The joy of falling blocks

Seven falling blocks changed the world forever when Alexy Pajitnov introduced his masterpiece game in Soviet Russia.

Genetic Engineering, the first version of the game, required players to move tetramino–pieces made of four connected squares each–around to form shapes. Soon after, in 1984-85, Pajitnov implemented the familiar falling-pieces incarnation of the game on the Electronica 60–a modern version of the truly classical PDP-11 mainframe computer. Because not everybody had access to exotic computers (and likely because completing horizontal lines on a 24×80 character screen lacked visual appeal) another version was needed. With Vadim Gerasimov’s help, the game was ported to the PC and commercially released in 1987 to great success in the United States and United Kingdom.

Since then, enterprising programmers have made versions of the game for almost every computer and gaming platform in existence. It is not uncommon to find people playing it on cell phones, PDAs, web browsers, DVD players and even within other games, such as Unreal Tournament, though there are only 60 or so officially sanctioned ports of the game. Excluding the plethora of unlicensed play-alikes, clones and computer science programming projects, over 65 million official copies of the game have been sold, arguably making it the most popular video game of all time.

Crossing the oceans and reaching number one was not easy. Legal battles over licensing and ownership issues plagued the game’s early life as various individuals and companies wrestled for control (see timeline, below). The game’s instant success with anybody near a computer or arcade meant potential millions in profit which neither the game’s creators, nor those who sold it illegally, wanted to lose.

No single aspect of the game is responsible for drawing such a diverse audience. True to one of its taglines, “Easy to Learn, Challenging to Master,” stacking misshapen squares to make lines in an unending and unwinnable game compels many to bring order to chaos. For some, defeating opponents in not-so-mortal combat by filling their screens with falling blocks is more than enough incentive to play on. For others, the challenge is to personally complete as many lines as possible.

Since Pajitnov made his first falling puzzle-pieces game, many have tried to harness the motif. Most notably, Sega included Columns–a colour-matching falling-pieces game–when it introduced its Game Gear in 1991 to compete with Nintendo’s Game Boy, which included a hard-won copy of Pajitnov’s game.

Released in April 1989, the Game Boy’s instant success also propelled the infamous spinach-coloured version of Pajitnov’s game to the number one spot.

Others’ attempts at cloning the game included explosives, weights and other helpful devices (Bloxed) and 3-D versions of falling blocks which require players to create and eliminate layers. Some attempts were better than others, which is evident in the popularity of games that are very faithful to the original, as with the Blinkenlights version, played on lit windows on the side of a building in Berlin, Germany.

In any case, the penetration of Tetris in both the gaming and popular cultures is sufficient to allow this story to be written using the name of the game only once.

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