant brick of a system (it wasn’t backlit and was just as good as a weapon as it was as a gaming system), and couldn’t afford a new game — you still had Tetris.
If you only bought one game to go with your Game Boy, you actually had two! The free game was a massive bonus to parents trying to entertain hyper kids. Because of this freebie, any kid from that era who had an original Game Boy ended up playing a lot of Tetris. And when the kids weren’t using it, often times parents preferred Tetris over the other games available. Not all parents, mind you — some of them preferred the other options — but the average parent was not a gamer back then.
That’s Cool, But Why is it Still Around?
Tetris opened the door to gaming for a lot of people. Many people had never played a game before Tetris. Or if they had, it amounted to Pacman or Pong. They hadn’t experienced any game that sucked them in so completely. And Tetris was one of the first games to really make people softly whisper “just one more round,” as the clock slipped closer and closer to 2:00 am.
It was a game that made it feel like you could do better if you tried just one more time. And it stuck. Tetris allowed generations to speak the same language. A son could tell his mom he beat her high score. This would almost always start a family feud and keep mom up until five am trying to top it. Tetris was a dichotomy; it was competitive, and yet relaxing.
So, we’re not surprised to see it’s still sticking around. We’re not surprised to see orchestras playing the music or lights shaped like the iconic blocks. We’re also not surprised that The Tetris Company is selling mini-arcade cabinets to play Tetris on. We aren’t even surprised that there was an installment where you could play Tetris using the windows on a building in Tel Aviv.
Honestly, it would be surprising if the top-selling game for thirty years didn’t have this sort of permanent presence in our lives. For thirty-five years, Tetris has been played in homes across the world and has introduced millions to the joys of gaming. Personally, we cannot wait to see what the next iteration brings.